“Some I Murder, Some I Let Go”

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By: Emily Koppfirebus

Tories will have an easier time making their already-popular arguments about crime: that well-meaning efforts to liberalise the police have gone too far; that weakness is more provocative to miscreants than heavy-handedness; that for all the talk of a “slippery slope” from minor breaches of liberty by the state to outright authoritarianism, the opposite journey—from laxity to lawlessness—is steeper and scarier. – The Economist (Aug. 13, 2011)

The quote above, lifted from the The Economist, refers to the riots that occurred throughout the UK early last month. The mayhem erupted in the North London neighborhood of Tottenham when a peaceful demonstration devolved into violent looting and destruction. Early rioters sent out a malevolent call-to-arms through social media, and the violence spread throughout other London boroughs and to other British cities, including Birmingham and Manchester. The unrest smoldered for about four nights before emergency police dispatches could reinstate order.

A month later, journalists, academics and politicians cannot agree on the source of the sudden violence. Among the well-worn immediate explanations, critics have pointed at the hesitation of riot police to act decisively or firmly enough to quash the unrest.

David Green, founder of the British think-tank Civitas and the most prominent of these critics, traces the reluctance of British police to use force to the Machpherson Report of 1999. The Machpherson Report accused Metropolitan Police of failing to adequately investigate the murder of Stephen Lawrence, a black British teenager, on racial grounds. Indeed, the report deemed London’s police force “institutionally racist.”

While August’s disorder began with a similar grievance, namely, a demonstration calling attention to the shooting of a possibly unarmed young black man, the protest soon transformed into patches of aggressive theft– destruction rooted in greed, rather than any political cause. Apparently though, that did not prevent higher-ups from having unpleasant flash-backs to 1999. According to some reports, early orders to police asked that they simply “observe,” rather than intervene in the violence they witnessed on their neighborhood streets.

Across the world in Sri Lanka, a former British territory, authorities have also faced criticism, though of an entirely different nature.

On August 25, President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced to Parliament that he would not renew the state of emergency laws that have existed in some form or another for at least 30 years.

The most recent piece of emergency legislation, Emergency (“Prevention and Prohibition of Terrorism and Specified Terrorist Activities”) Regulation No.7, legalized marshal law. Passed in 2006, it gives police the power to indiscriminately search and arrest without warrant, as well as dispel public marches and ban public meetings.

The government claimed the harsh measures were justified in ending the country’s 25 year civil war. Since 1983, Sri Lanka has weathered a bloody ethnic conflict– pitting the majority Sinhalese military against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a group of guerilla separatists fighting for a regional sub-state in the country’s northeast that would represent the country’s Tamil minority.

Feeling that ethnic Tamils face discrimination, even hatred from their own government, the LTTE, or Tamil Tigers, resorted to ever more brutal tactics, including suicide bombing and recruiting child soldiers. Recollections of their brutality have allowed Rajapaksa to extend a state of emergency two years after the LTTE’s surrender in May 2009. However, recent revelations of brutality on the side of the military in the final stretch of the war, from January to May 2009, have put international pressure on Sri Lanka to reevaluate its emergency laws.

In April of this year, a three-man UN advisory council published a report detailing obscene cruelty on the part of both combatants in the war’s denouement — from expulsion of UN aid workers out of the Tamil-held city of Kilinochchi, until the assassination of LTTE founder and leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. Sri Lankan officials rather ironically refer to this period as the “Humanitarian Operation.”

The report accused the LTTE of gathering civilians onto the front lines to form a buffer from state bullets in the country’s northeast corridor. Called “Vanni,” the territory was the Tiger’s stronghold and war’s “final frontier.”  In haste to win the war, the military became impatient with avoiding innocent casualties, and openly fired on civilians — including on hospitals, a UN hub, and food distribution lines. The report stated “most civilian casualties in the final phases of the war were caused by government shelling.”

The extension of the emergency laws have paved the way for abuses of power by the police. An infamous Youtube video shows police chasing a young man with truncheons, even as he backs away with his hands out, clearly in a frightened attempt to surrender. In May, police fired on peaceful demonstrators, resulting in two deaths. Countless journalists have disappeared or been assassinated by state thugs. Political dissidents have been kidnapped and hauled off in white vans. The “state of emergency” ensures these disappearances remain inconspicuous by legalizing burial without a post-mortem. The emergency measures also empower authorities to hold suspects in jail for up to a year without trial, which has given it leverage to detain suspected former LTTE for years on unproven charges. A special extension of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), will allow this practice to continue even after the emergency laws expire. While the termination of the emergency laws will likely curb military and police brutality, it remains to be seen whether arrested LTTE will ever have their day in court, or whether freedom of the press will ever exist in Sri Lanka.

To revisit our opening quote, which is the “slippier slope?”: (a) over-concern about respecting civil liberties frightening police into laxity, and society devolving into chaos? or, (b) police gaining too much free reign to stomp out human rights, and society falling into the grips of tyranny? This question applies both to police and to military forces working domestically. In most democracies, members of the police and the military are not elected, and therefore cannot be held directly accountable to the everyman. This is probably for the best. Those who reach the highest echelons of military authority should not rely on the whims of the capricious public; and it would be worrying to live in a society where a police chief might be tempted to dismiss a prisoner in exchange for a generous campaign donation. But the power of the gun-wielders should not be underestimated. Politicians decide the rules, but they would be hollow absent enforcement. On the other hand, poking too many holes in police and military power might allow criminals to fall through the cracks.

Political philosopher Thomas Hobbes taught us that in order to live peacefully without always wearing a holster, we have to surrender some free will and entrust the state with our safety. But when we agree to our “social contracts,” how much power should we sign over?

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