When I was in graduate school reading the then recent historical research of the late Edward P. Thompson and his colleagues on crime and society in Britain during the 18th century I was thrilled (intellectually speaking) to see how the majesty of the English common law had served to bolster a shaky revolutionary gentry class in its hour of need. Having overturned long settled rural arrangements and modes of social control going back to the Conqueror, this gentry class found in the criminal law subtle tools of terror and moralization that proved enough to settle down a restive and far more risky (for common people) society, but only by investing in law itself as a source of independent legitimacy. This picture of law as a tool of class power, and a slowly tightening restraint on power was so vivid that it took me a long time to recognize the political logic of crime in late modern America, where in my view a very different kind of restructuring of power and risk has taken place in the shadow of fear of violent crime. If we govern through crime today, it is less to intimidate a restive rabble of uprooted country folk jamming into our cities, than it is to reassure a suburban middle class far more vast than the 18th century gentry could have imagined possible. It is this kind of liberal "war on crime" that is spreading from America to Europe and Latin America.
A nice example of "old school" governing through crime, however, is on display in the Islamic Republic of Iran today. Iran's government is responding to the continuing popular unrest stirred up by the highly suspicious June election "landslide" for President Mahmoud Amedinizad, by sending some its reserve of political prisoners to the gallows, where public executions, often of multiple prisoners, is fast becoming the regular medium of politics (read Nazila Fathi's reporting in the NYTimes). The two victims hung yesterday included a 19 year old and a 37 year old, both accused of having plotted to assassinate leaders, based on confessions their lawyers strongly suggest were wrung by torture. Their crime, a capital one in the Islamic Republic, "waging war against God." It remains to be seen whether the courts of the Islamic Republic can wring the other side of the dialectical bargain that Thompson and his colleagues described in 18th Century England, where a ruthless political leadership ultimately invested in the legitimacy of independent courts.