We gaze horror-eyed at places like Zimbabwe, where the dictator tortures and murders his opponents. But I wonder, more as I get older: what is it, really, that keeps us from descent into that barbarity? If our president decides to declare himself emperor and called out the troops on anyone opposing him, would anyone stop him? Would anyone be able to stop him?
We like to think that this sort of thing could never happen here. But what if? If the press were cowed into meek submission to the will of the leader – what then? What keeps the balance from tipping toward chaos?
I was listening to author Peter Godwin, who has written his third book on Zimbabwe, “The Fear,” which chronicles the torture campaign of “president” Robert Mugabe. Mugabe lost a general election in 2008, but refused to leave. Godwin speaks of the torture or thousands of Zimbabweans – that Mugabe actually murdered only (only!) hundreds of people, but has tortured thousands. His purpose for doing this is to use them as “human billboards” for what happens to those who oppose him. Pretty successful tactic, I’d say.
When he first came to power thirty years ago, he persuaded the white farmers to stay on their land, to farm the land for the good of Zimbabwe. They did, under the impression that their farms’ produce and livestock would be used to feed Zimbabwe. Then Mugabe confiscated the farms, and gave them as political payback to his cronies and those to whom he owed political favors. They soon fell into decay, as the new “owners” had no clue how to properly run a farm – nor did they want to know. So he successfully disenfranchised an entire segment of the society and succeeded in keeping a large portion of the population dependent. Pure evil genius.
Mugabe’s actions have been methodical and insidious and ruthless. Originally, his election appeared to be a wonderful, positive step forward for what was then Rhodesia. Thirty years later…chaos and despair. Where was the line? When did that line appear, the line that made one persons uncomfortable in crossing, made him question what he was doing? What was that one action that, had it been opposed, might have saved a nation from such deep misery?
These are the questions that fascinate me. Human forensics, you might call it. I want to know, because I want to recognize that moment should it come during my lifetime.