A police state is a nation whose rulers maintain order and obedience by coercion, terror, torture, propagandizing, brainwashing, mass surveillance, or any combination of these methods. A police state is inherently repressive and undemocratic. In its repressive aspects, a police state suppresses political dissent, curtails or eliminates civil liberties, and sometimes even tries to wipe out disagreeable ideas, feelings, memories, or impulses from the conscious minds of individuals. In its legal aspects, a police state is similar to martial law or the law imposed on a country by a state when civil authority has broken down. The two most infamous police states in world history—Nazi Germany under Adolph Hitler (1933-1945) and the former Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin (1929-1953)—are considered to be the prototypical police states. The definitive fictional treatment of a police state, which has also influenced contemporary usage of the term, is George Orwell’s novel 1984. Orwell’s novel describes a regime that uses the excuse of endless war to justify thought police and security cameras for purposes of mass surveillance.

The term police state can also be used as an adjective to describe a technique of ruling. Implicit in this second usage is the notion that designating a country as a police state does not necessarily have anything to do with the structure of a state or a state’s dominant political ideology. Therefore, it is possible for a democracy to use police state methods in dealing with a perceived threat. After the enactment of the USA PATRIOT Act in 2001, for example, some critics of the war on terrorism raised concerns that the United States was using police state tactics to fight terrorism on the domestic front. Although it is true that democracies sometimes employ police state tactics, most scholars hold that democracies do not become full-fledged police states unless they transform into authoritarian or totalitarian states.

Dichotomies, Democracies, and Police States

The recognition that democratic states occasionally use police state tactics raises an important question: Should scholars engaged in comparative research on police states treat the distinction between police states and democracies as a dichotomy or in terms of gradations? This question has implications for how research is organized, for how data are collected and analyzed, and for inferences about the causes and consequences of police states.

Unresolved conceptual issues center around these additional questions: Should social scientists treat ”police stateness” as a property that regimes display in varying degrees? Do nations vary in the extent to which their governments meet the criteria for being classified as police states? Should police states be considered systems, that is, bounded wholes characterized by attributes and mechanisms that are either present or absent? Do intermediate cases exist in which countries lack all the attributes of the perfect or ideal police state and instead exhibit a mixture of qualities or characteristics of both democracies and police states? If so, how should these intermediate cases be labeled? A couple of possibilities would be to use the label ”emerging police states” in cases where some but not all of the attributes of police states are present and to call cases in which civil liberties have been attenuated in democratic states ”illiberal democracies.”

Putting Police States in Context

Drawing a simple dichotomy between democracies and police states obscures the distinctiveness of the police state as a political phenomenon. A dichotomy does not adequately capture the political reality of police states. It is possible to distinguish particular historical forms of police states.

The ”traditional police state,” which existed in various countries in Europe from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, had the best of motives. It was a mixture of autocratic reform, paternalistic benevolence, suspicion, and compulsion. In its emphasis on national development, it was similar to many so-called Third World countries today. Unlike police states of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, however, the traditional police state was not known for its arbitrary and repressive rule. Extensive police powers were concentrated in a civil service under a single political will, with a police institution having responsibility for watching over the safety of the state, the integrity of public officers, and the morale of the population. By the end of the nineteenth century, the institutional and theoretical bases of the traditional police state had been demolished and the stage was set for the rise of a new type of police state.

The ”modern police state” presupposes an authoritarian regime. Some scholars point to Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1939 as an example of this type of police state. Authoritarian regimes usually grant wide powers to law enforcement agencies; when this tendency is pushed to the extreme, a modern police state can develop. In such a police state, the rule of law either does not exist or is routinely ignored. A modern police state is considered to be completely formed when the police institution becomes immune to control by the civil service, the judiciary, and the army, and it is an independent leading state institution in its own right. The main difference between a traditional and a modern police state centers around the emergence of the secret police as an offensive weapon in the modern police state, reversing the traditional role of the police as defenders of the existing order.

Different issues arise in a ”totalitarian police state.” Some well-known examples include Nazi Germany between 1939 and 1945, fascist Italy, the Soviet Union, Ba’athist Iraq, Ba’athist Syria, Libya, Communist China, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). Prominent features of totalitarian police states include an ideology supported by propaganda campaigns, a single political party committed to this ideology and usually led by a dictator, a secret police force, monopolistic control by the party over the media and other institutions, and concentrated power in an individual or an elite that is not accountable to the public and cannot be checked or dislodged by institutional means. Totalitarian police states prohibit all activities contrary to the regime’s goals of (1) a radical restructuring of society to create a new economic order (Communism), (2) instituting racism (Nazism), (3) reconstituting human nature through fundamentalist religion (Taliban rule in Afghanistan), or (4) some combination of these. Historically, some totalitarian police states have maintained power by resorting to terroristic methods including police brutality, concentration camps and torture, political show trials, purges of the ”old guard” of the ruling party, imprisonment and executions without proof of guilt, and repressive measures against whole categories of people. However, some totalitarian police states have replaced the open terror of violence on the streets and in the cells brought against opponents of the regime with the silent terror of manipulating citizens to collaborate, to inform, and to denounce. In these police states subtler tools of persuasion are used to create the state’s version of the model citizen: a compliant zombie who obeys the law, causes no trouble, asks no questions, and does not resist. In some respects, twenty-first century Communist China approaches this sort of totalitarian police state.

Criminal Justice in Police States

Typically, a separate criminal justice system develops within a police state to dispense political justice to ”enemies of the state.” This new or special criminal justice system often consists of secret police, military tribunals, and concentration camps or ”gulags.”

Secret police are a species of internal security agency used as instruments of political repression, mass surveillance, and murder. Secret police is a blanket term used to refer to various kinds of political police agencies that are known to exist but that operate in the shadows. Some of the best known early twentieth-century examples are Communist Russia’s KGB, Fascist Italy’s OVARA, and Nazi Germany’s Gestapo. Notorious ones established in the second half of the twentieth century are the DINA of Chilean President Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, the Savak of the Shah of Iran, and the Mukhabarat of Iraq’s former president Saddam Hussein. ”Thought police,” the secret police in 1984, whose job it was to uncover and punish thought crime, used psychology and omnipresent surveillance to find and eliminate members of society who were capable of the mere thought of challenging the ruling authority. What is distinctive about both real and imaginary secret police is that they are, perhaps more than any other institution, a menace to human rights (especially the right to privacy). Examples of harmful repressive measures attributed to secret police include genocide, assassinations, disappearances of political opposition figures, torture and/or other types of mistreatment of political prisoners in concentration camps, harassment of dissidents, and the use of psychiatric confinement against political opponents of a regime.

Gulag is a Russian acronym meaning Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei or Main Camp Administration (for concentration camps). The word has also come to refer to either the system of Soviet slave labor or the Soviet repressive system itself. The West first learned about gulags from concentration camp survivor Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel about life in Soviet labor camps, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. His oral history of the camps, The Gulag Archipelago, also stirred interest when it appeared in 1974. Police states in both Russia and Germany have featured gulags. Regimes in both countries legitimized themselves by establishing categories of ”enemies of the state” and then herding people from these categories into concentration camps. Within the camps dehu-manization was extreme, helping to both intimidate victims and reinforce the victi-mizers’ belief in the legitimacy of what they were doing. Whereas the primary purpose of the Soviet Gulag was economic (that is, to exploit slave labor), the Nazi concentration camps were not really labor camps, but rather death factories.

Military tribunals or ”people’s courts” substitute for regular courts in police states. Judicial independence is lacking in police state courts and evidentiary standards are very low—tips by anonymous informers and information obtained through torture are often accepted as admissible evidence. Take, for example, Nazi Germany’s Volksgerichtshof (VGH) or ”People’s Court.” Dissatisfied with ”not guilty” verdicts in some cases involving political crimes, Hitler established ”People’s Courts” throughout Germany to increase the political reliability of the courts in politically sensitive cases. These courts became part of the Nazi system of terror, condemning more than 12,000 civilians to death and sending thousands more to concentration camps between 1934 and 1945. Another example is the NKVD troika (a three-member commission of Stalin’s main state security agency). It began as an institution of the Cheka (the first of many Soviet secret police organizations), then later became prominent in the NKVD, when the troika was used during Stalin’s Great Purge. The Great Purge consisted of campaigns of political repression in the Soviet Union during the late 1930s and included purges of the Communist Party.

Policing in Police States

Policing systems used in the former Soviet Union and Communist China are prototypes of control systems found in many police states. In the former Soviet Union, the state recruited some portion of the citizens to act as KGB agents. In typical encounters with fellow citizens, a citizen of the former Soviet Union would not know whether or not the other citizen was a KGB agent. Consequently, under the Soviet supervision system, a recurring decision problem for the typical citizen revolved around the question ”What is the probability that this individual with whom I’m about to interact is a KGB agent?”

Compared to the former Soviet Union’s variant of ”police patrol,” the system in Communist China is a self-policing system. It calls on citizens to report not only their own behavior, but also the behavior of others. The self-policing system is a system whereby neighbors are held accountable for each other’s crimes if they fail to report them. Political control in Communist China resembles that of some other totalitarian police states in that it relies not only on the coercive power of the state, but also on citizens monitoring each other. The Chinese police state applies the self-policing system by focusing on the units or small groups where its citizens live or work.

Assessing the Impact

Understanding the nature of police states offers only a partial perspective on repressive regimes of the past and present. By focusing on the various impacts of police states, the real significance of the problem of police states becomes apparent.

From the viewpoint of the victim and the potential victim, police states pose a very real threat. The scale in number of lives lost, man-years lost in concentration camps, and people arrested and subjected to limitations of freedoms of movement in police states is so large that it is difficult to fathom. In Mao: The Unknown Story, Jung Chang and British historian Jon Hal-liday argue that Mao’s police state was responsible for more than 70 million deaths in peacetime, and they argue that Mao was more extreme than Hitler or Stalin in that he envisioned a brain-dead Chinese society whose members would automatically obey his orders. Historian Robert Conquest estimates that around 1 million persons were executed in the Russian police state in the late 1930s. Based on a 10% death rate per annum, other historians estimate that 12 million prisoners died in Russian concentration camps from 1936 to 1950. Adding to them the million executions of the period, the casualties of another era of Stalin’s rule (1930-1936), those sent to concentration camps who died, and the 3.5 million victims of Stalin’s collectivization, Conquest reaches the figure of 20 million dead in twenty-three years of Stalin’s rule. The best estimate of the number of victims of the Nazi ”final solution of the Jewish problem” ranges between 4.2 and 4.5 million, with the total loss of Jewish life estimated at 6 million.

Opposition and Resistance

One gap in the work on police states is the lack of study of unsuccessful, but heroic resistance against police states. Over the years, a considerable amount of scholarly historical literature on resistance against Hitler’s rule has been published. The myriad of other examples of opposition and resistance drawn from the twenty-first century range from the American Civil Liberties Union’s international campaign against mass surveillance, to the Free Tibet movement, to the refusal of some of the highest ranking officers in the Sudanese army to bomb civilians in Darfur. Conceptual distinctions have been drawn between passive withdrawal, the assertion of autonomy by institutions and individuals, refusal to obey orders, organizing rebellion, and conspiratorial activities directed toward overthrowing regimes. A question that needs to be addressed is ”At what point, when, and how can the establishment of police states be prevented?”

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