In the late 1970s I had the misfortune to live in a military dictatorship. It was the height of the Dirty War in Argentina, and the dictator, General Jorge Videla, was “disappearing” anyone he perceived to be his opponents by the tens of thousands. The word “perceived” is important because anyone who had ever been in a trade union was on a “list.” Foreigners were not exempt either. A foreign passport was presumed to be an indication that the person might be a guerrilla, or a “delincuente,” the term used by the military — as if the thousands who were dragged off, tortured, and shot were just expendable riffraff.
The Dirty War relied on secret police, who frequented the cafes, mingling with the clientele, listening, watching. Often they were friends, sometimes family members, who were encouraged to spy and tattle. Private citizens were made to turn on one another in a whisper campaign reminiscent of the Nazis, many of whom had made their way to Buenos Aires after the war.
Argentinians developed a system of covert signals when someone new, or someone they suspected was a member of the secret police, approached in order to warn one another. Touching a button (“botón” was slang for police), or a mustache, or an earlobe meant “Be careful. They’re listening.”
I developed the habit of never talking about politics in public. Not even in private for that matter. Someone could be in the next room, in the hall, listening. And that habit stuck with me when I came back to the States. Hearing people talking loudly in restaurants about politics made me want to rush over and tell them to be quiet. In fact, when I returned to Central America a few years later, and was thrust into yet another dictatorship, I would tell American tourists talking about the regime, “Hush up!” They didn’t listen. They felt they were invulnerable — until the Guatemalan dictator, General Ríos Montt, began shooting them.
Nobody is safe in a dictatorship. Everyone is potential prey. These lessons were drilled home. And so, when someone, or more likely, a group of people targeted my blog — an innocuous, apolitical blog about publishing — I felt the same chill that I used to get in Argentina.
Being reported on Facebook is not a major concern. Nothing can come of it. But I have that feeling again. Because not once, but twice in just a few days, my blog has been reported, first as “harmful” and now as “abusive” by “people” on Facebook. And now that old familiar feeling, the feeling of being hunted has returned.
Nothing can come of it. Nobody can harm me. Yet, that chill is not just paranoia. It is an indication that something is seriously amiss when a private citizen, a “nobody” is targeted for publicly saying that in order to protect democracy she did not vote for Trump. It is a dissolution of the sense of safety I have had in this country, my country, which was supposed to be a haven.
Even though I am talking about the Internet, not a public gathering place, I do not want to return to the time when I had to be careful about everything I said, when I had to wonder who was watching, who was listening, who was reporting me. It could be dismissed as a small thing, a private grudge, jealousy perhaps. But I know better.
What I know is that in this country fascism can happen. What I know is that once fascism takes hold, you can’t trust anybody. What I know is that those people in power who ride roughshod over human rights, throwing decency to the winds, must be held accountable. What I know is that we are at a turning point. I feel this in my bones. Ask anyone who lived in Argentina during the 1970s.
Erica Verrillo is the author of the Phoenix Rising Trilogy (Random House). She keeps a blog that provides resources for writers, Publishing … and Other Forms of Insanity. Currently, she is finishing her memoir about her attempt to hitchhike to Antarctica: Lunfardo: A Woman’s Two-Year Solo Trek Through South America. Find her on Twitter @ericaverrillo.