“It reminded me of what I’ve been reporting on for years from the third world,” Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior CIA officer, tweeted a few days ago after seeing images of President Trump waving a Bible. He was speaking of the behavior of leaders under threat.
I’ve been hearing similar comments from a number of my former CIA colleagues, disturbed at the parallels between their experiences in other countries and now ... in America.
Like my colleagues, I also witnessed that employment of religious symbolism over and over in the third world. And it always intensified in times of trouble, usually accompanied (like with President Trump’s church visit) by the use of force.
Other similarities? Sad to say, yes. If you watch the news much, you’ve seen the images of scenes similar to many I’ve witnessed in multiple countries.
All of which brought to mind one story about a tyrant who claimed (they universally do) that he was loved ... the most loved man, ever ... and who bragged he ruled under God’s grace and constitutional law with a representative parliament.
This country, too, was full of the president’s image – it saturated the paper and social media of the day. If President Hastings Banda had access to twitter, he would have used it constantly.
He also loved rallies. These took the form of filling football stadiums with his supporters while ringing the periphery with paramilitary police. He would arrive in a helicopter and descend like God from heaven into great masses of adoring crowds, all dancing and singing his praises. The diplomatic community was always invited to such shows, and I sometimes went.
The Minister of Interior called two days after I attended one such rally to suggest I visit the closing session of parliament.
“It may be historic,” is essentially what he said.
What I heard there was the usual parliamentary rowdiness, this time over the succession to the president and an on-going debate about an audit (mostly shouted accusations against those raising the issues). An hour in, I shrugged and left. It was, I thought, just another chapter in the ongoing circus that was Malawi’s sham democracy.
Except ... three government ministers and one prominent parliamentarian were arrested that night, allegedly released, then died the next day. “A horrible car accident,” the Minister of Interior assured me, the one and only time he appeared at my door.
Except, my sources said, the bodies had bullet holes and were mutilated.
The public barely noticed, caught up in the next spectacle. As for the power-brokers, “He does so much good,” they said. “We have stability and a great economy.”
And, that was that.
There are parallels in this and other stories to recent news and events and, thank God, none at all. But the vital point they illustrate is clear.
We must guard our freedoms zealously lest we succumb (as people in so many other countries have) to bread, circuses and a false sense of security.