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(Naomi Wolf is the author of “The End of America — Letters of Warning to a Young Patriot,” an amazing book that discusses, among other things, the implications of the growth of paramilitary forces like Blackwater. She’ll be here for the Book Salon on Oct. 14 — JH)

The New York Times reported today that Blackwater, the infamous organization that has been accused of killing civilians in Iraq, “has been involved in a far higher rate of shootings while guarding American diplomats in Iraq than other security firms.” A mercenary firm in Iraq with an itchy trigger finger is bad enough. But it now appears that Blackwater’s activities may be massively expanded — and not in Iraq.

In little noticed news, Blackwater, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Arinc were recently awarded a collective $15 billion — yes, billion — from the Pentagon to conduct global counter-narcotics operations. This means that Blackwater can be deployed to engage with citizens on a whole new level of intimacy anywhere around the world — including here at home. What is scarier than scary is that Blackwater’s overall plans are to do more and more of its armed and dangerous ‘security’ operations on U.S. soil.

In my recently released book, The End of America — Letters of Warning to a Young Patriot, I describe the 10 steps that would-be tyrants use to close down a democracy and produce a “fascist shift.” The third of the ten steps is to ‘Develop a Paramilitary Force.’ Without a paramilitary force that is not answerable to the people’s representatives, democracy cannot be closed down; however, with such a force available to would-be despots, democracy can be drastically and quickly weakened.

Every effective despot — from Mussolini to Hitler, Stalin, the members of the Chinese Politburo, General Augusto Pinochet and the many Latin American dictators who learned from these models of controlling citizens — has used this essential means to pressure civilians and intimidate dissent. Mussolini was the innovator in the use of thugs to intimidate what was a democracy, if a fragile one, before he actually marched on Rome; he developed the strategic deployment of blackshirts to beat up communists and opposition leaders, trash newspapers and turn on civilians, forcing ordinary Italians, for instance, to ingest emetics. Hitler studied Mussolini; he deployed thugs — in the form of brownshirts — in similar ways before he came formally to power.

In light of these historical warning, we must ask, “What is Blackwater?” According to reporter Jeremy Scahill, the firm has 2,300 private soldiers deployed in nine countries, and maintains a database of an additional 21,000 to call upon at any time. Blackwater has over “$500 million in government contracts — and that does not include its secret ‘black’ budget…” [It also did not include, at the time Scahill’s wrote this description, the massive anti-narcotics contract described above.] One congressman pointed out that in terms of its manpower, Blackwater can overthrow “many of the world’s governments.” Recruiters for the company seek out former military from countries that have horrific human rights abuses and use secret police and paramilitary forces to terrify their own populations: Chileans, Peruvians, Nigerians, and Salvadorans.

Blackwater is coming home to Main Street, and one of our key constitutional protections is at stake. The future for growth is directed at increased deployment in the US in cases of natural disaster — or in the event of a ‘public emergency.’ This is a very dangerous situation, of course, now that laws have been passed that let the President decide on his say-so alone what a ‘public emergency’ might be.

The Department of Homeland Security hired these same Blackwater contractors to patrol the streets of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina — for a contract valued at about $73 million. Does Blackwater’s reputation for careless violence against civilians in Iraq, protected by legal indemnification, matter to us? Scahill reports at least one private contractor’s accounts of other contractors’ abrupt shooting in the direction of American civilians in the wake of Katrina: “After that, all I heard was moaning and screaming, and the shooting stopped.”

How protected is Blackwater from prosecution for its crimes? The company’s lawyers have argued that Blackwater can’t be held accountable by the Uniform Code of Military Justice, because they aren’t part of the US military; but they can’t be sued in civil court, either — because they are part of the US military.

Does this affect the strength of our democracy? Look at how history shows thug groups have been directed at intimidating voters. Americans need to be reminded that both Italy before Mussolini and Germany before Hitler were working, if fragile, parliamentary democracies. Thugs were used in both countries to intimidate voters exercising their rights. Mussolini’s fascists stood menacingly near voting booths to make sure citizens ‘voted responsibly’; William Shirer wrote that the Austrians voted 99% in favor of their country’s annexation by Germany — not surprising, he observed, since intimidating groups of brownshirts looked through a wide slit in the voting booth where the election committee did its work. The oddly specific scene of groups of identically dressed young men — later identified as Republican staffers — crowding and shouting at the vote counters in Florida in 2000 has strong historical precedents.

The Founders knew from their own experience of standing armies, responsive only to a tyrant, how dangerous such a situation was; King George’s men — armed with blanket warrants — invaded the colonists’ homes, trashed their possessions, and even raped Colonial women. It was that bitter experience that led them to insist on the second amendment — ‘a well regulated militia’ that was responsive to the people and could not be deployed against the people of the United States by would-be despots. The founders knew that American tyranny was not only possible, it was likely, in the event of weakened checks and balances; and they knew a mercenary army was the advance guard of despots.

Blackwater is available to anyone who can write the checks. If there is a need to ‘restore public order’ in the next Presidential election — a power that the President now can define as he sees fit — Blackwater can be deployed. If the President declares an emergency, Blackwater can be deployed. And history shows us how very quickly citizen dissent and democratic processes close down when physically intimidating men — who are armed and not answerable to the people — are abroad in the land.

Those who read history should understand what we are more and more likely to see — now that a paramilitary force answerable to Bush and corporations like Halliburton but not to the people’s representatives is in place. Mussolini and Hitler began to deploy their paramilitary to patrol key public spaces early — when Italy and Germany were still parliamentary democracies and neither leader had yet seized power. These leaders deployed their paramilitary groups in the halls of Parliament and the Reichstag when these were still functioning representative democracies, thus intimidating the people’s political leaders. Then the paramilitary groups were deployed to violently contain opposition protests — again, in what were still open, if fragile, democratic societies at the time.

(According to `the blueprint’ described in my book, unless people wake up in time, we in America are likely to see a call for a `security requirement’ for Blackwater to be deployed to `protect’ Congress and to be deployed around voting areas `to maintain public order’, and, unless we intervene, we will see them start to do crowd control when there are antiwar marches or other demonstrations. Then, again according to historical models, protesters will increasingly start to get hurt for `resisting arrest’ or for `provocations.’)

Because, to my sorrow, I know `the blueprint’, I was sad but not at all surprised when a horrified friend who works in downtown New York City told me that armed private contractors — who look like members of the NYPD but who are not answerable to any government entity — have been placed around the U.S. stock exchange. I went down to check it out. Indeed, Wall Street and the entire periphery of the Stock Exchange was like a militarized zone in the hands of what was not evident to onlookers as being in fact a private army: there were barricades; three immense trucks parked to deter and investigate pedestrians; armed dog handlers with their big dogs on tightly held leashes — all of this looks like government security but it isn’t. The company, hired, the guards said, by the stock exchange itself, is neutrally called `T & M.’ (More investigation of such companies is called for.)

I went up to a guard and, chatting sweetly, established from him that, indeed, none of these men were NYPD or even US government agents.

“That’s really big gun,” I remarked admiringly of his massive firearm, encased in leather. “What kind is it?”

“It’s a Glock,” said the contractor, with shy pride.

“Heavens!,” I said. “What kind of guidelines does the company give you for shooting?”

“Use our discretion,” he said. I thanked him, my heart racing.

In Iraq, men with guns not answerable to the people’s law or government can shoot at will at Iraqi civilians. That is not freedom. As Blackwater or other renamed versions of paramilitary contractors, sometimes with intimate ties to this administration and to Halliburton, start to patrol the streets of our nation, without our debate or consent, we can easily wake up to find that we have a National Guard that is supposed to be answerable to governors, and a Congress that is supposed to oversee the military — but it’s too late anyway; the guns in our streets are already in the hands of people who are answerable to those writing the checks — and no longer answerable to the now-vulnerable American people.

Blackwater’s actions in Iraq should be a wake-up call to us here at home — to restore the constitution and the rule of law before we are too intimidated to do so.

(Portions of this post appeared originally on Powell’s Book Blog.)