Society

How politicians exploit law, order to win votes

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President Donald Trump. FILE PHOTO | NMG

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Summary

  • Law and order without justice, which is the necessary precondition for order, commonly result in abuses of judicial and police powers.
  • The root causes of civil disobedience must be addressed.
  • The law is not enough on its own and is often counterproductive, only serving to protect certain business and political interests.

This week I watched the 2014 Austrian feature film Sarajevo about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The liquidation of the heir presumptive of the Austro-Hungarian throne in Sarajevo, the capital of the empire's Bosnia and Herzegovina province took place 106 years ago on 28 June 1914. The shooting, believed to have been carried out by members of the extremist Serbian group Black Hand, triggered events that erupted into World War I a month later, on 28 July.

Sarajevo director Andreas Prochaska and writer Martin Ambrosch have created a counter-narrative to the official narrative of events as to why the archduke was shot, one that is full of dark conspiracy theories.

According to the script writers, the liberal-minded archduke wanted to grant the empire's ethnic groups greater autonomy, so reactionary forces eliminated him before he could ascend to the throne. His orchestrated death provided the pretext Austro-Hungarian and German hawks needed to declare war on Serbia ostensibly to restore "law and order".

One of the benefits of gaining control of Serbia was that it would allow a planned railway line from Berlin to Baghdad to be completed, making some cartels very wealthy in the process.

Both the concept and the exact phrase "law and order" became a powerful political theme in the United States during the 1960s. The leading proponents were two Republicans, the Governor of California Ronald Reagan and presidential candidate Richard Nixon. Nixon targeted, among others, White ethnics in northern cities to turn against the Democratic Party, blaming it for being soft on crime and rioters.

Michael W. Flamm in Law and Order: Street Crime, Civil Unrest, and the Crisis of Liberalism in the 1960s (2005), argues that liberals were unable to craft a compelling campaign message for anxious voters. Instead, they either ignored the crime crisis, claimed that law and order was a racist ruse, or maintained that social programmes would solve the "root causes" of civil disorder, which by 1968 seemed increasingly unlikely and contributed to a loss of faith in the government to do what it was supposed to do, protect personal security and private property.

Conservatives rejected the liberal notions with Gerald Ford saying "How long are we going to abdicate law and order in favour of a soft theory that the man who heaves a brick through your window or tosses a car bomb into your car is simply the misunderstood and underprivileged product of a broken home?"

Flamm goes on to document how conservatives constructed a persuasive message that argued that the Civil Rights Movement had contributed to racial unrest and President Johnson's Great Society had rewarded rather than punished perpetrators of violence.

This created a sense of fear among white voters and a great urge to reinforce the status quo of white supremacy. It became a question of "them against us" and provided Lyndon Johnson a perfect excuse to escalate the Vietnam War. In 2016, "Law and Order", the mantra that elected Nixon into office, was reincarnated by Donald Trump as a central focus of his convention. Donald Trump argued, then, that Barack Obama had "made America a more dangerous environment for everyone" declaring himself "the law and order candidate". This year, in June, President Trump declared "I am your president of law and order", as federal agents violently cleared peaceful protesters from a park near White House.

The basic "law and order" political strategy amounts to convincing voters that crime is a threat, scaring them into such belief, and then convincing them that it is only you who can stop it by employing strong-arm tactics. As deployed in US politics for decades, the strategy seeks to play on racist fears, using code language, "crime", "inner cities", "quiet neighbourhoods", in an attempt to connect especially with white voters.

I agree with Julia Azari, a professor of political science at Marquette University, who said in an interview recently, "It is one thing to use symbolic rhetoric to scare people but, its another to make "law and order" your argument, then count on that being enough to delegitimise the claims being made by people who are engaging in peaceful protests."

Nearer home, in Nigeria, after two weeks of massive demonstrations against police brutality brought Lagos to a virtual standstill, government security forces, using live ammunition, opened fire Tuesday this week on hundreds of protestors rallying against a government-mandated 24-hour curfew ostensibly to restore "law and order".

Independent reports indicate that seven people could have been killed during the melee. The protests began on 7 October, with calls to disband the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), an infamous police unit that had long been accused of extortion, torture, and extra-judicial killings. SARS was dissolved on 11 October, but quickly replaced by Special Weapons and Tactics team, and demonstrations continued.

This is not the first time SARS has been disbanded, having been banned at least three times before, only to reappear. It is claimed that groups of young men who are being paid to discredit the anti-police movement by powerful interests in Nigeria, have allegedly been attacking the demonstrators, fueling the unrest, and provoking the government's response, a line which sounds all too familiar.

It is most likely that the police unit has been protecting certain business and political interests which are threatened by the protests.

Law and order without justice, which is the necessary precondition for order, commonly result in abuses of judicial and police powers, including, police brutality and misconduct, racial/ethnic profiling, prison overcrowding and miscarriage of justice. The root causes of civil disobedience must be addressed. The law is not enough on its own and is often counterproductive, only serving to protect certain business and political interests.