Fear: A Dictator’s Tool

By David M. Crane 

(Re-published from Jurist | Jan. 29, 2019) Thomas Jefferson is reported to have said: “When government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.”

“With a rapidity that was shocking, this age of accountability gave way to the age of the strongman.”

I have investigated and prosecuted dictators and their henchmen for most of my professional life. I have studied their lives, personalities, their rise to power and how they governed once achieving that power. The one common theme in their theories of governance is fear. It is easier to govern and dictate to citizens through fear.

As Hannah Arendt wrote in her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “A fundamental difference between modern dictatorships and all other tyrannies of the past is that terror is no longer used as a means to exterminate and frighten opponents, but as an instrument to rule masses of people who are perfectly obedient.” The infamous dictators of the twentieth century, such as Stalin, Hitler, and Mao Tse-tung among others, understood this all too well. Their theory was that a frightened populace will allow their government to take drastic measures to protect them without protest, usually from perceived evil that threatens their society or country externally.

This object, person or peoples, religion or culture which focuses their fear is what I call their boogeyman. These boogeymen threaten their way of life and only the men in power have the capacity to address the threat. In a perverse way they tell their frightened citizens “We may have to take away your liberties, even kill some of you, to protect you from that boogeyman.” Over ninety million of those frightened citizens died at the hands of their own dictatorial governments in the twentieth century.

As the twentieth century morphed into the twenty-first century mankind pushed back and began to hold dictators, tyrants, and thugs accountable. With the advent of modern international criminal law, mankind created international courts and tribunals, which include a permanent international criminal court, to seek justice for victims of those who rule by fear. This movement lasted around twenty-five years. This age of accountability is wavering today.

With a rapidity that was shocking, this age of accountability gave way to the age of the strongman. International order and cooperation also gave way to a new populism that rejected the concept of international peace and security through the United Nations Charter for a more inward domestic nationalism, not seen since the late 1920’s and the early 1930’s.

The rise of strongmen across the globe in the past several years in Russia, China, Syria, Iran, Israel, Turkey, Venezuela, Hungary, the Philippines along with other longer term dictatorships from the twentieth century, has been astonishing and threatens the global order put in place after the Second World War. Even the cornerstone country of that world order, the United States, is toying with this populism …

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Now retired from teaching at Syracuse University College of Law, David M. Crane is an INSCT Research & Practice Associate.

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