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Giuliani's Authoritarianism Is Wearing Thin

by Steve Chapman

He didn't suddenly become mean, vindictive and paranoid yesterday -- he's been that way all along
Last month, an exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art featuring the recorded sounds of marching jackboots likened New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to the Nazis. This depiction, a reaction to the mayor's effort last year to close down an art exhibit that he deemed offensive to Catholics, was unfair. Really unfair. Deeply unfair.

Sure, he's contemptuous of civil liberties, fiercely intolerant of criticism, venomous toward his enemies, fanatical in pursuing tough law enforcement no matter what the cost, utterly blind to police abuses, and irresistibly attracted to nasty tactics. But any fair reading of all the evidence would lead to the conclusion that he is not, in fact, a Nazi. And boy, isn't that a relief?

What he is -- an American-style authoritarian -- is bad enough. If any big-city mayor in the country has a more consistent record of hostility to such values as tolerance, compromise, constitutional principle and simple fair play, I don't know who it is. That approach has often been on gaudy display, but never more than after the recent shooting of an unarmed black man by an undercover police detective taking part in a drug sting operation.

The mayor, who often conducts himself as though he were not mayor of all the city but head of the Fraternal Order of Police, promptly blamed the deceased for getting himself killed. In Giuliani's view, the victim wasn't "an altar boy," but someone with "a pretty bad record," even though he had only two convictions for disorderly conduct.

At the same time, Giuliani proudly saluted the cop for putting "his life on the line in the middle of the night to protect the safety and security of this city" -- neglecting to mention that this model officer had once shot a neighbor's dog and had been disciplined for pulling a gun during an off-duty barroom fight.

The mayor's bizarre offensive was too much, even for most of the people who elected him. A recent poll found that 60 percent of New Yorkers disapprove of Giuliani's handling of the matter.

But what did they expect? He didn't suddenly become mean, vindictive and paranoid yesterday -- he's been that way all along. He has an unblemished record of sacrificing all other concerns to his priorities, even when it means trampling on the Constitution, individual rights, innocent human life or simple decency. And despite running afoul of the courts and antagonizing most New Yorkers, he shows no sign of willingness to change his approach.

For his entire administration, he has been at war with freedom of speech -- and he's been losing badly. Since the mayor took office in 1994, the New York Civil Liberties Union has gone to court 25 times to challenge actions by his administration on First Amendment grounds. In those cases, the NYCLU reports, it has won victories in 19, with two still unresolved.

Just last week, a federal judge handed Giuliani a major defeat by ruling that he had unfairly limited access to the steps of City Hall, a once-popular spot for rallies and news conferences, in an effort to keep out unwanted messages. As one of the people suing the city said, "The mayor wanted to make it difficult for people to get exposure for publicly criticizing his administration."

Sometimes he takes his paranoia to comical lengths -- as when the city transit authority tried to ban bus ads for New York magazine that called the publication "possibly the only good thing in New York Rudy hasn't taken credit for." (A federal court ruled against him.) No opposition is too small or insignificant for the mayor to try to suppress. But lately, no one is laughing.

If there is any strain of political extremism that bears a resemblance to his thinking, it's not Nazism but old-fashioned authoritarianism, of the sort embodied in countless undemocratic regimes around the world. This approach is defended by its practitioners as essential for protecting public safety, maintaining order, promoting prosperity and upholding wholesome values, and Giuliani preaches the same sermon.

For years, his constituents felt grateful to the mayor for falling crime and took the view that you can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs. But even New Yorkers can't be indifferent when unarmed people start getting killed by the cops, or when the city wastes huge sums of money in pigheaded court battles.

As NYCLU executive director Norman Siegel says, residents have noticed that other cities have managed to become safer in recent years without turning their police into an occupying army and without silencing dissent. They have begun to see that, as he puts it, "you can have effective law enforcement and respect for civil liberties."

Well, yes, you can. But only if you want to.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor April 17, 2000 (

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