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CHARLES: The familiar feel of the Iron Curtain

An American take on repression’s return

- - Friday, March 14, 2014

Vladimir Putin is pulling Winston Churchill's Iron Curtain back across the Crimea. At the same time, encroachments on constitutional principles of free speech, press and religion, gun ownership and separation of powers, and by selectively enforcing and waiving of federal statutes, the Obama White House appears to be drawing a barrier across traditional American liberty.

As a student in the early 1980s, I found myself behind the Iron Curtain, a veil of inhumanity that separated the free West from miserable millions under Soviet control. Ronald Reagan memorably characterized the Soviet Union as an "evil empire"; that is, a government devoid of legitimacy, acting capriciously and at times ruthlessly, enforcing bad laws on good people, tagging those who opposed state control "enemies" and placing the common man in constant fear.

In the Soviet Union, I watched emotionless faces stand at gray train stations, waiting for gray trains to take them to gray stops in gray lives. Children did not laugh. Adults, paralyzed by ingrained fear and uncertainty, genuflected to the state.

Those who attended church knew they were watched while lighting candles and saying prayers. Even thoughts were captive, subject to the fear that a verbal slip might bring down the hammer. Some of those to whom I spoke got whisked away — to where, I never learned.

In Poland, where Solidarity leaders endured martial law, I watched courage surface to confront violent suppression of basic liberty.

Brave and religious people rose to resist an atheist state, the communist government intent on control. Poles wore crosses and small radio "resisters," half-inch bits of metal, a statement of unity in the face of centralized control.

In Czechoslovakia, I watched haunted eyes move quickly from house to house, lips tight, conversations with officials monosyllabic. Their resistance had been crushed forcibly, their formerly robust democracy dismembered by the Soviet state.

In East Germany, the secret police followed anyone who aspired to be free, and everyone who entered from the free world.

I knew they were there, and they knew I was American. I could leave; locals could not. Attempts ended in gunfire. Centralized state control was complete.

In these places, I recall being shocked to see liberty so thoroughly suppressed — and on such a grand scale — by those who feigned empathy. There was no heart.

Churchill had seen it first, and warned. Reagan had seen it and acted to stop its spread and to roll it back. How could this happen? How could liberty be so cowed, so chased into full retreat?

What Churchill called a "riddle wrapped in a mystery in an enigma," Reagan bluntly called "evil." What I saw was this: When law becomes capricious, it is no longer worthy of the name. It is no longer majority governance.

Liberty lives by enforcing legislatively passed laws. It lives by abiding the legislative process, which makes such laws worthy of enforcement.

Rule by executive fiat or by communist dictate is no more legitimate than rule by autocrat or fascist dictator. There is a bright line between majority rule in a properly constituted republic and the gradual slide toward tyranny and centralized rule by powerful, capricious men.

Look no further these days than the rise of Mr. Putin. Today's Russia is not the Soviet Union, but Mr. Putin personifies the executive assertion of groundless claims against innocent people; that is, capricious state control.

The slide can be, at times, imperceptible. Society's quotient of freedom begins to slip away by degrees. It recedes like the ebb tide, in little waves.

Individuals lose their freedom in bits. Fear of the state grows, and people begin to hunker down. Media are cajoled, corrupted, rewarded and mollified — then controlled. Political opponents become "enemies."

Society divides. One side conforms, the other objects. Those who defend God-given rights are marginalized, drowned in words that normalize centralization, repeated until "normal" is dead.

Before long, other changes occur. Dissonant authors grow anonymous, then hunted. Darkness descends on human relations. No public quip can be harmless. The state grows thin-skinned, as do conformists.

The Russians, Poles, Czechs and East Germans all saw this happen. The sequence of events, only theoretical to Plato, was altogether real for them.

Tolerance for differences was repressed in the name of tolerance for differences. Centralization was normalized in the name of equality, codified as inviolate, then quickly accelerated.

A collective mind emerged, defaulting to the state. Pride in independence became reflexive conformity. Independent thinkers, grounded in natural law, Lockean liberalism and limited government were roundly vilified.

The central government spoke in palliatives and euphemisms, breaking promises while feigning concern. People laughed less and less, worried more and more. Spontaneity had no place, as fear grew.

This is how good people go to sleep and awake shocked at what they have lost. Someone hits the dimmer switch, and freedom is harder to find. Constriction of movement in body and mind occurs.

Immutable liberties are usurped and its once-full bucket is emptied, dry from a thousand drips. As Edmund Burke said, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Let us speak for the sovereign people of Ukraine in this moment, but also let us speak up when consensus laws inexplicably go unenforced, when capricious mandates emerge from our executive, and when common men with a common love of freedom are shoehorned into centralization.

Robert B. Charles is a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement and heads a D.C. consulting firm, the Charles Group LLC.