My slight personal experience of arrest for political reasons has suggested to me that it as often partakes of the quality of farce as of tragedy. I was once arrested as a South African spy in Gabon, but my captor released me in return for a prescription for the syphilis from which he was suffering; I was deported under armed guard from Honduras to Sandinista Nicaragua because it was supposed that anyone who had so many books from El Salvador with him must be an inveterate enemy of Honduras (I had fondly supposed that one of the few advantages of deportation was free travel, but in fact I had to pay for my own escort); and I learned the principles of Balkan policing in a cell in Albania, where I was arrested for trying to photograph the police wading into a demonstration by communists, truncheons flying. I owed my swift release to the fact that I had lunched with a government minister shortly before, but I still didn’t get my camera back. And for the sake of completeness, I should mention that the Bureau of State Security in South Africa once sought me out—serendipitously, I was a step ahead of them—and I was briefly interrogated by the Securitate at Bucharest Airport.
Secret policing, especially in the twentieth century, has claimed the lives of millions of people.
Considering my utter inability to harm any constituted authority, even—or especially—the most evil of them, I found my arrests absurd rather than frightening. Having been brought up in a country virtually without political persecution, I somewhat naïvely (or arrogantly) supposed that I was more or less invulnerable. But political or secret policing, especially in the twentieth century, has claimed the lives of millions of people. My personal experience of it has not, alas, been representative.
In this book, the Australian historian and music critic Robert Stove recounts the stories of five examples of secret policing’s genre: Francis Walsingham in Elizabethan England, Joseph Fouché in Napoleonic France, the various incarnations and bosses of the Tcheka in Soviet Russia, the various agents of internal security in Nazi Germany, and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI in twentieth-century America. In view of the extent of the ground he has covered, it is hardly surprising that his narratives should be fast-paced and engrossing, but the corresponding disadvantage is that they are rather superficial. His sources are easily available secondary ones, his book a work of deft collation rather than original research.
Needless to say, secret policing is most urgent and ruthless in highly ideological regimes, in which active participation rather than passive acquiescence is required of the people, and where lack of such participation is taken as evidence of political unreliability. In regimes that require only lack of open opposition, the secret police terrorize mainly intellectuals and the political classes; in ideological regimes, they terrorize everyone, the secret police themselves included. Those who live by denunciation die by denunciation.
The problem is that, while history is written backwards, life is lived forwards.
Sometimes Mr. Stove’s historiographical method seems to me to be questionable. In his just detestation of Communism, he underestimates the oppressiveness of Tsarism. Merely because Lenin managed in a few weeks to execute more people than the Romanov dynasty had in the previous two centuries, it does not follow that Russia in the nineteenth century was a paragon of freedom. The tradition of incarcerating critics of the regime as lunatics had its origin with Radischev; Turgenev, the mildest of men, was condemned to exile; as Mr. Stove himself points out, Dostoyevsky was reprieved from the death penalty at the very last moment. The Jews were granted every freedom worth having only after the February Revolution; and you have only to read Custine (among others) to understand how oppressive was Russia under Nicholas I. And it is certainly news to me that the role of the Okhrana, the Tsar’s secret police, in the elaboration of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion has been refuted: a surprising assertion for which no reference is given.
The problem is that, while history is written backwards, life is lived forwards: and life in Tsarist Russia would have seemed free to those who lived it only if they knew what was going to happen afterwards, which of course they didn’t. Even a truly prophetic mind such as Dostoyevsky’s (not free of great flaws) foretold what would happen only if those who have been called the epileptics of the revolution overcame the paralytics of the regime: he did not regard it as inevitable, for otherwise he would scarcely have issued his warning. The advent to power of his Devils was an event unprecedented in history (unless you count the Jacobins as forming a prelude), and was the perverse and perverted reductio of Enlightenment ideals. It changed everything forever.
Henceforth, every tolerably democratic regime would be faced by the possibility that within its midst there might be intellectuals who were actively seeking to bring about the same cataclysm that had occurred in Russia. And indeed there were such intellectuals: as Mr. Stove points out, Senator McCarthy (whose clumsiness and personal qualities he deplores) underestimated Soviet attempts to win friends and influence people in the United States. McCarthy’s baleful legacy was to give truth a bad name.
Mr. Stove does not take up the challenge of discussing in a general way the scope of the legitimate powers of secret surveillance in a democratic state: a question that is obviously all the more urgent in the light of September 11. To take one example: both Britain and France now have in their midst large populations whose loyalty to, or even its absence of hatred for, the host country cannot be assumed, and whose integration into that country’s society has been actively retarded and opposed by the doctrines of multiculturalism. You have only to see a group of men from the North West Frontier gathering outside a Victorian terraced house in Bradford converted into a mosque, whose only obvious concession to Occidentalism is the wearing of Nike shoes and the possession of a mobile phone, to wonder what exactly they believe, think, and preach, and whether the secret service can possibly be—for linguistic and other reasons—on top of the situation. Moreover, this population, in the name of certain liberal abstractions and shibboleths, is able constantly to replenish itself with new migrants, so that the need to integrate never arises: a huge ghetto, potentially hostile, is created that is self-sustaining. An outside observer might conclude from this that the host society suffers from a profound death-wish, composed of a strange admixture of self-hatred and over-confidence that it is so unshakably strong that nothing could destroy or seriously undermine it.
Of course, as with any population, the great majority will be law-abiding and far removed from any notions of violence or terrorism: but they will be penalized by the suspicion aroused by the militants among them. The unfairness of this will no doubt drive some of them into the militants’ camp: you might as well be hanged for a bomb as a veil. And yet, to pretend that there is no danger at all, and therefore to do nothing, would be self-betrayal on an impressive scale. Herein lies the dilemma of secret policing in a liberal democracy.
It helps for such a democracy to have a definite and identifiable enemy, preferably in the form of a hostile state. When liberal democracies, led by the United States, were engaged in a titanic struggle with the Soviet Union and its satellites, matters were relatively simple. Even so, the unmasking of many Soviet agents of influence required the opening of the Moscow archives: our secret services had, if anything, been naïve in their assessment of radicals and Soviet sympathizers. Things were worse than anyone had supposed.
Our secret services had, if anything, been naïve in their assessment of radicals and Soviet sympathizers.
As the enemy becomes less well defined, so paranoia is inclined to set in. Paranoia never lies far below the surface of human life: it is a little-remarked phenomenon that many defects of the brain lead to per- secutory ideas, as if trust were only a thin neurological veneer, an evolutionary afterthought, easily destroyed by the slightest circumstances to reveal a more reptilian attitude to the world. A protean enemy, simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, with an indefinite organization and a shadowy existence, poses a threat to our liberties because we don’t know how to combat it, and might therefore adopt inappropriately (and inefficient) draconian measures.
Mr. Stove does not address these problems directly, but they are implicit in the book. J. Edgar Hoover recognized them, at least at first, but the long exercise of power led him to overstep the mark, and to accumulate information to preserve his own position. By the time of his death, everyone of prominence was potentially an enemy, no matter his actual record, from Earl Browder to Senator Helms.
When surveillance grows too extensive, however, information becomes noise. At first, the knowledge that everyone is being watched is frightening: but there comes a time, eventually, when the realization dawns that the information gathered is so vast in quantity that it is beyond the capacity of anyone to analyze it or ascribe it proper weight. A gestalt switch occurs, and what was formerly terrifying suddenly becomes ridiculous. The history of surveillance is also the history of the failure of surveillance, however many victims might have been sacrificed to it in the meantime.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 8, on page 84
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