Cruelty is the tyrant’s art. He studies and embraces it. His rule is based on fear, but fear is not enough to stop everyone. Some men and women have great courage ... But the tyrant has ways of countering even this. Among those who do not fear death, some fear torture, disgrace, or humiliation. And even those who do not fear these things for themselves may fear them for their fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, wives, and children. The tyrant uses all these tools. He commands not just acts of cruelty but cruel spectacle ... Pain and humiliation and death become public theater. Ultimately, guilt or innocence doesn’t matter, because there is no law or value beyond the tyrant’s will: if he wants someone arrested, tortured, tried, and executed, that is sufficient. The exercise not only serves as warning, punishment, or purge but also advertises to his subjects, his enemies, and his potential rivals that he is strong. Compassion, fairness, concern for due process or the law, are all signs of indecision. Indecision means weakness. Cruelty asserts strength.
Cruelty was the name of the game in Uganda under Idi Amin in the 1970s. Amin and his military, working hand-in-hand ensured that uncertainty and suspicion permeated every level of society, and relied on random violence, torture, beatings, kidnapings, disappearances and of course murder to make sure there were no misunderstandings. Subtlety was not in Amin’s nature: bodies floating in the Nile and enemy corpses dangling in nooses from tree limbs were the symbolic messages of his terror campaign. Nor did Amin rely expressly on the military. He formed special military groups, including the Public Safety Unit and the Bureau of State Research, both of whom carried out many killings. These organizations were designed to spread fear and eliminate undesirables. These undesirables came from all walks of life: former politicians, farmers, priests, hotel managers, judges, students, anybody. Blanket persecution of your populace ensures no one considers himself “safe” enough to contemplate your ouster.5.2
Equatorial Guinea provides another example. Listed among the world’s worst abusers of human rights, decades of systematic torture have led to a culture of fear and repression that make the incredible commonplace. Manfred Norwak, UN Special Rapporteur on torture, complained after a visit to the nation, “They don’t even hide the torture instruments. It was just on the table.”
Egypt’s infamous State Security Investigations, Mubarak’s feared secret police, were revealed to have employed systematic use of torture when dealing with informants, opposition forces, and dissidents. When Mubarak was pushed from power witnesses came forward with stories of whipping, beating, being left to hang in the air for long periods, electric shocks - especially to the genitals - and more. According to Dr. Mona Hamed, psychiatrist, “Torture is a wide-spread, systemic, routine policy in Egypt through the last 30 years. It is everywhere and in every place in Egypt.” Ethiopia in the time of Mengistu Haile Mariam and the Derg (1974-1987) worked in the same way: parents were frequently imprisoned with their children and forced to watch while their kids’ fingernails were ripped off or their feet beaten to pulp. Parents that avoided that fate could look forward to their children’s tortured, bloody corpses turning up on display near their homes. There is no limit to cruelty, and no lack of examples from which to draw.
But beatings and murder are frankly, not the most effective weapon in your arsenal, as the dead make lousy witnesses and can no longer help spread the message (“Watch out!”). Instead, the dead catalyze intense resentment and strengthen popular will to undo your administration. Rather than cutting straight to the chase, focus your efforts on the non-lethal means that keep people unwilling to raise their voices, travel, organize, or complain. Other features of Amin’s rule of fear included the random use of roadblocks, the persistent presence of armed guards in public places, the withholding of identification papers with little or no reason, and the imprisonment of foreigners. The diversity of these methods may also help achieve your goal of cowing a populace via methods of terror: relying exclusively on heavy-handed military tactics may bring short-term gains at the expense of sustained levels of fear in your country.
Paraguay’s Alfredo Stroessner, with a military background and a penchant for cultivating just this atmosphere of cold sweats and shifty eyes, excelled at steeping Paraguay in a fear that lasted for decades. Headless bodies were frequently seen floating down the Parana river. In fact, writes Diana Schemo,
Paraguay’s security forces became so efficient at intimidating potential opposition figures that eventually fear itself - fear of arrest, torture, exile, and murder - became one of his prime levers for staying in power.
Once fear outpaces your actual imposition of repression, you have succeeded.