Monday, February 27, 2006

Law & Order

George Will yesterday, arguing that Iraq is now in "civil war".

Now, does Iraq have a government? Let me just postulate the question. A government exists when it has a reasonable monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. As long as the militias are out there, the existence of an Iraqi government is questionable. Think of Los Angeles. If Los Angeles said the Bloods and the Crips are going to be tolerated, they’re going to be armed and police their areas and enforce the law in certain areas, what sense would Los Angeles have of government?
Think Progress highlights the last sentence in that quote, but I'm drawn to the postulate itself. It's the "Old West" idea of governance, one fostered by Clint Eastwood movies and what has become the undeniably American mantra that "might makes right." I caught it again last night watching an otherwise execrable exercise in film-making and mayhem, "Swordfish."

John Travolta's character justifies his crimes (murder, robbery, destruction of massive amounts of private and government property) on the grounds that he is protecting America against terrorism, that indeed his violence protects ordinary Americans from the violence terrorists would unleash on us. In fact, he unleashes greater violence on them, to convince them that the crime ain't worth the price. Sean Connery got to say it better in "The Untouchables," but it's the basic idea of escalation: they send one of yours to the hospital, you send one of theirs to the morgue, etc. Except "The Untouchables" ended with Capone convicted of tax evasion, and the impetus for his mob activity removed when Prohibition was repealed. So much for "the Chicago way."

"Swordfish" ends with a yacht blowing up off the coast of Monaco, making America safer by taking out one more terrorist. Terrorists, as we all know, don't live in caves in Afghanistan or neighborhoods in Pakistan, or in war-torn Iraq: they lounge in luxury on yachts, like all venal criminals. They don't blow themselves up in suicide missions, they live the life of Reilly, and so have something to lose when Americans engage in massive, if stealthy, retaliation.

Everyone is just like us, you see. Rich, violent, corrupt, and susceptible to pressure. That's why, when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we fear no evil; because we're the meanest SOB in a valley full of SOB's just like us, except not quite as mean. More fool them. And that, of course, is what government is: the meanest SOB in the valley. The one with the most legitimate claim to the use of violence. Because violence is what provides the basic order to society. Except, as we have learned, as we should have learned, the world is nothing like that, and a poet, not a warrior, turns out to have been right: "Those to whom violence is done/Do violence in return."

Consider again what Will is saying. Look at his example: "If Los Angeles said the Bloods and the Crips are going to be tolerated, they’re going to be armed and police their areas and enforce the law in certain areas, what sense would Los Angeles have of government?" Under Will's scenario, what sense of government should L.A. have now, except that but for the strength and persistence of the LAPD, the "thin blue line," LA would be a place of lawlessness and chaos?

Which is, we all tell ourselves, "how the West was won." Except that's only true in the dime novels of the 19th century, and the cowboy westerns which were based on those novels. In those stories "might makes right," and the sheriff with the fastest gun rules righteously. The problem is, it has almost nothing to do with the settling of the American frontier whatsoever. The West wasn't settled by strong but righteous men. It was settled because humans prefer order over chaos, stable society over lawless frontier. People took society with them; society didn't follow on and impose rule on savages.

Except it did, didn't it? That was once part of the justification of American expansionism: "White Man's Burden." It was our duty, just like our British cousins had in India and Asia, to bring civiliazation to the "savages," and to resort to violence if they resisted. The story continues to feed our native fascism to this day, as we glory in action heroes like Clint Eastwood and Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, rugged individuals who alone can protect us from the scourge of evil men who want to take away what we have. It certainly feeds our native xenophobia and racism to think that we only subdue the "savage races" and the forces of evil by force of arms. After all, isn't that why we went to war in Iraq?

That is also why our enterprise in Iraq has been such a singular failure. Governance is a matter of covenant, not coercion. Saddam Hussein had enough of an arrangement with enough members of Iraq to maintain control, and used his military or police power to coerce the rest. Relying almost solely on coercion, the US has been singularly unable to control events even within the Green Zone of Baghdad. We have proven, once and for all, that governance is not a matter of superior firepower or greater military strength because, like the safe that cannot be breached or the code that cannot be broken, where there is sufficient will to penetrate, a way to undermine such security will be found. A social contract only works so long as enough members of the covenant agree to it. But a coercive arrangement only works so long as sufficient power can be brought to bear, and can be maintained. It turns out that Iraq is evidence that "sufficient power" is like having "enough money." In the case of an ongoing need to spend, "enough money" is never enough. In the absence of the agreement of enough parties to the social contract, "enough power" is never attainable.

So perhaps it is time to rethink the American credo that "Might makes right." Perhaps it is time to consider that we didn't build our country that way, why do we think we can build another on those principles?

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