Managing Violence

Human destructiveness is not a problem to be solved; it is a problem to be managed.

. . .

The recent run of violence inside the hot zone of militia-occupied Seattle — a teenager has been shot dead, another man suffered life-threatening gunshot wounds, etc. — is the least surprising development of the episode. Of course there’s violence: You can call your dopey little Champagne Radical playground the Republic of CHAZ or the more Jacobin-aligned CHOP, but those are Americans in there — somebody’s going to get shot.

Every bad shooting by a police officer (and many of the justifiable ones) is taken to be an important and indisputable indicator of the corruption and racism of the corporate cultures of police departments. Will the militia in Seattle apply the same thinking to itself and the community it has created? If not, why not? Autonomy brings with it responsibility.

A state, as Max Weber defined it, is a geographically defined monopoly on violence. A state operates over a given territory, though the borders may be disputed, and it claims for itself the sole legitimate use of coercive physical force, though this monopoly may be violated by criminals or challenged by revolutionaries. A state has the power to tax, to impose fines, or to seize assets, actions that would be understood as robbery or extortion if undertaken by a non-state actor; a state has the power to arrest and incarcerate; i.e., to legitimately engage is what would otherwise be understood as kidnapping and hostage-taking. A state can put people to death through capital punishment, though relatively few modern states choose to do so, and states claim the power to legitimately put to death the citizens of other countries and destroy their property in war.

The word violence has taken on pejorative connotations. We are nice people, and we do not like to think too much about violence. And perhaps it is the case that violence is a lamentable means even when it is used toward desirable ends. It wasn’t persuasion that freed the slaves, and it wasn’t the Emancipation Proclamation — it was men doing violence under the flag of the United States, led by General Ulysses S. Grant, a statue of whom was just pulled down by the illiterate cretins in San Francisco. (What we are not talking about: More than a third of San Francisco’s black population has been driven out of the city since 1990, and it wasn’t General Grant who did that.) It was not rhetoric that ended the Third Reich and stopped the Holocaust — it was violence on a massive scale. If you are lucky enough to live in a place where you are secure in your person and your property (which is to say, not in Seattle), then you should know that it is not the milk of human kindness that keeps you so — it is violence and the threat of violence.

For libertarians, this provides a useful if very limited heuristic for judging limits on state action: If you wouldn’t be willing to walk over to your neighbor’s house and stick a gun in his face over the issue, then maybe you shouldn’t deputize the state to kick in his door and stick a gun in his face over the issue on your behalf. This is, of course, a very rough rule of thumb, and in the real world legislation and regulation are necessarily (really, it can’t be helped) far too complex to satisfy the more simplistic kind of moralistic demand. For example, I myself do not think that the state has any business sticking a gun in my face and telling me that I can’t buy a Toyota because it comes from Japan and competes with American (put a big ol’ asterisk there) companies employing American workers — if Americans want to sell me a car, let them build a better one at a better price. But the actual implementation of trade is complex: For example, the United States, Germany, and Japan do not have precisely the same automotive-safety regulations or the same emissions rules, and these are not in all cases unreasonable impositions. Coordinating complex design and production across multiple complex legal environments multiplies complexity by complexity. There is nothing as simple as Thou shalt not steal that will do in that situation.

Some of us may dream of one-sentence free-trade pacts (“There shall be free trade between x and y”) rather than the thousands of pages found in our actual trade compacts, but that ideal does not stand up to very much investigation: Are we permitted to impose restrictions when it comes to military equipment or sensitive intelligence technology? What about local reservations when it comes to materials for publicly financed infrastructure projects? Are programs that privilege veteran-owned businesses in government contracting a violation of free trade? Decisions have to be made, compromises have to be worked out, the fruit of those negotiations has to be written down, and, presto!, the USMCA runs 1,809 pages (1,572 pages for the text of the treaty, 237 pages of supporting material). Somewhere in all that mess is probably a footnote about the grading of soybean derivatives enshrining a regulation that I would not choose, in isolation, to see enforced at the point of a federal bayonet. But enforcing the terms of the treaty is a necessary function of the state, which necessarily acts, in extremis, through violence.

The violence-based model of organizing community life (or at least certain aspects of it) requires the employment of men with a capacity for violence. American Sniper popularized the “wolf/sheep/sheepdog” formulation, but there is a lot of wolf in a dog. (Canis familiaris is directly descended from Canis lupus.) Some of the things that might make you a good police officer or a good solider are also things that might make you a good criminal: capacity for violence, openness to risk, physical courage, aggression, etc. These are also characteristics that might make you more likely to resort to force, including deadly force, in a stressful and dangerous situation. Police forces disproportionately employ members of the prime criminal demographic: young men. Young men account for about 73 percent of all arrests and 80 percent of the violent-crime arrests.

Given the demographics, it is no surprise to find that police officers commit a lot of crimes both on and off the job. The total arrest rate for the general population is about 31 per 1,000, according to the FBI; the arrest rate for property crimes is about 3.6 per 1,000 and the arrest rate for violent crimes is about 1.6 per 1,000. (The bulk of the arrests are for things classified neither as property crimes nor violent crimes, from drug possession to unpaid speeding tickets.) By way of comparison, the rate for officers of the New Orleans police department is 44 arrests per 1,000 officers; in Milwaukee, it’s 37 arrests per thousand; in Norwich, Conn., it’s 62 arrests per 1,000 officers; in Hackensack, N.J., it’s 77 per 1,000.

This information comes from a report titled “Police Integrity Lost: A Study of Law Enforcement Officers Arrested,” by Philip Matthew Stinson, John Liederbach, Steven P. Lab, and Steven L. Brewer Jr. There are some caveats about that study that will be obvious to you if you read it, largely having to do with how incidents are compiled. As the authors themselves complain: “There are no comprehensive statistics available on problems with police integrity, and no government entity collects data on all criminal arrests of law enforcement officers in the United States.” The authors continue:

    The lack of data on police crime is clearly a problem, since the development of strategies to mitigate police crime in the least requires that they be documented and described in some sort of systematic and generalizable manner. From an organizational perspective, more comprehensive data could provide comparisons among agencies on rates of police crime, and subsequently contribute to the development and implementation of policies to deter police crime and lessen damage to police-community relations in their aftermath. From a scholarly perspective, the collection, analysis, and dissemination of more comprehensive police crime data could instigate studies designed to identify significant correlates, explore relationships between police crimes and more general forms of police deviance, and provide information on how police culture and socialization potentially contribute to the problem. Scholars have yet to fully pursue these and other important issues associated with the problem of police crime because we lack any sort of comprehensive data on the types of crime that police commit and how frequently they commit them.

You can tell a lot about a society by what questions are not asked.

The authors of the study posit that police criminality is rooted partly in culture and partly in demographics. For example, a substantial share of police crime is alcohol-related: “Excessive alcohol consumption is certainly due at least in part to demographics and the over-representation of young males among police officers, in particular patrol officers. Men are more likely to have problems with alcohol than women, and alcohol use disorders are most prevalent among 18-24 year-olds.” Partly, the issue is situational: How many opportunities have you had to extort money from a drug dealer?

Most police crime happens off-duty, but, as the authors report:

    The data demonstrate that the source of a significant portion of these so-called off-duty crimes also lies within the context of police work and the perpetrator’s role as a police officer, including instances where off-duty officers flash a badge, an official weapon, or otherwise use their power, authority, and the respect afforded to them as a means to commit crime. More broadly, the data show that police crime is not solely or even primarily the product of deviant or defective people; but rather, deviant or defective people who work within an occupational context that provides them unique and unprecedented opportunities to perpetrate crimes whether they are on or off-duty.

Another word for “deviant or defective people” is “people.”

Human destructiveness is not a problem to be solved; it is a problem to be managed. From the world of Leviathan forward, we have attempted to manage the problem of disorganized violence with organized violence in a framework of imperfect and imperfectly enforced rules and formal procedures of accountability. If the people who are calling for abolishing police — “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police,” as activist Mariame Kaba put it in the New York Times — succeed to any extent, they will face the same basic problems. Whatever innovative public-safety models they dream up (and I am open to many of these) will be handicapped by the same shortcomings that characterize current police practice, i.e., the presence of human beings in the system and the centrality of human judgment to that system’s operation. Kaba is selling the usual utopian horsepucky, a promise that the same people who have proved unable to reform police departments can reform the whole of human life, building “a different society, built on cooperation instead of individualism, on mutual aid instead of self-preservation. What would the country look like if it had billions of extra dollars to spend on housing, food and education for all?” We can answer that question, in a way: As a result of the so-called Great Society, we did put many billions of extra dollars into housing, food, and education for all. The result? Minneapolis, Detroit, Cleveland . . . Tinkerbell may look dead, but keep clapping! “This change in society wouldn’t happen immediately,” Kaba writes — you don’t say — “but the protests show that many people are ready to embrace a different vision of safety and justice.” Perhaps they do show that.

And the murders in militia-occupied Seattle show that they can’t have it.

Managing Violence