Monday, June 1, 2009

Security and the Police

The events of 9/11, subsequent terrorist atrocities, the threat of guns, drugs, international serious and organized crime ... license extraordinary and exceptional measures; the suspension of normal rules and procedures; derogation from rights and principles; and even states of emergency. In the name of security, things that would ordinarily be politically untenable become thinkable.

Lucia Zedner, Security (Routledge 2009)

Sarah Lyall reports in yesterday's NYTimes on the horrendous violence unleashed by London's famed Metropolitan police on overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrators at the G-20 Summit meeting in London this past April. After being driven into smaller groups inside enclosed spaces, a practice known as "kettling," demonstrators were subjected to repeated charges by baton and shield wielding police. More than 180 demonstrators have filed formal charges against the police, "some suffering from concussions, broken bones, and other injuries." A 47 year old news-stand employee, who was simply trying to get home, ended up dying after an officer hit him repeatedly over the head with a baton.

These scenes of mayhem may not seem too unfamiliar to Americans where police riots at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 remain well remembered, and where demonstrators have long been corralled away from the meetings of their leaders. In Britain, which more or less invented the police as a force of violence subordinated to the rule of law (as opposed to an armed extension of the King's power), this kind of police violence remains shocking.

In both countries, the demand for security against the threat of criminal or terrorist violence, has begun to truncate and fragment the civil rights and liberties that sustain a democracy. The police, an institution crucial to the practical enforcement of the rule of law in a democracy, are not the primary sources of this transformation, but they are easily infected by it as the agency most readily brought to bear on perceived threats to security. In the long run this transformation will lead to a slow normalization of emergency rule in which democracy collapses into an empty ideal and the insecurity of ordinary citizens attempting to use their streets for expression or commerce becomes permanent.

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