On the evening of Feb 27, 1933, the building of the German parliament house known as the Reichstag was engulfed in flames.

American foreign correspondent William L Shirer was there in Berlin, and he recalled later in his magnum opus, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich - A History of Nazi Germany :

"That it was a crime, a communist crime, they (Nazi leaders) proclaimed at once on arrival at the fire. Goering, sweating and puffing and quite besides himself with excitement, was already there ahead of them declaiming to heaven ... that 'this is a communist crime against the new government'. To the new Gestapo chief, Rudolf Diels, Goering shouted, 'This is the beginning of the communist revolution! We must not wait a minute. We will show no mercy. Every communist official must be shot, where he is found. Every communist deputy must this very night be strung up."

Shirer also concludes that:

"The whole truth about the Reichstag fire will probably never be known. Nearly all those who knew it are now dead, most of them slain by Hitler in the months that followed. Even at (the) Nuremburg (trial of war crimes and crimes against humanity of the Nazis) the mystery could not be entirely unraveled, though there is enough evidence to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that it was the Nazis who planned the arson and carried it out for their own political ends."

Whoever did it was immaterial to Hitler and his fellow Nazis who had been finding excuses to impose a totalitarian dictatorship.

On Feb 28, a day after the Reichstag fire, the elected new chancellor, Adolf Hitler, promulgated a state of emergency signed by the ailing, malleable and weak president, Paul von Hindenburg.

The emergency decree severely curbed civil liberty, including freedom of opinion and freedom of the press, and it was later consolidated and extended to more areas of the national life of the German nation, giving birth to the Third Reich which finally ended tragically.

The parliamentary opposition, German Social Democratic Party supported Hitler because of its short-sighted and sectarian competition with the communists, and of its petty preoccupation with preserving the perks and privileges of its elected members of parliaments.

About two weeks later on March 13, Dr Joseph Goebbels was appointed minister for popular enlightenment and propaganda to churn out intensive and massive propaganda for the next 12 years to brainwash Germans to accept and support the regime.

Finally, all dissidents, including the social democrats who hated the communists, and many Christians who disliked the Jews, communists and homosexuals, were suppressed politically and physically together with homosexuals, Jews, Gypsies and 'foreign agents'.

Later, Hitler's strong but naive supporter, Ernst Roehm and his followers were bloodily purged on June 30, 1934 in the infamous 'Night of the Long Knive'.

Forever vigilant

We are of course living in a different time and space, but we should be forever vigilant against any attempt by any quarters to exploit the fear and psychological insecurity of our societies to impose totalitarianism, authoritarianism or dictatorship. We must also be vigilant against any attempt to divide and rule.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Washington and New York City, there is certainly a genuine fear and a sense of psychological insecurity among us human beings.

There is also a genuine need to tighten up security in airports and seaports, and for more tactical and strategic cooperation among the intelligence and security communities regionally and even internationally.

It is not wrong for anyone to be more security-conscious as long as security-consciousness does not degenerate into pathological paranoia or neurosis, and/or blind and unquestioning support for opportunistic authoritarianism.

If there are really terrorists or potential terrorists in our midst, they must be looking for a political situation where the people feel oppressed and alienated in an authoritarian environment where there is no more freedom of speech and the press to air grievances peacefully, no more meaningful participation in the liberal democratic process, and no more protection of basic human rights and dignity like open trial.

Only in such situations and atmosphere could terrorists find excuses and 'reasons' to justify their acts with a 'clear conscience'.

Thus, while we may not necessarily agree with the politics of former Umno member of parliament, Ibrahim Ali, we should sincerely and honestly commend the Kelantan People's Action Council under his leadership for expressing three equally important messages, namely "terrorism, not the Islamic way", "No attack on civil liberties" and "No to racism".

As a matter of fact, the Youth section of the Federation of Chinese Assembly Hall in its recent annual meet, passed resolutions calling on the authorities to deal with terrorism firmly but only according to the Penal Code and Criminal Procedural Code, and also to abolish the Internal Security Act (1960).

Never mind the widespread perception that the federation is pro-government or pro-MCA. The resolutions, deserve multi partisan support and appreciation.

Regrettable defence

Against the background of these unexpected support for civil liberties and human rights, the defence of the Internal Security Act by Gerakan president, Dr Lim Keng Yaik is regrettable.

Gerakan has always prided itself in being the 'conscience' of the nation and the Barisan Nasional as well as being a party of 'rational intellectuals'.

How can the thinking of "rational intellectuals" be lagging behind Ibrahim Ali and the socially conservative Federation of the Chinese Assembly Halls?

Gerakan has certainly reasons to re-examine its position which could be construed and perceived as nothing but short-sighted and muddle-headed opportunism.

On the other hand, while it is only right for the opposition to be vigilant against secular authoritarianism searching for religious scapegoats, it should not confuse any security-consciousness and security measures to deal with terrorism, with the McCarthyist witch-hunt.

While the opposition must continue to inspire the people to struggle for democracy, human rights and civil liberties within the framework of parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy, it should also condemn terrorism.

JAMES WONG WING ON is chief analyst of Strategic Analysis Malaysia (SAM) which produces the subscriber-based political report, Analysis Malaysia. James is a former member of parliament (1990-1995) and a former columnist for the Sin Chew Jit Poh Chinese daily. He read political science and economics at the Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. While in Sin Chew , he and a team of journalists won the top awards of Malaysian Press Institute (MPI) for 1998 and 1999.

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