Texas’ World of Betrayal

The draconian abortion ban will fuel vigilantes and bounty hunters, ready to inform on women, Soviet style

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I held back in my last dispatch on vigilante justice from talking about Texas and its new draconian, dystopian abortion ban that refuses to make exceptions even for women who are raped or suffer incest. Honestly, I wanted a little more time to reflect. But it’s increasingly clear to me that this legislation that outlaws abortions after the fifth week is not only a brutal attempt to control women’s right to control their own bodies—it too is about vigilantism and the growing danger that represents.

To my surprise, that’s just the point President Biden made on Friday in response to a reporter’s question. He said he understood the opposition to abortion, even if he believes in a woman’s right to choose. But “the most pernicious thing about the Texas law—it sort of creates a vigilante system,” he said, adding that “it’s almost un-American.”

What he was referring to, of course, was the portion of the law that deputizes everyone to sue anyone involved in “aiding and abetting” a woman who seeks an abortion—a counselor, a sister who gives her comfort, a friend who lends her money, an Uber driver who transports her, the physician performing the procedure. The vigilante’s bounty? Up to $10,000, plus legal fees.

In my last dispatch, I depicted one of the most bloodthirsty periods of vigilante justice in American history, when the Ku Klux Klan’s Southern reign of terror during Reconstruction largely persisted without federal restraint before the Ku Klux Klan Act and the Department of Justice pursued prosecutions and convictions. So perhaps President Biden was right to modify his point by calling the vigilantism “almost” un-American.

But the more accurate characterization might be to say that the law is almost Soviet—or, worse, almost Stalinist—as citizens of the Soviet Union were encouraged to spy on and inform on their neighbors and even their own family members if they engaged in behavior unacceptable to the state. This created a climate of suspicion and paranoia, where neighbors were genuinely endangered. It was a vigilantism encouraged by the state, a dread-filled world of distrust and betrayal, which succeeded in sending hundreds of thousands of innocent people to the Gulag labor camps and often to their death.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of Pavlik Morozov, who was said to have been killed in 1932 by angry relatives, including his grandfather, after denouncing his father to local authorities. The father’s purported crime? Assisting fugitive kulaks (landowning peasants) who faced persecution and execution by Stalin as the Soviet dictator sought to collectivize farms. As for Pavel’s vengeful relatives: They faced the firing squad.

And Pavlik? He became a folk hero, a martyr and exemplar of the best of communist youth, a shining picture of a Young Pioneer who demonstrated his loyalty to Joseph Stalin and the state by betraying his own family.

Pavlik’s story, a Soviet morality tale and cultural staple, which we have come to learn was more legend than fact, was intended to steel generation after generation against nostalgic family feelings and coerce the populace into serving the state’s purposes over all else.

It’s worth pausing to read New York Times Moscow correspondent Serge Schmemann’s 1982 account of what a climate of informers was like, both those officially armed by the state and those performing “their duty.”

“It is difficult to draw the line between official surveillance and unsolicited informing in a society as controlled and secretive as that of the Soviet Union. Each research institute, factory or government office is presumed to have its resident watchdogs. There are also innumerable free-lancers - the pensioners who report what they view as suspicious doings in their housing projects, the would-be emigre who is promised an early visa if he cooperates with the authorities, the jealous worker who denounces a better-paid colleague in an anonymous letter.

“The endemic distrust often serves in itself as a curb on activities that may be deemed suspicious by the authorities. A prominent Soviet poet, recounting one of his many trips abroad, fell silent or changed the subject each time his maid walked through the room…A dissident writer who works at home said he had been summoned several times to the local police station to explain how he made a living. It turned out that someone had denounced him as a ‘parasite,’ meaning a person seemingly living without earned income.”

In his article, “Soviet ‘Hero’ Informer, 13, Leaves a Bitter Legacy,” Schmemann also recounts the story of “a woman who had denounced so many neighbors that she suffered a paralyzing stroke when she learned that labor camp inmates were being rehabilitated after Stalin's death in 1953 and would be coming home.”

While I’m not about to suggest that Texas is at risk of slipping into this level of degradation, don’t doubt that a law that rewards bounty hunters for spying on and ratting out women seeking an abortion is already creating a world of trouble and fear. This is part and parcel of the sociopathic impulse that’s driving the Republican Party, human decency be damned, with the nasty imprimatur of the US Supreme Court that’s standing back and standing by as state legislators turn back the clock and strip away women’s constitutional rights.

Both Nancy Pelosi and President Biden say they’ll soon pursue federal responses to this attack—including the Women’s Health Protection Act to protect a women’s right to an abortion and a medical provider’s ability to offer abortion services. We can expect that Florida and Arizona are only two of the first states likely to pass copycat versions of the Texas atrocity. And to the Democrats who have hesitated supporting an expansion of the number of Supreme Court justices or passage of the filibuster: Democracy’s clock is ticking.

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