During my attempt at the 100DaysToOffload challenge, I penned an article, and then thought better of posting it. Instead choosing to write about discretion being The Better Part of Valour. In hindsight I wonder if it would have created the backlash I perceived. But on reflection, they were extraordinary days with mass looting, the burning of shops and cars, and general destruction of anything that represented a mindset that had not drunk the Kool-Aid and embraced the zeitgeist.
But with time comes perspective. Though I should stress, not always wisdom — quite the contrary in many cases. The perspective of presentism that is often brought to events of the past sees commentators regularly do harm to the historic record by trying to rewrite our understanding to condemn what they revile. Displaying little care for veracity regarding the accuracy of their claims, so long as everyone joins with them in moral condemnation of events — usually for current political gain. Such efforts are little better than the airbrushing of memory.
Donald Trump is infamous for his use of the term ‘fake news’ and is leveraging all the weight of his social media presence to bring pressure to bear on what is clearly a politically motivated case. No, this is by no means a defence of his egregious tactics, much less his Presidency — such individuals only weaken one of the great institutions of the West. It is only to observe that because an individual is a disgrace it does not mean that any and all tactics should be brought to bear. For we become less human when we adopt the tactics of our enemies.
However, his recent arrangement has resurfaced calls to defund the police — yet again. In the case of Trump, his ire is directed at the FBI. In this context, it is worth revisiting the phenomenon of defunding law enforcement though the vehicle of a brief history of policing and why we embark upon a dangerous road when we seek to tear up the laws, or the institutions which enforce them, simply because we perceive an injustice. The TL;DR is that the removal of enforcement mechanism of justice is no remedy for a failure of justice.
If I have observed one thing in recent times, it is the general sense that there has been a failure of policing. Activists protesting insert name of atrocity seem united in their condemnation of the police and their tactics. Opponents of the activists are equally vociferous in their lambasting of the police for failing to control ‘the mob’. No matter which way you look at it, police popularity seems to be at something of a low ebb with even the usually excoriated politicians enjoying something of a bump in the polls when compared to the men and women in blue.
Historically, the purpose of a police force was to punish criminals. An example of this can be seen in ancient Babylon where officers known as paqūdus were appointed to investigate, after a crime had taken place, and to arrest those responsible. In Sub-Saharan Africa, during the Songhai Empire, officials known as assara-munidios [enforcers] were appointed to act as police. Again, with the purpose of prosecuting or punishing crimes after the event.
This is a trend which has continued, on and off, throughout the history of policing and is arguably at the root of the present discontents. Officer is appointed to prosecute a criminal, in time, said office shifts from prosecuting to persecuting. Atrocity occurs, society demands action to redress the failing.
As an alternative approach to pure detection, the notion of a preventative system gained momentum in the late eighteenth century and could be summarised by the words of John Fielding: ‘it is much better to prevent even one man from being a rogue than apprehending and bringing forty to justice.’ A clarion call which was later promoted by the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham:
It is better to prevent crimes than to punish them. This is the chief aim of every good system of legislation, which is the art of leading men to the greatest possible happiness or to the least possible misery, according to calculation of all the goods and evils of life.
Sadly, for the modern force, methodology today arguably owes more to Weber than Bentham and as a result could be said to have as its core purpose:
[to ensure a] monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force [das Monopol legitimen physischen Zwanges] in the enforcement of its order.
A loose reading of Marxist theory doubles down on this concept but adds the twist that in addition to punishing crime, the police are there to subjugate the working class.
Looking at rows of tenement housing, soaring crime rates wherever poverty abounds, and the tendency of modern police forces to travel armed (often appearing as heavily as soldiers), and it is little wonder the hyper-negative views of the police get traction and calls to defund the police rise to a loud chorus in the popular press.
The solution is to heed the calls. Defund the police and engage in a massive and dangerous social experiment. Or rather, that is the silver bullet solution. Would that we lived in a Voltaire play and it was the best of all possible worlds. Unfortunately, reality is less prosaic and instead we get to choose between stuffed — steadily working on reforming a broken system — and really stuffed — tearing up the laws, scrapping the institutions and starting again from day zero. As an historian, I am unable to find an example in human history where that achieved the much desired utopia. But the long litany of dystopias which have arisen should make us think more than twice before embarking on yet another ‘peoples revolution.’ As Robert Bolt put it in his 1960 screenplay A Man for All Seasons:
Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law?
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And, when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you – where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast – man’s laws, not God’s – and, if you cut them down – and you’re just the man to do it – d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.
Good night, and good luck.
Photo by Matt Popovich on Unsplash.