(This is the second in a series on the history of state terror in the 20th century. Part 1 is here.)
Among the most pressing concerns of states is security, both from internal subversion and external attack. Terror in the name of internal security is the classical definition of the term “state terror,” before the prevalence of state-sponsored terror as foreign policy and the collapse of plausible deniability in the latter-twentieth century forced an expansion of the term. The list of 20th century leaders who embraced terror is long: Hitler. Stalin. Mao. Pinochet. Mobutu. Mengistu. Pol Pot. Hussein. Ceaucescu. Rhee. Diem. Suharto. Marcos. Khrushchev. Ulbricht. Brezhnev.Castro. Somoza. Karimov. The Duvaliers. The Assads. The Kims. And this list is by no means complete. It is this ubiquity and geographic totality that make “the century of terror” such a fitting moniker for the 20th century, because during the 20th century the practice of state terror as internal security was normalized as standard practice on every continent, among every type of government. The same features emerge over and over again: secret police, controlled mass propaganda, mass incarceration, show trials, official corruption, gross inequality, and frequent capital punishment.
This can be a difficult thing for Westerners, particularly Americans who’ve been force-fed a steady diet of propaganda for generations, to accept. It is, nonetheless, true. Even Americans who will accept the limited use of terror overseas by the US, in places like El Salvador and Nicaragua, and justify it as necessary in fighting guerillas who themselves used terror, can have trouble with the notion. Although the tempo and intensity of the terror campaigns in the US never approached those of Germany or especially the Soviet Union, these campaigns were nonetheless continuous, bipartisan-and effective. A basic difference between the US and the USSR was the way the elements of a state terror apparatus were superimposed upon a liberalizing US in the early twentieth century, in contrast to the way Lenin and the Bolsheviks embraced terror from the outset of the founding of the Soviet Union, and included terror in both their governing philosophy and their administrative structures, such as police.
This brings us to the first of the elements common to states that practice internal terror: secret police, often backed by paramilitaries or regular forces. In the Soviet Union, the Lenin-era Cheka, trained by the Tsar’s brutal secret police, the Okhrana, was reorganized first as the OGPU, and then, under Lenin’s successor, Josef Stalin, as the NKVD. The NKVD, like secret police everywhere, were the principal agents of Soviet terror, both domestic and foreign, at once uniting the secret police and foreign intelligence. This structure, domestic intelligence/secret police, foreign intelligence/covert forces, under one roof, would be copied many times over. Leaving aside the NKVD’s considerable success in foreign intelligence, it was the NKVD that carried out some of the deadliest of all Soviet policies designed to terrorize the Soviet people into passive acquiescence, the ultimate point of every exercise of internal state terror. Probably the best examples of this is seen in its role in enforcing the policies that ensured and aggravated the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33, the Holodomor, in which approximately 5.5 million Ukrainians, Moldavians, Russians, and Kazakhs starved to death, and its role as Stalin’s executioner during the Great Terror of 1936-38, in which at least another three-quarters of a million were shot and yet another million imprisoned.
In the US, the secret police are constructed of a mixture of federal and state agencies. Heading this list is the FBI; popularly perceived as an investigative agency, the FBI grew out of the Palmer Raids, the federal dragnets which swept up and deported thousands of leftists, immigrants, trade unionists, and other reformers, during the post WW1 Red Scare. The FBI also spent a great deal of time breaking into foreign embassies, stealing codes and ciphers, and compiling dossiers on Americans, especially useful if a President wished to blackmail an uncooperative Congressman with his knowledge of said Congressman’s corruption. This corruption was easy to find, since the leaders of terror states often tolerate pervasive corruption; corrupt officials are more easily controlled, and their loyalty assured, by blackmail. This fear of blackmail is largely responsible for FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover’s longevity in the position, as no President was willing to risk his wrath by replacing him. After hunting down supposed Communists and anarchists during the interwar years, and Nazis during the war, the FBI emerged from the war years into a newly-reinvigorated Red Scare, with its invulnerable director, courtesy of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Seeing Communist subversion everywhere, Hoover’s FBI launched one of the most extensive exercises of state terror ever seen in the US: COINTELPRO.
COINTELPRO, Hoover’s COunter-INTELligence-PROgram, was a vast program designed to use the tools of counterintelligence against Americans that were deemed a threat. Break-ins, blackmail, and infiltration of suspected groups were common; informers, criminals, and agents provocateurs were deployed across the country. This program targeted civil rights groups, women’s rights groups, black nationalists, peace groups, antinuclear activists, and others. The Black Panthers were a priority target of COINTELPRO, as were the Students for a Democratic Society and the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. COINTELPRO was only revealed in 1971, after revelatory documents, ironically, were stolen from the FBI. The true legacy of COINTELPRO may be its normalization; while the flagrantly-illegal program was ostensibly shut down after its exposure, in fact many of its assumptions, techniques, and targets were adopted at all levels by police agencies, and became standard throughout the US. This process was augmented by the intelligence community’s experience with using computerized blacklists compiled by agents and informers to covertly target civilians in Vietnam, the PHOENIX program.
The normalization of COINTELPRO/PHOENIX is easy to see, if one looks closely. Even as the Church Committee investigation of US intelligence activities was ongoing, agents were infiltrating the antinuclear power movement and the disarmament movement, and conducting surveillance of outspoken critics, using the same tactics, including provocations, entrapment, and false arrests. These same methods were then, in the Eighties, turned on anti-apartheid activists, nuclear-freeze activists, and especially outspoken critics of US activities in Nicaragua and El Salvador, where terrorist armies and death squads killed tens of thousands. The model is now standard-human intelligence from agent and informer networks, cross-referenced with surveillance data, is used to compile blacklists. In Vietnam, these targets would then be targeted for capture or assassination by a special ops team; in civilian parlance in the US, these are known as SWAT teams, and they perform largely the same function.
Another structure common to terror states is a robust propaganda apparatus. The use of propaganda by states against their own populations flows organically from this, whether as a founding principle (as in the USSR), or through the importation of covert warfighting and counterintelligence doctrine into domestic policy (as seen in the US). The relationship between propaganda and internal terror is complex, and determined by the character of the state: in the USSR, in which terror is structural and fundamental, news of state terror, such as arrests, deportations, Gulag sentences, and executions was disseminated as widely as possible, and sometimes in great detail, as were their “crimes,” consistent with its intent to induce terrified acquiescence of the public. In contrast, in the US, the principal goal of the propaganda effort that supported the secret police was to convince the public that the secret police did not exist, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Terror also represents a failure of propaganda, as a population properly conditioned by effective propaganda will act correctly without having to be terrorized into it. Propaganda and terror, the justification and the threat, the tools of terror states across the world.
Another element common to terror states is a system of mass incarceration, the most infamous being the Soviet Gulag, although all have some variation on the theme. The Gulag was a vast system of forced-labor camps, first revealed to the world by dissident Soviet author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The first of the camps that evolved into the Gulag were built not long after the Bolsheviks seized power, and the system was a mainstay of Soviet life until Khrushchev’s liberalization campaign in the Fifties, although they were never totally abolished during the Soviet period (although the names were changed). During the Stalin years alone, at least 18 million people passed through Stalin’s gulags, and at least 2 million died there, although, since gulags frequently released prisoners nearing death both to minimize administrative headaches and keep their mortality figures lower, the actual total, though unknown, is certainly far higher.
In the US, a mass-incarceration system was probably the slowest-growing of all the tumors that have now metastasized. While the FBI grew out of the post-World War I Red Scare and the newspapers, radio, and TV networks were firmly under US government control by the end of World War II, it was not until the social unrest of the Sixties and early Seventies that the infrastructure for such a thing became a realistic possibility, and not until the drug war of the Eighties and the privatization of the Nineties did sufficient numbers of prisoners and private capital become available to drive the explosion of the US prison population seen in the last twenty-five years. As this is written, the US has 30% more people in prison than China, which has over four times the US population.
A major terroristic feature of the US mass-incarceration system is a pervasive rape culture. This culture has wide public knowledge and approval, and public expressions of desire by citizens to see criminals raped in prison are common. In the US, if you are convicted of a crime, being raped in prison is effectively part of your sentence. The utility of this culture as a social-control mechanism is difficult to overstate; added to the terror of rape is the terror of lethal and incurable STDs, such as AIDS and hepatits-C, that are epidemic in the US prison system, and the certainty that not even a brief stay was protection from horrific assault. Prison rape as a social control mechanism threatens every age group, every level of non-compliance, from the most mild to the most severe, and conditions behavior both outside the prison and in; its official but tacit approval and enthusiastic public support make the maintenance of US prison-rape culture, a subset of the larger US rape culture used to oppress women, an essential structural-terror feature of the US mass-incarceration system, and thus a bedrock feature of the US system of internal state terror, as is the frequent execution of convicts.
It is not necessary to draw up a list of all the strongman dictators who emulated Stalin on their way to infamy, like Saddam Hussein and the Kims, or used the US model of internal covert terror, like Britain did in Northern Ireland, to make a compelling case based on the data. The use of terror by states to govern and then control their own populations is not unique to the 20th century; Sargon of Akkad, Alexander the Great, Caesar, and Genghis Khan would all have understood the concept perfectly. State terror, though not unique to the 20th century, IS characteristic of the 20th century, and perhaps the defining characteristic, given its ubiquity, intensity, ideological blindness, and casualty totals. Certainly, at the very least, no discussion of 20th century history is complete without a detailed examination of terror, and no discussion of the 21st is complete without a consideration of how to undo the paradigm in which state terror is the new normal.
See you next week, when we will look at the practice of state terror in the 20th century as a foreign policy option.