Stasiland, by Australian writer Anna Funder, has won the Samuel Johnson prize for nonfiction (“Britain’s richest literary prize”).
Stasiland is Funder’s story of dissident East Germans living under the scrutiny of the Stasi, or German secret police. The book was also nominated for an Index Freedom of Expression Award 2004.
Why is this book important? I think it’s an approachable, readable account of what happens when we’re prepared to allow increased secret police powers and diminished protection under common law, in return for, say, “national security” or “the war on terror“.
The ASIO bill of June 2002 (Australia) and the Patriot Act (US) have been allowed to happen because of a common fallacy that many Australians share: If you haven’t done anything wrong, if you’re not a terrorist (or aiding terrorism), you would have nothing to fear from such increased powers.
Oh yeah, I have no problem with ASIO or any other government department having increased powers. Firstly I don’t intend on doing anything that would warrant a concern for these powers… (“Chris Pappas”)
If you are like the vast majority of Australians that will have no reason to attract the attention of ASIO then how does this legislation affect you. (“Voting Public”)
It’s about time! The only people with anything to fear from such legislation are exactly those this legislation aims to hinder… (“Garry Frenklah”)
–Your Say, the Age, June 2002 (in response to this article)
So obvious, so intuitive, this has to be right… Stasiland shows how wrong they are. Under the Stasi, you could be jailed and tortured for relatively minor “crimes”-it is the nature of these organisations that they get to decide what a crime is– but if there was insufficient excuse even to do that, you could simply be rendered unemployable, faceless, a non-person. Your talent wasted, your career ended before it had begun. You go for a job interview, it seems to go well. Then you get knocked back – again. Someone has had a Quiet Word with the employer. Your crime? Well, your father isn’t very popular in the Party (of which he’s a member and true believer, for crying out loud), and you used to have an Italian boyfriend. (“Julia”, chapter 9-11, Stasiland)
Under the US Patriot Act, things have already begun to go wrong. Examples like this, this, this and this show that we’re at risk from misunderstandings, from over-zealousness, from being in the wrong place at the wrong time, from having the wrong skin colour or surname. Computers and databases can compound the errors. Amnesty International is worried we are going the same way(via Jozef Imrich).
Consider these two quotations. I’ve stripped out identifying names or nouns. Can you immediately tell which is from Stasiland and which is from one of the contemporary examples above?
…They were so rude with me, yelling at me that I had a selective memory. Then they pulled out a copy of my rental lease from ****. I could not believe they had this.
I was completely shocked. They pointed out that ***** had signed the lease as a witness. I had completely forgotten that he had signed it for me — when we moved to ***** in ****, we needed someone to witness our lease, and I phoned ***** brother, and he could not come, so he sent *****.
But they thought I was hiding this. I told them the truth. I had nothing to hide. I had never had problems ….before, and I could not believe what was happening to me.
This interrogation continued until midnight. I was very, very worried, and asked for a lawyer again and again.
They just ignored me. Then they put me in chains, on my wrists and ankles, and took me in a van to a place where many people were being held — another building by the airport. They would not tell me what was happening.
At one in the morning they put me in a room with metal benches in it. I could not sleep. I was very, very scared and disoriented. The next morning they started questioning me again.
…”She didn’t know where she was taken, but… she was interrogated from 8 AM… until the following day at 6 AM. “That was how long it lasted,” she says, passing the document across to me….[EDIT] *****remembers her interrogator clearly. He was young, portly and snide. “In the begginning I denied everything, but then I noticed that they already knew a great deal. They wanted to get information about the students who stayed with us.” At the end of her interrogation she was taken back to her cell. “I could hardly speak any more. I was finished. But they didn’t leave me there long. They came and took me in a paddy wagon to another place. Then they continued the interrogation day and night– they liked to do it when one was sleep deprived. They didn’t give me any rest.
Read Stasiland, and give it to your Dad or the next door neighbour next time they give voice to the “Innocent have nothing to fear” thing.