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Our 9-11

8 September 2008

Think about it for a minute.  The “9-11” attacks in the United States were the perfect excuse for a conservative administration — with niggling popularity, and serious questions about its very legitimacy — to seize the national agenda, taking measures that radicalized social control, creating or expanding federal paramilitary units and curtailing normal civil rights in the name of “national security.”  Not that I think there was some kind of conspiracy involved, but only that conservative states seek to preserve the status quo, and when there is popular clamor for an immediate response to a perceived threat (like “terrorism” in the United States and Great Britain; organized crime here and in Colombia) , the state seeks ways to stamp out not just the immediate problem, but any threat to the existing order of things.

Two unrelated foreign news items show why we need to take a deep breath before we plunge into this anti-crime crusade in Mexico:

From Great Britain (Telegraph) comes a report on novel uses for anti-terrorism laws:

An investigation by The Sunday Telegraph found that three quarters of local authorities have used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) 2000 over the past year.

The Act gives councils the right to place residents and businesses under surveillance, trace telephone and email accounts and even send staff on undercover missions. …

The RIPA was introduced to help fight terrorism and crime. But a series of extensions, first authorised by David Blunkett in 2003, mean that Britain’s 474 councils can use the law to tackle minor misdemeanours.

Councils are using the Act to tackle dog fouling, the unauthorised sale of pizzas and the abuse of the blue badge scheme [handicapped parking stickers] for disabled drivers.

The Los Angeles Times tut-tuts over human rights abuses in Colombia:

Although the Colombian military has long been plagued by criminality and corruption, its recent successes against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, have diverted attention from its own wrongdoing. But according to a coalition of Colombian human rights groups, the military is killing civilians at an alarming pace — more than 300 in the last year. Worse, according to the New York-based Fellowship of Reconciliation, 47% of the extrajudicial killings were committed by army units that had been vetted by the U.S. State Department. Such troops are supposed to be the best trained and most sensitive to human rights, making them eligible for U.S. military aid, technology and training.

Collateral damage can be expected in any wide-scale military conflict…

The LA Times editorial (sombrero tip to “Bloggings By Boz”) was bemoaning the “misuse” of Plan Colombia funding, but both in Britain and in Colombia, we see the inevitable use of laws meant to cure great — but undefined — ills being used to resolve minor political and social frictions. While Britain is a country where people expect the state to maintain the status quo in the name of stability (and, in the process, becoming one of the most intrusive states on the planet), and in Colombia, the forty-plus years of civil war built up a tolerance for violent resolution to conflict, the power of the state isn’t much used in resolving interpersonal disputes, though it is used for political ones, or to stamp out social dissent.

As I wrote in a short booklet for Mexico City teachers a few years ago

Unlike the U.S. and Canada, you do not call the cops for minor annoyances (barking dogs, loud parties, etc.) or even for minor incidents. Neighbors will reason with the local drunk, threaten the local peeping tom. And sometimes the police are not even called after serious incidents. When an intoxicated suburban bus driver killed a child, the neighbors torched the bus – then took the drivers to jail themselves. In another bus accident, friends of the family injured by a bus didn’t go to court: they stole a few buses and only gave them back when the company agreed to pay medical bills and compensation to the injured family.

It isn’t a perfect world, and I don’t pretend that holding a bus as collateral is a good thing. It was justice (of a rough sort), and could be conceivably considered kidnapping. Recently, protest leaders at one particularly rough demonstration — between flower vendors and the local authorities (yes, I said flower vendors) — were given an additional 45 year sentence on top of their already excessive 67 years.

TECHNICALLY, there was a kidnapping — officials were threatened and it wasn’t acceptable behavior on the part of the protesters — but this was not really what people protested against recently.  This was just the state using the law to ruthlessly wipe out a dissident movement.  That of course is overkill, but any dissent or social movement — or unpopular person — could be targeted.  One thinks of the anti-abortion protesters in the United States who were targeted under criminal laws meant to seize assets from organized criminals (“RICO” laws), or the continual stories you hear of kids having their autos siezed by local police under “drug profit forfeiture” laws.

If countries with very good, well-educated and generally civilized police (Great Britain) can use state power to resolve very minor problems like pooping pooches… and militarized ones will use state power to settle old scores (like in Colombia)… then we should worry when there are serious proposals — and likely to come to fruition — to nationalize the police.

Where the Atenco protesters did have the forces of both the State of Mexico and the Federal government against them, there was an extreme reaction.  In Oaxaca, dissident teachers’ strikes escalated to the point where federal authorites were needed (not to resolve the dispute, but to squash the dissent).  But, that, perhaps, was an anomoly.  Normally, local dissent — like the situation at the Autonomous University of Guadalajara (more on that later, but here is David Agren’s overview from The News) — is resolved locally.  I won’t be solved to everyone’s satisfaction, but since it involves two equally matched factions within the local power elite, its unlikely to become a national issue.

Under a Colombia model, or — as in Britian and the United States where disputes are spun into issues involving “terrorism” — one faction or the other would appeal to the “higher power”,  In disputes where the two sides are unequal … say farmers fighting over water rights, or in labor disputes like in Oaxaca, the dissenters are by definition the ones who don’t have the power of the state behind them.  At a local level they have a chance to create change, or work out a compromise.  Not if federal laws are brought against them.  And,  when a higher level of control is imposed, one can expect more “collateral damage”.

Certainly, police reforms and better security are politically popular right now, but does just bumping a series of local problems to a national level solve the problems, or does it just put power out of reach of the local citizens.  I’d rather have the locals beat up a bad cop now and again to having federal cops shoot, or send to prison, the neighbors who resent getting pushed around.  It bothers me that rather than deal with hunger, and look at why a 19 year old held up a grocery for milk and pampers (a local crime here a few months ago), the kid will be a federally charged kidnapper.

It’s a foreigner’s luxury to compare and contrast, but I would hate to see Mexico end up like the United States where concern about drug use led to a legal situation where very minor narcotics sellers clog the overcrowded prisons and create a huge convict population.  And the streets are no safer as a result.

I’m hopeful about a lot of the proposed legal and court changes (especially the court changes, which I think are the single most important reform in the last 10 years) but I don’t want a society where the status quo is imposed from the outside, and people’s liberties are sold out and squashed in the name of “security.”  That is not reform but repression.

One Comment leave one →
  1. MaryOGrady permalink
    8 September 2008 5:16 pm

    “One thinks of the anti-abortion protesters in the United States who were targeted under criminal laws meant to seize assets from organized criminals (”RICO” laws)”
    The antiabortionists who got into trouble under the RICO statutes engaged in well-documented conspiracies across state lines to intimidate and harass abortion clinic patients and to vandalize abortion clinics, up to and including fire-bombing them. These groups had excellent public relations operations which depicted them as peaceful prayer warriors, but those of us who served as escorts to take patients and doctors and nurses through their blockades can testify to their readiness to assault anybody who did not agree with their forcible veto of legal medical procedures.
    Joseph Scheidler of Chicago, the most notorious and self-promoting of these antiabortionists, delighted in taking group photos in joke 1920’s gangster attire at meetings which gathered clinic blockaders from all over the country. In his book Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion, he also gloated over reports that his mobs could raise complication rates for abortion patients by as much as 400% by wholesome tricks such as sneaking up under clinic windows silently and then suddenly making a loud noise; if a physician’s hand slipped, that was just collateral damage as far as he and his gentle colleagues were concerned. (And those of us who were just in for a Pap smear or to have an IUD placed– we deserved a perforated uterus just for setting foot in such an evil place.)
    Perhaps one thinks of the anti-abortion protesters in the United States who were targeted under criminal laws meant to seize assets from organized criminals (”RICO” laws) because those anti-abortion protesters were in fact organized criminals.

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