The Stasi was communist East Germany’s intelligence and spy network. It was probably the most effective spy apparatus of any society in human history, surpassing even the Gestapo in its respective reach. The Stasi recruited both professional agents and a vast number of informal operatives who were incentivized to spy on colleagues, neighbors, friends, even family members. It’s estimated that up to 500,000 East Germans cooperated with the Stasi. Intimidation became an effective weapon employed by the ruling regime. One could never be sure that the person next to you wasn’t primed to turn you in.
I traveled though East Germany in 1982. I drove from Hanover in the West to Berlin, which was a Western enclave surrounded by communist East German territory. It was clear that East Germany did not want tourists. Getting there was not easy; in fact, it was downright creepy.
Both Germanys were separated by a 700 mile-long fence. Getting from West to East involved passing though several checkpoints with swinging gates and documents thoroughly checked. Before entering on the other side, the final official made it clear that I needed to drive to Berlin “direkte.” In other words, no getting off the main highway.
Once in West Berlin, I decided that I wanted to explore East Berlin. I was determined to see the Berlin Wall from the inside. One could either pass through Checkpoint Charlie by car, or you could take a subway that went under the wall, made a U-turn and then passed under the wall again a little further north. Since East Germans attempted to escape through the subway tunnels shortly after the Wall was erected, all the stations but one were closed. The train passed through ghost stations patrolled by armed guards. Getting from the West Side to the East also involved rigorous credential checks. I also had to exchange 25 West German deutsche marks for East German ones and provide receipts validating the purchases I had made. It was a form of theft to boost the East German economy. Visitors also had to return by midnight.
I had been to other communist countries, but the atmosphere of East Germany was more austere and forbidding than any other. In my quest to find the Berlin Wall, I would stop strangers and in my broken German would ask “Bitte. Wo ist der Mauer?” “Please. Where is the Wall?” Invariably and without exception, each stranger I would approach would remain silent and avert his or her gaze. I had to conclude that their silence was induced by fear. Finally, I asked a police officer, who volunteered that the wall was two blocks ahead and three to the left. There it was, looming and huge, artificially placed right behind the Brandenberg Gate, the most powerful symbol of communist repression.
While it is a wide stretch, the horrendous Texas law practically banning abortion in that state, and ignominiously given a pass by the U.S. Supreme Court, inspired thoughts about the Stasi and the culture of informants it created. I’ll get to that later.
We feel we are losing our country and the Texas anti-abortion law is a culmination of numerous nefarious and wicked tendencies that American society is experiencing at this moment. I can elaborate only a few.
This statute, and the Supreme Court’s refusal to challenge a blatantly unconstitutional law, will very likely precipitate the overturning of Roe v. Wade, destroying a women’s federally protected right to an abortion, and, as such, assert control over her body and reproductive choices. It is not so much a step onto a slippery slope as much a steep decline.
Our humanity is commensurate with our dignity and human dignity emanates from our autonomy. There is no more intimate expression of this autonomy than the empowerment and right to exercise choices about one’s own body. As such, this law is an expression of the timeless reality of misogyny,
the impulse by men to control the lives, and especially the sexuality, of women. Behind it, and not far behind, is the assumption that women are possessive of a lesser degree of humanity then male of the species.
In this sense, I see the current wave of misogynistic expressions and laws emerging out the social and political forces which fuel xenophobia, racism and contempt for the immigrant in this current dark era. Measuring degrees of humanity has been woven throughout American history, and, needless to say, the career of humankind. Think of the institutional degradation of Blacks, Native Americans, Jews, non-northern Europeans, gays, and women, all justified and rationalized by philosophical, religious and scientific certainties.
We have made great progress in the past few decades in moving closer to the founding premise that “all men are created,” but we should be mindful that this progress toward the equality of historically marginalized people rests on the surface of a long, deep, and fiercely contested history. We should take little for granted. These gains can be lost and society can be pulled back to an historical condition in which the humanity of different types of people divided by sex, race, ethnicity, gender orientation and physical and mental ability exist on a hierarchy sustained by the ruling group, most ostensibly white males, and behind them those with wealth who pull the strings. Human beings yes, but of a different and lower order.
This dystopian regression is not as implausible as it may seem. The Texas law is the product of decades or organization and movement built by a powerful right wing cohort. It is sustained by the power of the Catholic Church, the huge evangelical and fundamentalist sectors of society, and secular conservatives who have likewise made their anti-abortion zeal a pivotal rallying point of their politics and political agenda. It is a thick, well funded, elaborate, groundswell.
A majority of Americans continue to support a woman’s right to abortion, but for many pro-choice advocates this is one issue of support split among many. For the anti-abortion cohort it is one of a narrower range of issues, and in a way not so evident on the left, melded into right wing religious and political culture. It is a culture too often fueled by resentment and hate which fears diversity and the pluralistic society American is becoming. It is this underlying reality that signifies that this one law has deeper roots than the law itself. It feels menacing and very ugly.
But there is much more. The Supreme Court’s inaction to block the Texas law, which is blatantly unconstitutional, reflects the extraordinary right wing turn of the judiciary. It is an open secret that our “independent” judiciary is politically motivated. The right often accuses the left of “judicial activism,” but here we see with clear evidence of the conservative politicization of our highest Court.
I am by no means a judicial scholar, but the refusal of the Supreme Court to block the Texas statute, and in the dead of night even to comment on it, in obvious contradiction of Roe, exemplifies how far we have come. It may still be blocked and overturned, but given the momentum of the ultra-conservative juggernaut, the camel’s nose is far within the tent.
An odd and foreboding underlying reality is that as the American public is moving toward greater liberalism (think younger demographics) the judiciary is moving much further to the right. It is another major fracture in American society that will make healing that much more difficult.
But as to the Texas law itself, it is the most successful, if not perverse, manifestation of anti-abortion legal scheming. It is a time tested strategy that if advocates cannot overturn a deep rooted legal precedent wholesale, they chip away at its edges in the hope that eventually, the entire structure will fall.
Anti-abortion activists have been doing this for years with literally hundreds of bills introduced in state legislatures designed to burden and limit a woman’s access to abortion. Usually this legislation has claimed to protect women’s health, and have been thrown out by courts when their true intent has been revealed. But, there is no doubt that the right has made great progress prior to this Texas law. Clinics have been shuttered through the nation, in some states limiting them to only a single clinic. Roe v. Wade, especially for poor women, who are most need of this service, has already been functionally overturned.
After decades of trying, anti-abortion forces through legal cleverness and gerrymandering have finally crafted a law that for the first time has made a breakthrough on the federal level. It has done so by crafting a law which places enforcement not in the hands of government officials but by deputizing fellow citizens, any and all, to bring civil charges against anyone who who assists or abets a woman in having an abortion. Moreover, the law forbids an abortion after six weeks into pregnancy, a time when few women are cognizant that they are, in fact, pregnant. Each successful complainant will be awarded a bounty of $10,000.
This law is preposterous and makes a charade of the rule of law. It is insidious, indeed, wicked, on many fronts. As mentioned, it is the legal face of deep rooted cultural and political misogyny. But by dispersing its enforcement to individual citizens at large, it promotes vigilante justice.
In the widest sense, civilization, in order to preempt justice based on endless vendettas has removed it from the hands of individuals and given the power to enforce law to the state. This is the ultimate purpose of a criminal justice system. The Texas law, by returning enforcement of law to the hands of fellow citizens is bringing us back to state of relative anarchy. Our fore-bearers in the stone age might be proud.
American society is replete with epochs in which vigilante has held sway. Think of the Klu Klux Klan, the history of lynching and the rise of resurgence of contemporary hate groups. Think of January 6th and the raid on the Capitol. This Texas law smells of this ignominious, indeed barbaric, tradition. It further radically divides an already woefully divided nation.
But maybe pre-civlized barbarism isn’t the most apt example. Perhaps much closer is the social condition that flourished in East Germany under the surveillance of the Stasi that induced snitching on one’s neighbor. It’s a formula for radical distrust of our fellow citizens. Yes, it is a form of vigilantism and it not the type of country I want to live in.
(Photo: Planned Parenthood Facebook)