Possibly the Twilight of Tyranny


September 03, 1991|By RICHARD REEVES

New York. -- It appears that order will be the problem of the New World Order.

There is no doubt now that we are seeing the dawn of a new kind of world. As Prime Minister John Major of Great Britain said Wednesday, we are watching what may be the event of the century. Whether or not this turns out to be more important than World War II, or the splitting of the atom, or the discovery of penicillin, there is no doubt this is big stuff, the real thing in the Soviet Union and points west.

But what is it, exactly, that we are seeing? If ''it'' is the break-up of the Soviet Union, replaced by a new Russia and a litter of new countries, that is an extraordinary event that might be compared with the post-1960 rise of a new Asia led by Japan. If ''it'' is the collapse of communism, that is even more important. But only if we are seeing the beginning of the end of totalitarianism and tyranny are we part of a century event.

The enduring tyranny of this century has depended principally on two things: closed borders and soldiers willing to follow orders to shoot their own people. Of the great countries, only China may have the totalitarian capability to enforce tyranny by the end of the century, nine years from now.

The first totalitarian necessity, closed borders, is not needed to prevent people from getting away as much as it is to prevent people from getting away with anything -- any action or word deemed subversive. Police states succeed on a large scale only if potential dissenters are convinced that their rulers have networks of procedures and informers that will eventually find and punish those who would be free and brave. It takes time to root out dissent and potential rebellion, but closed borders allow state security lifetimes to find dangerous opponents. No matter how inefficient the secret police in a closed society, they will eventually stumble upon men and women who would be heroes.

Once found out, real and potential rebels must be shot down, executed or kept in prison until they are aged or broken. That means not only that elite and privileged police units, like the KGB in the Soviet Union, must be kept happy and enthusiastic in their work, but also that ordinary soldiers must be trained or terrorized to follow orders when people take to the streets. The drama that is reaching its climax now in Moscow really began in Prague three years ago when East German vacationers broke through police lines and stormed the West Germany embassy, seeking asylum there -- and Czech police and soldiers stepped back without firing a shot.

The walls of communism came tumbling down, at least in Eastern Europe, as soon as the people of those countries believed they would not be killed for protesting the abuses, economic, social and physical, of decades of communism. And certainly the shooting was not going to be done on live satellite television. The whole world really is watching now and is capable of isolating countries and leaders whose doings offend the sensibilities of the planet. Who thought the Russian brand of freedom and legitimacy could be saved by direct-dialing George Bush and Diane Sawyer?

It is television, the new weather of the world, that has spread the ideas of the West with astonishing speed and reach. Words such as ''elected'' and ''legitimate'' have became central to the dialogue of power almost instantaneously. There is no way to pervert their meanings as the communists sometimes successfully twisted words such as ''freedom'' and ''democracy'' beyond meaning or recognition in the pre-electronic world.

Now we will see what we have wrought. One of the dangers of this new world is that many people, both in the streets and high office, have only superficial understanding of what they are saying and doing. It is sobering or worse to watch political and ethnic leaders in the Soviet republics scrambling for power, scratching out borders and other lines, as if they were California legislators at reapportionment time.

But California, a far richer place, does not have nuclear weapons scattered all over the state. And California does not have a bloody history of tyranny, terror and pogrom. We, and the British and others, have persuaded the world to talk of the legitimacy of our democratic systems, but we cannot be sure the words and systems mean to others what they mean to us.

The democratic world can only wait and watch and pray that all the astonishing and wonderful drama of the past couple of years will not end with blood and bodies all over the stage of what was once communism and its captives. The best way to do that is to support, generously, all ''democrats'' in the coming year or so. We should avoid choosing between men like Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev -- the idea of the whole thing is that the people of Russia and the Soviet republics are the only ones with legitimate power to make such choices.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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