People often try and sound profound by quoting Santayana’s apocryphal statement, “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

But Santayana had his finger on the pulse of my nation in this moment. There is a lot of hysteria spreading among the cultured classes, but since they are the cultured classes, it is repackaged as concern for social norms and national security. What appears to the naked eye and the unbiased mind as a dance with totalitarianism is described by the dancers as “damage control.”

Silencing voices that we don’t like isn’t new. It has happened since time immemorial.

Having practiced immigration law for over two decades, I am intimately familiar with what happens when governments decide that certain thoughts are dangerous, certain views are unwelcome and certain questions should never be asked.

My asylum clients have ranged from the Haitian journalist who fled the bloody regime of Baby Doc Duvalier in the 1980s to an Albanian poll watcher who had the teeth beaten out of his mouth by political opponents. I represented a Pakistani schoolteacher who thought that girls should be given the same education as boys, and saw his one room school house burned to the ground in retaliation.

Add these people to the religious refugees, the Baha’i businessman in Iran who was stripped of his license because the mullahs called him an “apostate,” the Maronite Christian police officer in Lebanon who was beaten with electrical chords by his Syrian persecutors, and the Evangelical Christian in El Salvador who was raped because she wouldn’t stop preaching to the gangs.

When the tech companies started shutting down conservative social media accounts, starting with Donald Trump’s, my friends on the left started ridiculing those of us who raised the red flag of censorship. But when a governmental role is taken up by non-governmental actors with the winking acquiescence and dog-whistle complicity of the official ruling body, you can no longer easily distinguish public acts from private ones.

Remember what happened in East Germany? The communist overlords used their Stasi secret agents to spy on possible dissidents. In order to make their jobs easier, they enlisted the help of average East Germans, the neighbors down the road and-chillingly-in the same homes as the targets. Tina Rosenberg mentioned this phenomenon in her book “The Haunted Land,” which described what happened when the Stasi books were made public after the fall of the Iron Curtain. In many cases, wives found out that they had been spied on by their own husbands, children by their parents, and vice versa.

The horror was that ordinary human beings, private citizens, had been enlisted in the effort to silence the uncomfortable non conformists.

And then you have the memorable example of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, who filled their Killing Fields up with the intelligentsia, professors and doctors and lawyers and other people with independent minds so they could more easily manage the masses. A friend of mind called what is happening now, this silencing from the left as a Khmer Bleu. I laughed, until I started crying.

That’s why when I hear people say that it’s whining and overkill to worry about the suspension and cancellation of conservative voices, I remember what happened in the past, and how it was excused. People are using those same excuses again, “public safety” and “keeping order” and “making people accountable.” It is chilling that they do not hear themselves echoing the words of the totalitarian elders.

I do not agree that everything should be said. There are limits, and not every move to keep someone from speaking is a human or civil rights violation.

But to suggest that someone who says “stop the steal” or who questioned the validity of an election is an enemy of the state, is itself a toxic injection into the civic body.

So while it may seem trite to throw out quotes that end up on cards or embroidered on pillows to make a point, I don’t think it’s out of line to suggest that we crane our necks backwards to check on what happened to our ancestors. Ignoring the obvious is a very effective way to guarantee the inevitable.

Christine Flowers is an attorney and a columnist.

Christine Flowers is an attorney and a columnist.

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