I first came up against implacable authoritarianism in a car park in New York city when I was 11 years old. It was the 1970’s, and I was there with my mother, younger sister and younger brother. We needed to return a car we had rented.
My mother was from New York, but we were living in LA, and were there as visitors. We had rented a car, and were returning it but did not have the paper work we needed. The man at the counter was not interested in my mother’s excuses.
Without her papers, she became a criminal. He had power and would exercise it to show her why not only had she made a mistake, she was unworthy of human consideration. He shouted and demeaned her. He did not care about her excuses. He wanted her to know he held her in contempt.
My mother was tired and vulnerable. She had three small children huddled behind her who quickly grew scared and only wanted to leave. I do not remember all the details, but I remember how it felt: he was above us, we were below. He had a uniform; he was cruel and enjoyed his cruelty. It was so trivial, and that was the remarkable part about it. It only took a slight shift in the power dynamic — from customer to criminal, from respect to contempt, from indifference to anger and even cruelty.
After wearing us down, he finally let us leave — as he could have from the moment we arrived. Later, my mother said to us: “Remember this kids, there are Nazis everywhere. They are only waiting for the chance. If he could have pushed us in an oven, he would have.”
I have been thinking about this story a lot lately, as I have thought of it on and off all my life. I don’t think my mother meant that the garage attendant was literally a member of the Nationalist Socialist party or would support a murderous regime. I think what she meant was that cruelty is opportunistic. You never know until you are given the chance whether you would go along, say no, turn the other way, or indeed, grab the chance to relish your power over someone else’s helplessness, what that might awaken in you.
Many writers now caution us not to make the Nazi comparison too glibly (Trump himself called leaks by the intelligence services “something like the Nazis”). It is wrong to diminish history by dragging it into the present in order to make a point.
But I have thought about how quickly our instinct for authoritarianism, our ability to dehumanise the other, and our desire to cleave to power in the name of ideology reveals itself given the chance.
Border guards, immigration agents, police officers: many people are given uniforms in America and the power to use them. With a slight nudge, some people will abuse that power, will dehumanise and even harm: to make themselves feel safer, stronger, or even in some cases, for the pleasure.
None of that is too surprising. What shocks is the way the muzzle can be removed, even in a democracy built to resist it: overnight. The other part that is proving so hard to understand: how willingly we look away, how we do not want to know, how we make our bargains with power. I always assumed that was true elsewhere because of historical weaknesses, a lack of vigilance: Germany under the Reich, Argentina under Pinochet, Greece during the time of the Colonels. I never imagined those weaknesses could reveal themselves so fully in my own backyard.
More than ever, I see how we rely on each other, how our safety and security, peace and happiness, lies in each other’s hands: family, neighbours, fellow citizens. Since the Brexit referendum in the UK and the election of the Orange Meanie, I have lost trust in my extended family of co-nationals. I fear our our commonwealth means less to them, given how quickly they seem willing to trade in the safeguards of our democracy for the sake of a particular ideological agenda.
I have also discovered how much I love and am bound up with them, and that kindness, too, might be opportunistic. That is the subject of my next piece.
Please recommend this story if you like it. If it interests you, you might also like First We March, Then We Meet or After the Inauguration, Our Lives as Bonobos and Chimps or How We Became White — all published in the delicious Coffeelicious.