Tue, Nov 04, 2008 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL:Fear and loathing in Taipei

The security measures that the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) government has implemented for the arrival of Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林) must be awakening a sense of dread in anyone old enough to have lived in the Martial Law era under dictator Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石).

In fact, so ostentatious was the presence of police and National Security Bureau officers at critical venues along Chen’s path from Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport to the Grand Hotel in Shilin (士林) that the Chinese envoy must have felt right at home.

The Ma administration’s argument that such measures were the direct consequence of the Democratic Progressive Party’s “mobbing” of ARATS Vice Chairman Zhang Mingqing (張銘清) in Tainan last week is obfuscation, as police are not only protecting the envoy but also muzzling freedom of speech by forbidding people from displaying the national flag, banners with political content or symbols of Chinese oppression, such as the Tibetan flag.

What’s even more worrying is that the security apparatus seems to have quickly reverted to the random, unclear rules upon which authoritarian regimes depend to keep their opponents on edge. In other words, while the government tells Taiwanese not to fret over the meetings, it has unleashed the tool of fear to unbalance detractors. Days ahead of Chen’s arrival, demonstrators didn’t know whether they would be arrested for activities that in the past two decades did not constitute breaking the law.

Barbed wire at key intersections, demonstrators manhandled by police without cause, a young woman’s finger broken as police pried a Tibetan flag from her hands and arrested her — this is the stuff of news in China, not Taiwan.

After years of democratization and transformation of the security apparatus into an instrument of the state rather than the private army of a political party, officers that a year ago could not have imagined themselves doing the things that they did yesterday have become a tool of state oppression.

The great British thinker Bertrand Russell, who had a lifelong interest in the uses of power, once referred to a phenomenon that could be summed up as the “anonymity of the flock,” in which the individual is capable of committing actions that are out of character because of the “deresponsibilization” that the context provides them. Being part of an organization — especially in the security apparatus — weakens one’s moral barriers and allows for the perpetration of unspeakable acts. A police officer is merely following orders and doing his job, which he could lose if he refused to comply with directives from the top.

When this happens, otherwise decent human beings are capable of just about anything.

Taiwan hasn’t reached the extremes of this phenomenon, but the seeds are there and the leadership — the moral compass in any institution — has shown its willingness to use force against its own people, assaulting a harmless 34-year-old woman in the process. And yesterday was only the first day of Chen’s visit.

The pendulum of freedom cannot be allowed to swing back in a direction that has caused this nation so much suffering in the past.

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