Saturday, December 24, 2005
By Arlene Getz
Updated: 3:33 p.m. ET Dec. 21, 2005
Dec. 21, 2005 - Back in the 1980s, when I was living in Johannesburg and reporting on apartheid South Africa, a white neighbor proffered a tasteless confession. She was "quite relieved," she told me, that new media restrictions prohibited our reporting on government repression. No matter that Pretoria was detaining tens of thousands of people without real evidence of wrongdoing. No matter that many of them, including children, were being tortured—sometimes to death. No matter that government hit squads were killing political opponents. No matter that police were shooting into crowds of black civilians protesting against their disenfranchisement. "It's so nice," confided my neighbor, "not to open the papers and read all that bad news."
I thought about that neighbor this week, as reports dribbled out about President George W. Bush's sanctioning of warrantless eavesdropping on American conversations. For anyone who has lived under an authoritarian regime, phone tapping—or at least the threat of it—is always a given. But U.S. citizens have always been lucky enough to believe themselves protected from such government intrusion. So why have they reacted so insipidly to yet another post-9/11 erosion of U.S. civil liberties?
I'm sure there are many well-meaning Americans who agree with their president's explanation that it's all a necessary evil (and that patriotic citizens will not be spied on unless they dial up Osama bin Laden). But the nasty echoes of apartheid South Africa should at least give them pause. While Bush uses the rhetoric of "evildoers" and the "global war on terror," Pretoria talked of "total onslaught." This was the catchphrase of P. W. Botha, South Africa's head of state from 1978 to 1989. Botha was hardly the first white South African leader to ride roughshod over civil liberties for all races, but he did it more effectively than many of his predecessors. Botha liked to tell South Africans that the country was under "total onslaught" from forces both within and without, and that this global assault was his rationale for allowing opponents to be jailed, beaten or killed. Likewise, the Bush administration has adopted the argument that anything is justified in the name of national security.
Botha was right about South Africa being under attack. Internally, blacks and a few whites were waging a low-level guerrilla war to topple the government. Externally, activists across the globe were mobilizing economic sanctions and campaigns to ostracize Pretoria. By the same token, we all know that Bush is right about the United States facing a very real threat of further terror. Yet should Americans really be willing to accept that autocratic end-justifies-the-means argument?
For so many around the world, the United States is as much a symbol as a nation. Outsiders may scoff at American naiveté in thinking that their conversations are private, but they envy them for growing up in a society so sheltered that it made such a belief possible. Among those who feel this way is Archbishop Desmond Tutu the South African Anglican leader who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his principled fight for justice in his native country. "It's unbelievable," he told me in an interview, "that a country that many of us have looked to as the bastion of true freedom could now have eroded so many of the liberties we believed were upheld almost religiously."
Tutu recalled teaching in Jacksonville, Fla., when Bush won re-election in 2004. "I was shocked," he said, "because I had naively believed all these many years that Americans genuinely believed in freedom of speech. [But I] discovered there that when you made an utterance that was remotely contrary to what the White House was saying, then they attacked you. For a South African the déjà vu was frightening. They behaved exactly the same way that used to happen here—vilifying those who are putting forward a slightly different view." Tutu made these comments to me exactly a year ago next week. I haven't seen any reaction from him about the latest eavesdropping revelations, but I doubt he is remotely surprised at the U.S. president's response: a defense of the tactic, together with a warning that the government would launch an investigation to find out who leaked the news to The New York Times.
It's not fair, of course, to suggest that all citizens are indifferent to violations of their privacy and their rights to free speech. Yet as I've watched this debate play out, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that not enough Americans really care. Like my Johannesburg neighbor, they seem to hope that unpleasant news will disappear if you just ignore it. It didn't then, and it won't now.
I did find the use of apartheid South Africa as a parallel quite interesting as it reflects a more fascist state than the Soviet and China totalitarian parallels every one else seems to be using.