The Triumph Of Evil

by Theodore Dalrymple (Sept. 2008)

I’ve been arrested only three times in my life: which, as a prison guard once proudly said to me, in explaining that he had been assaulted by prisoners only three times in his forty year-long career, I don’t think is bad, do you?

The first time I was arrested was as a South African spy in a small town in Gabon, West Africa. I knew at once, of course, that the policemen arresting me did not really believe that I was such a spy; but it could not have been all that often that a man so eminently shakeable-down arrived in this back of beyond.

Fortunately for me, he had a deep respect for the medical profession, and once he learned that I was a doctor he walked round the chair on which I was sitting in his police hovel, and said admiringly, as a very great compliment, ‘Vous avez beaucoup de papier dans la tete’ (You have a lot of paper in your head).

Luckily, also, he needed a prescription for his venereal disease, so in return for this, he set me free. I did think of giving him something that made him feel ill: surely, putting corrupt West African policemen out of commission for a while did not count as doing harm, in the Hippocratic sense. But then charity took over: he probably wasn’t paid for months on end, and latching on to people as he had with me was his only source of income.

The second time I was arrested was at the border of Honduras and El Salvador, on the Honduran side. I was driving a pick-up I had bought in Guatemala, and was on my way to Sandinista Nicaragua. I had a lot of books with me that I had bought in San Salvador, at a bookshop called La Catedral del Libro (the Cathedral of Books), and the Honduran border guards immediately concluded that I must be a very dangerous person.

Although El Salvador was commonly supposed at the time to be a vicious dictatorship, La Catedral del Libro had such an eclectic mix of books that it could scarcely have been more various had El Salvador been the purest of liberal democracies. Works by Marxist guerrilla sympathisers were cheek-by-jowl with Mi Lucha, Mein Kampf, by Adolfo Hitler, and (I remember this very well, for I had not heard of such a thing before), Cafemancia, the art of telling the future by coffee grounds.

Anyway, I was given over to an armed guard who was instructed to come with me as far as the Nicaraguan border: I was under car-arrest, so to speak. Evidently, I presented so terrifying an aspect to him that he fell asleep immediately, with his gun poking intermittently into my ribs. He never knew the irony that the Honduran authorities had managed to arrest practically the only foreign intellectual in the whole of the Central American peninsula who was anti-guerrilla. When I stopped for lunch, it would have been churlish not to have paid for my guard’s lunch too, although natural justice suggested, to me at any rate, that it should have been the other way round.

The third was the only time I have ever been arrested in anything like anger. It was on my second visit to Albania, my first after the downfall of communism. The government of the anti-communist cardiologist, Sali Berisha, was in power, though he was soon to be toppled. A demonstration against the government by communists took place on the morning of my departure, and the police waded into the crowd not a very big one with truncheons. Of course, not long before they might have beaten anti-communists, had they dared demonstrate. The crowd broke and ran towards one of Tirana’s few hotels.

I rushed out myself to take photos of what was happening and found myself soon in the iron grip of a policeman. He was like a weight-lifter and I have never felt such strength. He bundled me into the back of a police pick-up with a cage, oblivious to my protests, those of a spoilt brat, that I had a plane to catch (which was true), and therefore could not afford the time to be arrested. Even had he understood English, I do not think he would have relented just because Austrian Airlines waited for no man.

Another three onlookers were bundled into the pick-up besides me, one of whom turned out to be an Albanian intellectual with good English. The cage was locked, and we were driven, sirens blaring, through the not very busy streets to the police lock-up.

We were bundled out of the truck, and I was given a bash on the back with a truncheon just to encourage me not to dawdle. We were all locked into a small whitewashed cell. From there we could hear the police beating someone in another cell, his animal cries of pain rending the air. It was a horrible sound, but it did not surprise me. I assumed that this was the kind of thing that went on in Balkan police stations, and perhaps not just Balkan ones.
The Albanians in our cell began to shout and wail. Obviously, they thought they were going to be next for the treatment. For my benefit, the intellectual shouted ‘This is Albanian democracy! This is Albanian democracy!’ They rattled the bars on the steel door of the cell, and I decided to intervene.

‘Look,’ I said to the Albanian intellectual. ‘This is no time to be Albanian. You have to become British. Stay quiet and keep calm, and don’t draw attention to yourselves. Otherwise we’ll all be beaten.’

To my amazement, and relief, it worked. No doubt they were so astonished by this ridiculous foreigner that it took their breath away. They went silent.

Fortunately for me, some of my friends, with whom I had dined with an important government official the night before, saw me being arrested and called on the government official to intervene. This he quickly did.

After no more than half an hour’s imprisonment, during which we heard in silence a variety of human cries, the door of the cell opened and an officer, this time all consideration and even obsequiousness, beckoned to me to come out. It had evidently been made clear to him that he and his men had made a mistake in arresting me, potentially a serious one since I might write a damning article on the human rights situation in Albania for British and American publications.

The officer put his hand on his heart, bowed slightly and had a look of utter ingratiation on his face. The boot was now clearly on the other foot, and I was in a position or so he obviously thought – to ruin his career. I left the prison cell and was driven back to my hotel like a visiting dignitary. I caught my plane. Francis Drake said he had time to finish his game of bowls and defeat the Spaniards; I had had time to be arrested in Albania and catch the Austrian Airlines flight.

At the moment of my release I had faced an acute dilemma. What of my fellow-prisoners? Now that the whirligig of time had brought in his revenges, should I use my position to refuse to accept release until they too had been released. After all, they were guilty only of having done what I had done, namely watched the demonstration. I knew nothing of them, but I certainly did not want them to get the treatment clearly being meted out in the police station.

Once I was released, I did make sure before I left Albania that representations were made to the high official about my three co-detainees, and in fact they were subsequently released, I believe without event. But still I could not quite get it out of my mind that, even if accepting release had been obviously the most sensible thing to do, and that I was of more use to my fellow detainees outside the cell than in, I had accepted it for the wrong reasons: out of a mixture of selfish relief and cowardice. True enough, I had only a split second in which to decide, but on this one occasion when my situation required and enabled me to make a stand, I had failed.

Since then, I have found it a little more difficult to say exactly how I would behave if I had to live in an evil tyranny. My behaviour in the cell in Tiranan had been sensible, perhaps, but hardly heroic. I am not the stuff from which, for example, a Solzhenitsyn is made. I am too attached to my ordinary existence for that, and too afraid of the worst that can be done to me.

Of course, the question of how to behave under an evil tyranny is one that much of the population of Europe in the Twentieth century had to decide. In France, to take only one example, millions of people had to decide whether just to get on with their lives as best they could, join the resistance or take advantage of the new dispensation to get on in life. Even today, the interpretation of the ubiquitous black-marketeers under the Occupation is much disputed: were they ruthless predators concerned only for their own good, were they quietly undermining the occupiers (who were trying to extract as much economic surplus from France as possible, which diversion of goods on to the black market reduced, thereby improving the lot of ordinary Frenchmen), or were they in fact assisting the occupiers by making the whole system viable, which it would not have been without the black market? Or were they all of these things at once?

It is one of the evils of evil tyrannies that they seek to implicate everyone in their system, by means of spying, the granting of privileges, etc. But it is not only tyrannies that do this: modern bureaucracies, even in liberal democratic states, do this also. For example, in the British state hospital system (and no modern state does entirely without public hospitals), doctors undergo a compulsory annual appraisal by a colleague, decreed and designed by the administration, without any evidence that it improves performance in any way whatever. Its purpose is not to improve performance; it purpose is to destroy independence.

The very fact of participating in a process that is universally recognised to be a useless is harmful, for everyone who does so is ‘only obeying orders’ for the sake of his own peace and quiet and for the sake of his career; in other words, by taking part, he has already lost some of his integrity.

One of the pro forma questions is very cleverly-worded, so cleverly that I actually admire its cleverness (which I think is instinctive rather than conscious, because apparatchiks, however much they believe in forms and procedures, operate and work by instinct when it comes to extending their own powers). The question is this: ‘Are there any concerns about your probity?’

The first time I was asked, I said that I would reply only on condition that the person who asked would answer two questions. The first was what kind of person would answer such a question. The second was what kind of person would ask it. My appraiser got the point at once and laughed nervously. He told me that it was all nonsense, that nobody took any notice of it anyway. But then I asked him what kind of person took part unprotestingly in processes that were worse than merely a waste of time.

It isn’t often that we face acute moral dilemmas such as the one I faced in the Albanian cell. More often our moral integrity is eroded bit by bit until there is none left. Edmund Burke said that freedom is seldom lost all at once, but freedom is not the only thing that is seldom lost all at once.

This helps to explain why the professional management of public institutions is so dangerous and corrupting. What is needed is amateur (though not of course amateurish) management.


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