The lasting dangers to a free society don’t stem from hoodies or looters – not even from no-go areas. The Economist‘s Lexington column, not directly related or not necessarily intending to relate to this issue, as it was published some three months before the Birmingham, London, and Manchester riots erupted, pointed to America and had this to say, under a headline which read
Save the fourth amendment
It is only a mile or so from the colonnade of the Supreme Court to some of Washington, DC’s most dangerous neighbourhoods. But these two parts of the nation’s capital could be in different countries. On any given night, armed police prowl north-east Washington in search of guns or drugs. So routine are these patrols that black men sitting on stoops or standing on corners will reflexively lift their T-shirts when the police approach, to show that they have no pistol tucked into their waistbands. Often the police will frisk them anyway, and search their cars as well. You might almost forget, in light of these encounters, that the fourth amendment to the constitution establishes the right of the American people to be “secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”
Large-scale riots in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois erupted six years ago, when three boys who rightly or wrongly believed that they were being chased by the police reportedly tried to hide in a power substation, where two of them were fatally electrocuted.
There are no easy answers when it comes to the challenges of social tensions on the one hand, and civil liberties and human rights on the other. But one of the immediate answers given to the Clichy riots should have disqualified the man who uttered. His answer should have disqualified him, in the eyes of the voters, from any further career in national politics:
“Dès demain, on va nettoyer au Karcher la cité. On y mettra les effectifs nécessaires et le temps qu’il faudra, mais ça sera nettoyé” (From toorrow, we will clean the city up with a Kärcher. We will make the deployments as needed, and spend the time it will take, but this will be cleaned up),
Nicolas Sarkozy, then France’s interior minister, said on June 19, 2005, referring to the rioters as racaille (probably best translated as rabble). He assumed the office of president of the French Republic on May 16, 2007, barely two years later.
That the French people voted Sarkozy in doesn’t in itself provide an answer to the question of social tensions, and a public desire for law and order on the one hand, and human rights and civil liberties on the other. But I do see the French presidential vote of 2007 as a vote against the latter, and only seemingly for law and order.
Quite erroneously, Americans, French, Germans, and many Britons, too, seem to believe that abuse of state power will “only” be directed against black or colored people (see the Economist quote at the beginning of this post), against Maghrebians (see Sarkozy), or against justifiable targets in a “war on gangs” (Britain this month).
Not so fast. The Writing Baron, a Briton living in Taiwan, and most probably no particularly “anti-social” contemporary, describes some earlier unpleasant encounters with the British police (see ii. Police and some personal experience).
Encounters with German police can be pretty unpleasant, too – and there isn’t much reason to expect these to become nicer in the future.
Courage is the price that Life exacts for granting peace, Amelia Earhart, an American pilot, wrote early last century. It won’t be the courage of our political leaders alone – if at all – which will lead to both peace and freedom in our societies. Liberty and peace will depend on each of us, personally.
But in certain cases, just a minimal sense of fairness and decency, or mere judgment, could prove helpful, too. Nicolas Sarkozy shouldn’t be the president of the French Republic. That much is for sure.