December 10, 2023 | Rome, Italy


By |2021-02-15T18:03:24+01:00February 6th, 2021|Area 51|
Krakow, Poland, 1940: Occupiers often asked for papers or documents, and the demand rarely came with a "please," except to women.

ith countless restrictive measures, intended ostensibly to curb the corona virus emergency, has come a corresponding surge in what a colleague attentively calls petty tyrannies.

Emboldened bureaucrats of all stripes, police included, are now entitled by law to demand that citizens justify their movements, or to fine them if they are in violation of rapidly-changing emergency health codes. In Europe, aspects of such enforcement can sound ominously like the infamous one-word wartime order uttered by German or Russian occupiers, “Papers” — a “please” reserved for women and families only.

At that moment, many stood still, because if for any reason the papers were not to the liking of the inquisitor, prison or execution awaited. Often the actual validity of the papers depended not on any official seal but on the mood of the dictator at hand. To talk back or to take issue was its own offense, at which point the petty tyrant could act on whatever whim suited him. Occupied European cities lived through a scourge of swift and homicidal whims.

Mussolini’s Black Shirt militia was little more than a gang of hired thugs, some illiterate, but all conferred with a uniform — to justify criminal acts carried out in the name of political, and therefore public safety. No such criminal verve is in today’s cards because governments are democratic and all the restrictions are intended to save lives, not take them.

The actual validity of the papers depended not on any official seal but on the mood of the dictator.

Yet this nicety pays no heed to power’s potentially bullying attraction, especially in the context of inspections and curfews.

Confrontations between police, private officials, and even civilians, each with a separate interpretation of law and conduct, and each quick to suppress violations can escalate effortlessly into a power game in which a bureaucrat or authority figure outranks and can therefore stall the intentions of the perceived offender.

This happens when the balance of power, between individuals or states, is suddenly and violently altered so that previously accepted social norms are suspended or overturned.

Part of the reason for compliance to the latest wave of restrictions has less to do with their motive, preserving public health, than a loss of collective memory that for decades associated confinement and curfews with the authoritarian regimes of the mid-20th century. Even those now in their 70s or 80s were either unborn or children in World War II.

The anti-terrorist era, which began after 9/11, re-introduced deference to authority not seen since before the war. Notions of artistic eccentricity and bohemianism, once appreciated as cultural virtues, were largely set aside in favor of all-around public literalism. Those who behaved “suspiciously” should be reported to police, an initial return to the “Papers” approach. That man walking a crab on the streets of Paris was not an eccentric poet but a possible terrorist, particularly if the crab looked Arab-like.

New agencies with old premises re-emerged, Homeland Security among them. Coercion and torture found new justification through the Patriot Act. Europe soon imitated these responses, at least in part, citing the terrorist peril. If petty tyranny and “Papers” was the price society had to pay for its largely affluent safety, let it be so.

Citizens appeared to draw the line only with the internet, concerned about security violations and pointing fingers at Facebook and Amazon. Rarely did that finger point toward government, until Donald Trump’s election elicited liberal indignation. He was, they said, a fascist tyrant in the making, an allegation that proved untrue when he was defeated in the kind of election a Mussolini or Hitler would not have allowed.

All the while, however, democratic governments worldwide were slowly but surely adjusting the social contract to make way for the defeat of disease that half-a-century ago Western society would have been forced to live with and cope with as best it could.

Racial tension spawned national violence, the beginning of the end for Trump, but at no time did much of the citizenry complain about the increasing tide of restrictions, and the “Papers” and petty tyrant-mongers began to make a mark on the daily conduct of life.

That man walking a crab on the streets of Paris was not an eccentric poet but a possible terrorist.

Health comes first, they were told, and told themselves. So here we are, subjugated by the circumstances of a malady gone amok, petty tyrants welcome so long as they work to keep the moats up.

In the abstract, power is the act of its own enforcement. Its agency expands when small-time brokers elevated to the status of enforcers are suddenly anointed with a sense of purpose. They have such purpose in spades, since a disease cannot be called a dictator, making all actions in defense of health good actions, wise actions, prudent actions.

But you’d be wrong to trifle with this genie unleashed. By all means wear a mask and abide by your local curfew. Capitulate to what amounts to social sensory deprivation in the name of a longer life.

But do not for an instant think newly installed obstacles to forward progress will simply vanish when the time of cholera is officially declared to have passed.

In the minds of petty tyrants, new orders superseding old ones do not cancel memories or repel previous strictness. Newly acquired power is often not relinquished but merely redirected toward those who seem wayward, or out of place, or racially suspect. Emergency law, even when canceled, has a way of hardening preexisting bias.

All to say the closed world will, upon its “liberation,” remain in part closed, psychologically closed, because this time around the “Papers!” syndrome will leave a fresh and deep mark.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.