Tuesday, August 31, 2010

On The President's Carpet: Fear itself

Four quotations from great Presidents, two (possibly three) of them, "martyred" in office, and one martyred civil rights leader who in a slightly different universe might have ended up a President, adorn the new carpet in the oval office (at least three of the quotes also appeared in his November 8, 2008 victory speech in Chicago). Bipartisan? Sure, but more importantly, great quotes all. I would take any one of them; and in the right spirit, anyone half clever in either the liberal or conservative camp could riff on them all to state their greatest convictions. According to Sheryl Stolberg blogging at the NYTimes the five quotes are:

"The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself” – President Franklin D. Roosevelt

“The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long, But It Bends Towards Justice” – Martin Luther King Jr.

“Government of the People, By the People, For the People” – President Abraham Lincoln

“No Problem of Human Destiny Is Beyond Human Beings” – President John F. Kennedy

“The Welfare of Each of Us Is Dependent Fundamentally Upon the Welfare of All of Us” – President Theodore Roosevelt

I'll take my own guess that President Obama spends a lot of time over the next few months looking at the FDR fear quote. Fear is on the land, and all of us feel it. Problems are deep, no doubt, but never as deep as the metaphors they live by, and this is a 1933 year where the President and his speeches are carrying the weight of our historic imagination of what Roosevelt accomplished beginning with that epic first inauguration speech in the stomach clenching drop days of the Great Depression (both those who fear what Obama is trying to accomplish and those who fear he's not doing enough to accomplish it). In that speech, FDR not only addressed that fear in a positive and a programmatic sense, he named it and defined fear as part of the problem. But when he reads that quote, which has a lot to say to today's problems, I hope the President is reading it through two other "fear years," 1941, and 1968.

In his 1941 State of the Union, FDR came back to fear in another epic speech, when stated his famed four freedoms, one of them being "freedom from fear." In a speech premised on making Congress and the nation feel real fear at the prospect of what a rapid fascist victory in Europe would do the world, Roosevelt spelled out a freedom from fear as part what preventing that victory could mean. Against him was the very real and recent history of the oversold war and misguided peace of the first world war which compounded the fear for many who feared government as much as anything else. FDR was claiming new powers to govern through fear, but he was also making freedom from fear part of the meaning of victory; a standard his administration could be evaluated by and a way to balance the increased power of government with new rights for citizens in the US (and implicitly the world).

I hope his eye next moves to the 1965 quote of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and then skips ahead three years to 1968. That was a fear year too. Raging war in Vietnam, violent repression of domestic protesters by racist police forces and rising homicide rates haunted a country in a panic. The economy was still very healthy by contemporary standards, but many of its long term problems, especially the underfunding of government entitlement and policies, were well under way. King's words in 1965 seem to anticipate the tragedy that would befall him personally and the nation in 1968. The dangers were quite real on his march from Selma that day in 1965, but the prospects of both the civil rights cause and the Johnson Administration's related "Great Society," seemed promising that year (much as Obama's did after his election). Less than three years later both Johnson's and King's projects would be in ruins. Johnson withdrew from the Presidential race, and King was murdered. Their common cause of linking racial discrimination and persistent poverty in both the North and South was on its way to being crushed by a politics of fear that neither of them succeeded in heading off.

History has vindicated both of them for the real and permanent gains they accomplished for American society, but the fear that defeated them still remains. Crime rates are at historic lows in most of the country, but many Americans, independent voters in swing states especially, continue to understand the real fears of 2010 through the crime and race tinted lenses of 1968 (consider the ongoing moral panics about immigrants and crime in both Arizona and California). That year a politics of fear won, with Richard Nixon's "law and order" campaign, that created no source of limitation or accountability of the sort FDR offered for his economic and political wars on Depression and later fascism. While the political primacy of violent crime has waxed and waned in Presidential politics ever since 1968 (it almost never goes away at the state level), the metaphors of the war on crime,--- the abandoned victim, the overwhelmed police officer, the leaky prisons, ---- continue to shape how citizens imagine the political. Despite four decades of laws that have made crime victims and police into sacred cows (as the phony "ground zero" controversy and last summers "beer summit" demonstrate), and made our prisons into high security human warehouses, no one feels any safer.

Nixon may have been the winner that year, but what he found out, and what every chief executive of both parties since has had to live with, and seen their presidencies damaged (if not destroyed) by, is that this "no limits" power of fear makes the nation less and less possible to govern. Its a sometimes great election politics, but its a lousy governing politics. Instead of preparing the public for significant challenges in rebuilding failed institutions, the politics of fear creates a constant cycle of demands for emotions and circuses, most of them premised on crime or crime like immorality; in which bad guys are defined and demonized, investigations pursued, heavy punishments threatened and sometimes delivered. It was a fear based politics of crime that swept Nixon himself away, and almost brought down Reagan and Clinton for violating federal laws. Its the same fear based citizenship that has produced a constant and unmeetable demand for Obama to show emotions like anger in responding to economic and environmental crisis, and to deliver harsh judgments and punishments to wrongdoers, and at the same time is constantly ready to accuse the President himself of being a friend or ally of terrorists.

The President at this point can decide to try to produce the kind of political rhetoric that might neutralize by embracing this crime based fear discourse. Bill Clinton chose that path with his harsh crime laws, V-Chip and school uniform proposals; and with the help of Newt Gingrich's errors he saved his presidency, --- kind of ---, but he accomplished nothing that he would want to share with King and Johnson if he should ever run into them in the next life. I don't personally think President Obama would be particularly good at this approach, even if he was craven enough to embrace it.

The other path is to make a new commitment to freedom as FDR did in 1941, but from fear of the kind that stalks us in 2010: economic disasters, infrastructure failures, terrorism and global human rights disasters (like Pakistan, Palestine and Kashmir) and our dependence on fossil fuels. In the face of those on the right that accuse him of subverting freedom in exactly the same ways that FDR's enemies attacked him, President Obama needs to explain exactly what freedoms his policies will create for Americans, beginning with freedom from fear.

President Obama got a start in his Xavier University speech in New Orleans when he began to talk about what it would take to make American cities resilient enough to respond effectively to something like Hurricane Katrina. He could have said more about the failures revealed that day (and since) at all levels of government, especially the federal governments failed levee system. He might also have said something about the failure of Louisiana's policies of mass incarceration which have produced one of the highest incarceration rates on the planet but could not make its citizens safe.

As the administration tries to re-narrate their legislative accomplishments thus far in the short window before the mid-term election, the President needs to point to how his medical reforms and Wall street reforms form a part of a more comprehensive strategy to make Americans safer in their homes from all of these threats, and what he still needs Congress to do to achieve that. But the positive story will not cut through the toxic atmosphere (look how little coverage his Katrina speech got) if he does not address the fear issue directly. With the capacity to plumb complex and toxic features of our culture, as he showed as a candidate in his Philadelphia speech on race, President Obama needs to speak directly to Americans about the real costs of painting the threats of 2010 in the race baiting and crime fear centered mentalities of 1968, as is so clearly being done about immigrants, about Muslim Americans, and about him. Like war in Iraq, Obama may not ever be able to declare an end to the war on crime, but he can and must declare an end to its metaphors.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Honoring Victims: The New York Mosque Controversy Highlights the Power of Victims

If opponents of the proposal to build a Muslim community center a few blocks from the so called "ground zero" site where the World Trade Center stood until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 are to be believed, they are not so much anti-Muslim ans pro-victim. There are argument is that since some family members of 9/11 victims are upset at the prospect of a visible Muslim center so close to where their loved ones were killed by terrorists acting in the name of Islam. Thus according to Michael Barbaro's reporting in the NYTimes, powerful New York Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver has urged consideration of relocating the center to avoid offending the victims:

Breaking his silence on the issue, the speaker, Sheldon Silver, a Democrat whose district includes ground zero, said the organizers’ honorable goal of healing post-Sept. 11 wounds and building bridges among faiths had instead provoked bitter fighting and raw emotions that could not be ignored.

“I think the sponsors,” Mr. Silver said at City Hall, “should take into very serious consideration the kind of turmoil that’s been created and look to compromise.”

As many criminologists have observed, crime victims have become privileged symbols of ordinary citizens with greatly expanded influence over the criminal justice system (see David Garland, The Culture of Control, p. 11). In Chapter 3 of Governing through Crime, I describe crime victims as "idealized citizen subjects" whose needs come to define the governable interests of the whole community.

The New York controversy is significant in this respect because it shows deference by politicians to victim wishes on an issue that does not involve directly the perpetrators of crimes or indeed any issue of criminal punishment or law enforcement. No one claims the proponents of the Muslim center are linked to the 9/11 plotters (except for some truly deranged bloggers). Instead like Assembly leader Silver, they construct victim feelings as something that must be honored regardless of their objective foundations.

Thankfully Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who unlike Silver and the rest does not depend on re-election for earning a living, has identified the dangerous precedent this kind of capitulation of community (and indeed national interest) to the pure emotions of victims would set:

Mr. Bloomberg, flanked by the center’s developer and the wife of its imam, said he understood the impulse to find a different location, in the hope of ending the controversy.

“But it won’t,” the mayor said. “The question will then become, ‘How big should the ‘no-mosque zone’ around the World Trade Center be?’ ”

He added: “There is already a mosque four blocks away. Should it, too, be moved? This is a test of our commitment to American values. We must have the courage of our convictions. We must do what is right, not what is easy.”

The September 11, 2001 terror attacks were an extraordinary crime. Understandably, the victims have received extraordinary solicitude, including a US taxpayer funded compensation package worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to each survivor. Honoring victims by seeking to address their financial and psychological wounds is appropriate, ceding our democratic values and procedures to their emotional dictates is not.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Mistempered Weapons of the Criminal Law

Verona in 1595.
Knife Crime.
Gang violence.
Social disorder.
Celebrity politicians.
Disaffected youth.
Teenage suicide...
and love.

I'm living and working in Edinburgh Scotland this year and arrived in time to enjoy the annual "Fringe Festival" which presents an international collection of innovative plays and performances, generally by new groups. Yesterday we saw a stunning version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, by the secondary school students of Kidbrooke School in Association with Greenwich Theatre, and directed by Lucy Cuthbertson. This production staged the classic in contemporary urban context (based on South London but familiar to anyone who has been to LA, Oakland, or Chicago as well). The Capulets and Montagues were tracksuit and hoodie wearing gang-bangers, who rode around on a the small "Y" handled trick bikes favored by many urban teens. Their knife wielding ambushes on each other were marked on stage by the accumulation of flowers stuck in the chain linked fence, in the style of informal memorials one often sees in cities in the US and the UK, and in photo montages of the dead, depicting them as young children, or in happier times.

One of the most striking characterizations was that of the Prince, here portrayed as a telegenic suit wearing female celebrity politician (vaguely Sarah Palin). She invariably appeared flanked by police officers at a lectern speaking to a televised press conference. Her speeches, although written by Shakespeare himself, really could have come from modern "governing through crime" politicians. The response to the tit for tat gang murders of Capulets and Montagues is to threaten yet more violence in the name of peace. Constructing the gang warfare as an assault on the "peace of the city," she threatens to take the life of anyone engaged in violence. Later, when Romeo kills Tybalt, who has killed Romeo's cousin Mercutio, the Prince banishes him for life, on pain of death should he return to Verona.

But as everyone knows, these threats to "get tough" with those who engage in gang violence, do not work. The violence, then and now, is largely based on perceptions of honor that loom larger, at least in the eyes of the youthful protagonists, than the abstract threat of punishment at the hands of a powerful state. Having watched their closest friends and cousins struck down in sudden attacks, and expecting to end up in the same way, the participants are unlikely to be deterred by the remote chance of being caught and convicted by an invariably slower state security apparatus. Better to live in honor and enjoy the esteem of their fellows at hard drinking celebrations, like the feast held by the Capulets, at which Romeo in disguise first sees Juliet.

As will be familiar to almost everyone (plot spoiler warning), the peace is only restored to Verona when the Capulets and Montagues unite in the presence of the bodies of Romeo and Juliet, by the common realization that their quest for honor has deprived them of what they loved most, their children. It is in the context of confronting the emotion of real loss that the Prince's admonition to "lay down your mistempered weapons" is finally heard and responded to with action.

The ending seems to question whether we gain anything from political authority at all. But could not the Prince have used her high office to bring the Capulets and Montagues together earlier? Each had already lost much loved family members. Could a restorative justice circle, convened but not dominated by the Prince, have saved Romeo and Juliet? We will never know of course. With great insight about our current politics, the Kidbrooke School production has the Prince's final words broadcast as if at yet another press conference, while police officers in CSI like protective coveralls zip the corpses of the young lovers into black body bags as they smile and joke.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Nothing Says You're in Charge like an Execution

According to Rod Nordland's reporting in the NYTimes, the Taliban ordered and carried out their first public execution in Afghanistan in nine years this past Sunday, stoning to death a young couple charged with eloping. The victims, a nineteen year old woman and a twenty-five year old man had eloped after relatives refused their request to marry. She was pledged to another man, a relative of her lover, he was married and had two children (but polygamy is legal under Islamic law). After the couple fled to a different village, they were persuaded to return, only to be seized by the Taliban and after a judgment of some sort, stoned to death by an all male crowd of more than 200 men, including Taliban activists, but also relatives of both.

The barbarity of stoning is a cultural judgment call (I consider lethal injection its moral equivalent). What is telling however is the significance of a public execution, especially by a participatory method, in demonstrating not only that a particular group holds power, but that its power is increasingly legitimate (and thus approximating sovereignty). Planting bombs to kill government troops, executing a local mayor or government supporter after dragging them into the woods, or even collecting "taxes" at gun point in a village, only shows that a group has a certain amount of power. But when you can hold a trial (however summary), and then in public order and carry out an execution, you are demonstrating an intent not just to terrorize, but to rule. When that execution requires not just the passive acceptance, but the active participation of large numbers of people in the village, rule is becoming something more like sovereignty.

Even more worrisome for the government in Kabul, as well as the international forces risking their lives to keep that government in power, Nordland reports that a national Islamic council has recently issued a statement calling for more Islamic punishments (apparently including amputations and stonings). Since the government in Kabul, dependent on the approval of Western nations cannot oblige the Islamic authorities in this respect, the field of criminal justice is once again a very promising path to power for the Taliban.

Western forces might do well to consider a similar path. The top Al Qaeda leadership and Mullah Omar, the former Taliban leader, stand accused of crimes no serious Islamic religious authority in Afghanistan has defended (to my knowledge). Perhaps a rapid withdrawal of Western forces should be offered in exchange for these men being either turned over to the United States, or judged and executed demonstrably by the Taliban themselves. That act would provide a strong signal that a future Taliban dominated government would not tolerate similar terrorist plots being launched from its territory. The West would have to abandon its claims to turn Afghanistan into a quasi liberal democracy, but that claim is proving a fantasy of extraordinary cost in blood and treasure.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Public Criminology? A Cool Read on a Hot Topic

In a world, like ours, where discourse and policy making concerning crime has "heated up," leaving criminal justice bureaucracies exposed to the raw and often unforgiving politics of crime, what role can criminologists play in producing a better politics of crime? This is the central question that leading UK criminologists Ian Loader and Richard Sparks ask in their important (and short) new book, Public Criminology?.

The title takes off from the vigorous debate within sociology provoked by the interventions of my Berkeley colleague Michael Burawoy on behalf of Public Sociology. But while the book explores the debate and follows its extension among criminologists, it neither remains focused on that debate, nor stakes out a position within its terms. For Loader and Sparks, criminology is always already public since its subject matter, crime, is itself constituted morally, politically, and legally.

But if criminology has always, and often uncomfortably, found itself in close proximity to the state and its political needs, no discussion of the public role of criminology is helpful that does not reckon with the historically specific conditions in which crime and crime policy operate today. The authors point to three central features of the present context of criminology. (1) Unlike in the past when criminal procedures and policies were largely kept within specialist institutions, today talking about and even acting on the problem of crime belongs to a diverse network of actors and agencies concerned with security, some inside the state, but many outside of it. (2) While crime and crime policy where once largely the focus of national institutions and research communities, today both crime and crime control operate transnationally. (3) While crime and crime policy were once only episodically subject to intense attention by the popular media and politicians, this attention is now permanent and central to the fortunes of both, leading to a blistering populist punitiveness that surrounds almost any discussion of crime.

These conditions have produced, what Loader and Sparks evocatively label (borrowing form the current science/politics of climate change) a "heating up" of the climate surrounding discourse and action around crime. Criminology (and law and justice for that matter) now operate in what they call (in Chapter 4) a "hot climate". Public criminology, from this perspective, is not a debate about whether criminologists should try to engage a broader non academic audience, but whether and how criminological knowledge can make more "effective" and "intelligible" contributions in the public sphere given the hot climate in which it operates.

In framing this issue, Loader and Sparks offer a powerful historical, comparative, and sociological analysis of the criminological field that will be of great interest to students and researchers within criminology as well as informed citizens who want to understand the potentials of this loaded science. Notwithstanding the fact that they occasionally claim to be doing something as complicated as "hermeneutics," their prose is readable, jargon free for the most part, and laden with ready to eat or carry away concepts. For example, they offer a brilliantly quick and memorable sketch of contemporary criminology as organized around five existing styles of modes: the scientific expert; the policy adviser, the observer-turned player; the social movement theorist-activist; and the lonely prophet. With far more literary daring than I have, the authors actually expound these positions in first person narratives and later engage in first person discussion with each of these personified styles concerning their own proposal for how criminology can contribute to a better politics of crime. They suggest convincingly that these cover the field reasonably well and one cannot identify a missing position (the closest I came was by flipping the third to derive the "participant turned observer", but this has been a rare if valuable style for example, the late James Fyfe who went from police officer to sociologist, or California's former Secretary of Corrections Jeanne Woodford).

One of the most illuminating sections of the book is chapter 4 where having established that the climate around crime and crime policy is heating up (a view that readers of this blog will have no problem accepting), they examine some of the ways that current criminology seeks to cool it down. Loader and Sparks identify three major cooling devices. One is the tradition of jurisprudential criminology which seeks to emphasize the role of law, rights, and notions of justice in crime control. In effect, this mode of criminology seeks to counter widespread fear of crime with an alternative fear, i.e., that of an encroaching state which demands the surrender of liberty (not to mention dignity) as the price of a problematic promise of security (Lucia Zedner's work has been particularly strong in this mode). Loader and Sparks clearly identify a lot with this strategy (as I do as well). They also usefully link it up to the longer tradition of jurisprudential criminology (my term, not theirs) including the critique of discretion in police sociology of the 1960s and of the legal critique of rehabilitative penology of the 1970s. In the end their major criticism is that this approach fails to adequately account for, or deal with, the conditions that lead to the heating up of the current climate around crime. The appeal to liberty, rights, and strong limits on state power is, in the end, one that has most resonance with elites who do not feel much fear or passion about crime to begin with.

A second cooling device or strategy is the rise of what is often called "evidence based criminology" or sometimes "crime science" (by those who would like to divorce themselves from the longer and more problematic history of criminology, an inclination Loader and Sparks dismiss along with impulses to "passively tolerate" difference or to "take over" criminology which they catalog as part of criminology's anomic internal politics in chapter one). From this perspective, the vulnerability of populist punitiveness with its incessant push for harsher penalties is that it does not work to control crime, at least in a way that is affordable. Criminology, from this perspective, can cool the climate by producing creditable evidence abut what works and what does not. A variation on this approach, concerned with situational crime prevention, is to displace "hot topics" like criminals, victims, and whose to blame, with a cool and dispassionate look at the opportunities that lead to crimes and other untoward events, and the often mundane steps that can be taken to eliminate or at least reduce them. Again, Loader and Sparks are sympathetic to this approach (although they clearly do not identify with it), but argue that the effort to replace politics with "calculation" or instrumental preventive steps, simply ignores that cultural sources of crime politics itself. It assumes that crime simply is what it is, rather than being attentive to how crime is imagined and constituted as a social subject. A good example of this is sex offenders who prey on children unrelated to them. From an evidence point of view, this is really a relatively minor threat and one that almost all current policies do a bad job of reducing, but the shadow cast by such sex offenders on the lives of parents and children has little or nothing to do with the facts, and cannot easily be extinguished with more facts.

Throughout the book, by the way, Loader and Sparks respond to the scientific ambitions of many criminologists in a way that is respectful, illuminating, and in the end, devastating to the pretensions of this ambition. Drawing on the growing field of "science studies," they make the point that the natural sciences are hardly a model for how science can lead rather than be dominated by politics. Indeed the very field from which they draw their "hot climate" metaphor, is a perfect example of how deeply politicized the natural sciences are. This allows Loader and Sparks to accept the ambitions of the crime scientists in a way that only sharpens the significance of their overall analysis of the criminological context.

The final cooling device is the suggestion made by a number of prominent criminologists in both the UK and the US, is that crime policy be insulated from politics through the creation of institutional devices like sentencing commissions, for example, that mediate between politics and policy. The analogy that has been drawn by my colleague Franklin Zimring, is to the role of central banks in insulating monetary policy from populist political demands. Here Loader and Sparks applaud the attention to the role of institutions (which perceives the permanent politics of crime in a way that moves us toward the authors own approach), but caution that the insulators seem to treat this politics as fixed and immutable, rather than something that criminologists can help move. Indeed, I would note that the very analogy drawn with the monetary supply accepts as permanent the extraordinary centrality of crime discourse and policies to contemporary politics and effectively normalizes that.

This brings us to the final chapter and the authors own effort to elaborate a path towards a criminology that can help produce a better politics of crime. What is on offer here is not a new criminological program, nor a particular cooling device, but what they describe as a "sensibility" or a "disposition" that can be shared by all criminologists who recognize and accept the permanence of a political horizon to their subject. For Loader and Sparks, a criminology awake to its public role should seek to be a "democratic under-laborer." The goal of this criminology is quite simply to contribute to a better politics of crime through the production of knowledge in three broad forms: "primary," that is scientific study of crime and crime control (the old expert kind of criminology); "institutional-critical," that is knowledge about how prevailing ways of understanding and acting on crime are produced and reinforced; and "normative" that is knowledge that offers alternative ways of imagining crime. While few criminologists will be at their best in all three (although they list two indisputable greats, John Braithwaite and Anthony Bottoms as examples that this is actually possible, and I would add the late Norval Morris), all criminologists should seek to contribute where they can to all three, and at least cease efforts to define the dimensions they are not good at as irrelevant.

There is much to agree with in this final chapter. Loader and Sparks are continuing, and in my view refining the call made more than a decade ago by the late Stuart Scheingold for a "new political criminology [warning: link may require password authorization]."

I have two objections, one trivial, one more substantive. The trivial point is largely semantic. I couldn't figure out what they meant by "under-laborer" and the image does not leap back to mind even though I think I understand it now. The term comes from the political theorist John Locke, and it presumably underscores Loader and Sparks' notion that criminologists must accept their role as political theorists, but unhelpfully they do not illuminate the metaphor until about half-way through the final chapter. The image is one of "clearing the ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish." To be a "democratic under-laborer," as opposed to a technical one, would seem to mean clearing the ground of democratic politics and not simply the academic field of criminology. My substantive objection follows. This is an admirable but it seems to me underwhelming invitation, likely to offend nobody (since almost everyone in criminology can recognize themselves here) but guide few. Moreover, it seems to ignore the fundamental and vital premise which they brilliantly weave throughout the book, that criminology must confront the historically specific context of its public role today in a hot climate. In what era would criminologists, or for that matter any social scientists, not want to be "democratic under-laborers"?

This comes down to the question that the late Johnny Carson used to regularly ask on his Tonight Show, "how hot is it?" My suspicion, informed by wearing a sweater daily in the midst of my first UK summer, is that these fellows do not really appreciate how hot it can get in the USA. For all the efforts of New Labour to mobilize crime fear to its political advantage, British crime policy and discourse remain remarkably more temperate than their American equivalents. Throughout the book the authors speak of "governing crime" as if there remained a real consensus that, at the end of the day, that is what both government and academic criminology care about. But as the title of this blog and my book suggest, both citizens and politicians in the US at least, have become invested in governing through crime. Given that investment, clearing the ground and removing rubbish is both a much more difficult and much more dangerous task than Loader and Sparks seem to imagine.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Imaginary Threats to the Border, Real Threats to Democracy

In a striking display of how powerful the grip of "governing through crime" remains on both US political parties, President Obama yesterday signed a law to spend some 600 million dollars on additional patrols of the US Mexican border (read the Julia Preston's reporting in the NYtimes). The bill, introduced by long time crime warrior, Democrat Charles Schumer, was instantly co-sponsored by born-again budget deficit hawks, Republicans John McCain and John Kyle in a display of bipartisanship and quick congressional action not seen since the much decried financial bailout of October 2008.

Mind you the law is mostly symbolic. Six hundred million is a pittance in terms of federal spending, and the money will be extracted from foreign companies seeking to move high tech workers through the US immigration system. But the threat is even more symbolic. Despite the horrific carnage on the Mexican side of the border, created by the unwillingness of the US to legalize and regulate the massive demand for marijuana in the US, there is no crime surge along the US side of the border. As Randal C. Archibald reported in the NYTimes back in June, crime has actually been dropping along the border. What is real is the growing conviction among Americans of non-Hispanic descent that their way of life is threatened by high levels of Mexican immigration into the US, an anxiety aggravated by the deep economic crisis in the US (ironically one that has almost certainly reduced the level of immigration).

The core of that fear is racism, the same kind of racism that led 19th century Protestants to protest high levels of immigration from Catholic parts of Europe. But with one party, the GOP, convinced that they can only win by harnessing that racism, and the other party, the Dems, convinced they can only win by not challenging racism, the easy compromise is a symbolic war on imaginary crime along the border. The results are fiscally trivial, but the reinforcement of the bipartisan politics of fear that has dominated the US for at least forty years is, at a time when we desperately need the political courage to face our deep and growing economic and environmental problems, a clear and present danger to democracy.

T'aint the Evidence, T's the Regime

Iran's increasingly desperate efforts to legalize the upcoming execution of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani in the face of growing world (and one assumes domestic) disgust, opens a fascinating window into how a fascist dictatorship governs through crime. According to William Wong and Robert F. Worth's reporting in the NYTimes, the regime has now broadcast a documentary which includes a "confession" or sorts by Ashtiani along with prosecutors who explain the alleged murder plot in more detail than has previously be published.

Ms. Ashtiani, 43, did not confess to murder in the video. Instead, sitting in a chair and clutching a piece of paper in her left hand, she told an interviewer with a microphone how a man had “tricked me with his words” and then killed her husband by electrocuting him. She spoke in Azeri, with a Persian-language voice-over, and her face was deliberately blurred in an oddly incongruous effort to protect her identity. A subtitle introduced her as “S. A.,” with the words “The case of murder tainted with immorality.”

After Ms. Ashtiani’s statement, a white-turbaned cleric identified as the lead prosecutor in East Azerbaijan, the area in northwest Iran where the trial took place, appeared and said Ms. Ashtiani had injected her husband “with an anesthetic shot, which made him unconscious.”

A couple things are noteworthy here. One, the Iranian regime conducts public executions all the time (they are the world's second largest executor following China) but rarely if ever makes its legal procedures visible in any way. While maintaining its general tone of defiance toward world opinion (as befits a regime that believes it acts with the direct sanction of Allah), the regime's efforts to put together a public legal foundation for its actions (however ad hoc and after the fact) suggests that both internal and external legitimation are a political problem for it (i.e., they understand that Allah isn't enough to keep them in power).

Second, the regime is showing increasing sensitivity not just to global public opinion, but to features of modernization in the political logic of punishment itself. Having originally been prepared to stone Ashtiani to death on charges of adultery, the regime has been stung by global media attention to that particularly offensive mixture of execution method and rationale. They have back pedaled by "upgrading" her execution method to hanging, and switching rationales for the execution from adultery, accepted only the Islamic world as grounds for the death penalty, to murder, which remains along with treason the only grounds for execution acceptable to those Western nations that retain the death penalty (basically just the Great Satan, the US).

The fact that global criticism has reacted so strongly to this case is interesting in its own right and suggests some of the biases of media sensitivity. The regime has conducted numerous public hangings of young men on charges of "making war on Allah" i.e., protesting against the regime, without much world public reaction. Women remain the subject of a chivalric logic of sentiment which accords greater emotional reaction to state violence against them. Likewise, adultery, with its salacious implications, generates far more interest than political crimes.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Ohio's Governor Death: Ted Strickland Runs for Re-Election as "Executioner-in-Chief"

Ohio is fast becoming one of the the nation's leaders in executions, surpassing every state but the unapproachable champion, Texas, in the past two years according to the New York Times (read Bob Dreihaus reporting here). With half a dozen executions this year so far, I was wondering just what was up in the Buck-eye state. It turns out Democrat Strickland is in a tough battle for re-election in a traditionally Republican state. Ever since Bill Clinton returned to Arkansas to boost his presidential primary chances by executing Ricky Rector back in '92, Dem Govs have viewed execution as their secret weapon to improve their political position by proving their mettle as crime warriors. With Ohio suffering through its worst economy since the Great Depression, Strickland has little else to run on.

Lucky Ted has yet another chance to mount the scaffold before election day with the execution of Kevin Keith on September 15. The only problem is, according to Dreihaus' reporting, lots of people think Keith is innocent, including Republicans as well as Democrats, former prosecutors, police officers, and judges. The governor's aides promise that he will give the clemency file his usual careful assessment in deciding what to do. Given his record, it is very likely he will also be giving the polls a careful look.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Do Conservatives Govern trough Crime? Sometimes

Current European politics offers an interesting window into the relationship between party ideology and the attractions of governing through crime. As noted last month, Britain's Conservative led coalition government is in the midst of retrenching on the previous Labour government's embrace of tough on crime policies and politics. The latest and most dramatic move came last week, when the government announced it would move away from the much debated Anti-Social Behavioral Orders (or ASBOs as they were not quite affectionately called). One of New Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair's signature governing through crime strategies, ASBOs allowed anything that caused some people to fear others to be prohibited on pain of arrest. The announcement that ASBOs would be replaced with new approaches emphasizing restorative justice rather than punishment brought predictable howls from former New Labour ministers. According to a story by Alan Travis in last week's Guardian (read it here):

Two former Labour home secretaries, Alan Johnson and David Blunkett, attacked May's decision. Johnson, in a piece for the Guardian's Comment is Free, argued that asbos had made a huge difference in cutting crime and disorder: "If the home secretary is to restrict the opportunities for the police to use asbos and other measures currently available then this will be yet another example of this government going soft on crime." Blunkett went even further and claimed May's speech posed "a major threat to the lives of those at the very sharp end of criminality and dysfunctional communities".

Meanwhile, across the channel, conservative French President, Nikolas Sarkozy, defended his police after much criticism over rough handling of women and children during an eviction of members of the Roma minority from a squat. According to Lizzy Davies in the Guardian (read it here) the French President promised a "national war on crime":

In a bellicose speech in the south-eastern city of Grenoble on Friday, the president said he would wage a "real national war" on crime, announcing plans to revoke the French citizenship of anyone "of foreign origin" who threatened the life of a police officer.

Implying a clear link between France's levels of immigration and its crime, Sarkozy said: "We are suffering the consequences of 50 years of insufficiently regulated immigration, which have led to a failure of integration."

The lesson for me, at any rate, is that governing through crime is not a product of conservative ascension or Neoliberalism per se (the British coalition is much more Neoliberal than Sarkozy), but a recourse that politicians of all ideological stripes find tempting at a time when efforts to govern through economic and social policy are prone to numerous obstacles.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The paradox of security: Is it time to unlock?

We just finished a wonderful house exchange with a lovely family from Chinon, France. After getting to know each other through a home exchange website, and skyping a few times, we exchanged houses and cars. We got a month in the Loire and an extra special vacation at their summer home in Belle Isle, and they got a month in Northern California. We used their car to visit dozens of castles and historic sites. They used ours to visit Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, and the Hearst Castle. Each of us saved thousands of dollars/euros that we could spend having more fun, or keep in the bank for another occasion, all because we were able to trust each other.

The only sour note in the whole exchange was on our end. Our Honda minivan went into the body shop for some significant repairs just before the exchange and was delivered after we had left for France. While undergoing repair the battery had to be removed. As a result the audio visual system (a life saver if you are driving long distances with kids) reset and could only be restarted with a code designed to frustrate thieves. However the only people frustrated were our house exchange partners and us. Having had no thefts in five years I had long ago mislaid the code. I wonder how often security systems end up preventing the rightful owners of goods and services, or their authorized guests, from actually enjoying what they have spent good money on.

Putting the two experiences together made me think about how much our economy is burdened with the extraordinary fears of crime we have built up over forty years of endless wars on crime and terror. I'm not just talking about our expensive and largely counter-productive prison system, but all the ways our (un)civil society is taxed with costly efforts to prevent victimization. Think about the costs to schools which spend their time searching for drugs or putting students through various searches and disciplinary procedures, rather than educating them. Think about the costs to businesses of policing their customers and employees to prevent crime rather than producing or delivering the goods and services they actually went into business to do. Think about how miserable an experience air travel has become due to security procedures that cannot begin to protect us against the next innovation in terror, or the wonderful tools of our computer/internet age that stop in their tracks because of invisible security protocols.

Faced with the worst economy since the Great Depression, and no real prospects for consumers to lift us out of it with new spending, I wonder if a widespread movement to unlock American society would not produce the kind of burst of energy and efficiency we need to get the economy moving again. It is true that locking down our society produced a fair amount of economic activity, but at what costs and for how much longer? With our communities about as fortified as can be imagined, higher energy costs setting limits on building yet more gated communities in the exurbs, and crime as low as its been in 40 years, we have probably spent as much as we can on locking things down.

Moreover, while the economic benefits of lock down have gone along with making our society more rigid and less efficient, unlocking goes along with increases in efficiency and lower costs. Consider how a less fear based lifestyle in central cities with public transit, nearby parks, and homes in walking distance from schools and businesses can yield lower energy costs, lower health costs (as people walk their way to less obesity) and time freed from commuting that can be spent starting new businesses or raising our children to require less professional intervention. Consider how schools freed from drug testing, locker searches, and crime prevention curriculum could get back to actually educating our children.

Economists have always recognized that market economies rely on trust. Of course people will sometimes betray that trust, and I'm not advising anyone to leave their house unlocked or their most sensitive files unprotected. But a society that has come to base itself on fear is now a society facing a declining standard of living for the first time in its history. Is it time to unlock?