Fear – A Dictator’s Tool Commentary
Fear – A Dictator’s Tool

Thomas Jefferson is reported to have said: “When government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.”

I have investigated and prosecuted dictators and their henchmen for most of my professional life. I have studied their lives, personalities, their rise to power and how they governed once achieving that power. The one common theme in their theories of governance is fear. It is easier to govern and dictate to citizens through fear.

As Hannah Arendt wrote in her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “A fundamental difference between modern dictatorships and all other tyrannies of the past is that terror is no longer used as a means to exterminate and frighten opponents, but as an instrument to rule masses of people who are perfectly obedient.” The infamous dictators of the twentieth century, such as Stalin, Hitler, and Mao Tse-tung among others, understood this all too well. Their theory was that a frightened populace will allow their government to take drastic measures to protect them without protest, usually from perceived evil that threatens their society or country externally.

This object, person or peoples, religion or culture which focuses their fear is what I call their boogeyman. These boogeymen threaten their way of life and only the men in power have the capacity to address the threat. In a perverse way they tell their frightened citizens “We may have to take away your liberties, even kill some of you, to protect you from that boogeyman.” Over ninety million of those frightened citizens died at the hands of their own dictatorial governments in the twentieth century.

As the twentieth century morphed into the twenty-first century mankind pushed back and began to hold dictators, tyrants, and thugs accountable. With the advent of modern international criminal law, mankind created international courts and tribunals, which include a permanent international criminal court, to seek justice for victims of those who rule by fear. This movement lasted around twenty-five years. This age of accountability is wavering today.

With a rapidity that was shocking, this age of accountability gave way to the age of the strongman. International order and cooperation also gave way to a new populism that rejected the concept of international peace and security through the United Nations Charter for a more inward domestic nationalism, not seen since the late 1920’s and the early 1930’s.

The rise of strongmen across the globe in the past several years in Russia, China, Syria, Iran, Israel, Turkey, Venezuela, Hungary, the Philippines along with other longer term dictatorships from the twentieth century, has been astonishing and threatens the global order put in place after the Second World War. Even the cornerstone country of that world order, the United States, is toying with this populism.

In similar ways, each of the modern era strongmen rose to power and maintained that power through a boogeyman, that proverbial threat from the outside. They stoke a real or imagined fear of holding up that threat in order to remain in power and to get their frightened citizens to acquiesce. Why do they all consistently use fear as their modus operandi? Because it works…almost every time.

Our current President, a distant and envious admirer of these strongmen campaigned on this populism and once in power began manufacturing existential threats by Muslims, brown people of all sorts, terrorists and rapists all clamoring to “invade” us along our southern border. Hence “the wall” that had frozen our federal government in place until recently (and reportedly may do so again).

To counter his boogeyman, this President is threatening to invoke emergency powers and step around the people’s branch, our Congress, to get what he wants. Having studied tyranny in all it’s aspects, most dictators begin to seize absolute power by using the law to invoke emergency powers to protect the citizens from the proverbial outside boogeyman. The problem is the emergency which justified the seizure of power “remains” and the dictator places a stranglehold around the liberties of the populace which tightens until they wake up one morning with that liberty gone.

Fear can also be a good thing. It sharpens one’s focus and brings a populace together to fight against the threat. We are not at the point in this country where we are hapless. The Constitution, as the great gyroscope that provides balance for our Republic from any challenges that rock our government back and forth, should be our rallying point to counter this President’s fear mongering. We should not be afraid to step forward under law to stop this madness.

Nelson Mandela had it right: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”


David M. Crane was the Founding Chief Prosecutor of the International War Crimes Tribunal in West Africa, called the Special Court for Sierra Leone. He is the Founder of the Syrian and Yemeni Accountability Projects and Principal of Justice Consultancy, LLC. Professor Crane is also a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Syracuse University College of Law.

Suggested citation: David M. Crane, Fear – A Dictator’s Tool, JURIST – Academic Commentary, Jan. 29, 2019, http://jurist.org/forum/2019/01/crane-fear-dictators-tool/

This article was prepared for publication by Tim Zubizarreta, a JURIST Staff Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him/her at commentary@jurist.org

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