I have this friend who works for the Red Cross.
She just came back from West Africa, she was there during the Ebola outbreak.
One of her jobs was disposing of dead bodies.
Which, in an Ebola outbreak, is about the most dangerous thing you can do.
She would arrive in a village in a two-layer hazmat suit, dragging a tank full of chlorine.
People stopped shaking hands with each other in the first weeks of the outbreak. She would greet families whose relative just died by waving, standing two feet away.
Then she would go into their house, wrap the body of their mother or son or uncle in black plastic and take it away. Then come back to spray down the room with chlorine.
In most cases, it was already too late for the people living there. The virus was in their bloodstream, there was nothing she could do.
The chlorine was for the people who came after. She had to disinfect the furniture, the sheets, anything else the dead body might have touched.
Everyone in the village saw her arrive in her suit, saw her spray the home of the person who died. Noticed the strange smell, the clear liquid, the huge tub she kept in the back of her Land Rover.
They saw when, three days later, the people who lived in the home that got sprayed fell ill. When they died, someone else from the Red Cross would come, spray again, and more people would get sick.
After a few weeks, it started to look like causation. Someone dies, then foreigners come and spray this liquid, then someone else gets sick. Feeling became rumor, rumor became news, news became truth.
She saw a mob kill aid workers, pull them out of their trucks. She saw them throw rocks at politicians and doctors and NGO workers.
People there thought international pharmaceutical companies were deliberately infecting locals so they could test treatments on them. Given the history of West Africa, this is incredibly unfortunate, but also incredibly understandable.
When the outbreak was finally over, the president stood at a podium and repeated the rumors. He told crowds that international charities had brought the disease. That they were to blame for the thousands of deaths, the 18 months of chaos.
“There was so much anger after the outbreak,” my friend told me. “Sooner or later, it would point to him. He had to get in front of it.”
I know I’ve said this before, but I think growing up in America has left me unprepared to understand the world in a lot of ways. I’ve never lived under an autocrat, never experienced genuine fear of authority, never had to be fearful about what I say or to whom I say it.
I took these pictures last week in Tajikistan, a real life dictatorship.
You see pictures of the president everywhere. Criticizing him carries a five-year prison sentence.
He’s amended the constitution to stay in power forever, he’s changed the election rules so his son can take over when he’s gone.
About one-quarter of the national museum is dedicated to him. It runs through the country’s decades-long Soviet occupation in just a few pictures, skips its brutal civil war entirely, then spends room after room presenting the president as its salvation
It’s easy for me to forget that power does not only rest on force, but also on lies.
When the president took perpetual power, he didn’t say, of course, that that’s what he was doing. He hid behind a title—’Founder of Peace and Harmony: Leader of the Nation’—and a story about leading the nation to glory against big and greedy world powers.
He gave his people a way to explain away what he was doing. To excuse the power grab as essential, as justified, as normal.
I heard an interview years ago with the head of Cargill, a huge agricultural conglomerate.
One thing he said that stuck with me was that when you become a CEO, the first thing you lose is the ability to think out loud.
As the head of a multi-billion dollar company, your words have consequences. Loose ideas—”Maybe we should look into banning GMOs”; “bringing jobs back from Mexico is an interesting idea”—will spike your stock price, destroy your workers’ morale, remake your suppliers’ operations overnight.
The CEO said this aspect of the job felt like nakedness, like every thought and word was scrutinized. And he’s right, I guess.
As someone who’s always lived in the developed world, this is what power looks like to me. It is careful, restrained. It is those long pauses between words and before answers in Obama press conferences.
When I think about dictatorships, I usually focus on its victims. NGOs ransacked, opposition tortured, citizens running from footsteps in the middle of the night.
But even the worst dictators only make victims of a fraction of their people. They don’t just need fear, they need stories. They need reasons for everyone else, all the people between the boot and the crown, to shrug away what they see around them.
When Hitler wiped Czechoslovakia off the map, he made it a story of a German minority in need of his protection.
When Robert Mugabe liquidated his country’s economy, he told a story of turning back colonialism.
When Enhver Hoxha sent a third of Albania to the Gulag, the story was the need to prevent political dissent, to continue the country’s unilateral focus on development.
The scariest thing about these stories is not that they are lies, but that there is a tiny bit of truth to each of them. Dictatorships do not do away with veracity. They do away with proportionality.
As someone who has never seen this up close, I find it hard sometimes to see the big lie surrounding the small truth. I’ve never been trained in this, never had stakes in knowing how.
I asked my friend how she stayed the whole 18 months in West Africa. How she survived.
“We removed all of our emblems,” she said. They stopped wearing uniforms. Took the stickers off the trucks. “And then,” she said, “we got back to work.”