The Republic of Fear

All political acts aimed at overawing foes are designed by definition to have a deliberate “moral effect.” At the far end of the spectrum is terrorism, whose goal is to create fear, anxiety, and a sense of helplessness among the targeted. It deliberately employs extreme, deliberate cruelty in the furtherance of a “noble cause,” made all the more sublime by the crocodile tears of the ideologue, who pleads he would rather not do what he must. The spirit of terrorism was brilliantly captured by Colonel Kurtz’s monologue in the movie Apocalypse Now.

In the middle of the spectrum stands the terror of empire, which employs fear in the name of the greater good of order. Colonel Reginald Edward Harry Dyer, the British Indian Army officer who massacred 379 civilians at Amritsar, expressed the reasons for his policy eloquently in a printed warning. Be grateful to me; I stand between you and chaos.

Do you want war or peace? If you … want peace, then obey my orders and open all your shops; else I will shoot. For me the battlefield of France or Amritsar is the same. … You will have to obey my orders and observe peace. Otherwise the shops will be opened by force and rifles. … Obey my orders and open shops. Speak up if you want war?

In this contest of wills, Dyer argued, I’ll show you who’s the boss in a way that you will never forget. While Dyer’s methods may not have been as macabre as the “pile of little arms,” it was in the same spirit. The goal of both the classic terrorist and imperial policeman is to vie for supremacy over the imagination of the population and dominion over the kingdom of their deepest fears. “When you have got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.” That’s the reasoning.

In many Western societies, political intimidation was until recently absent except its most familiar, acceptable and even comforting forms. Nobody seemed to mind the judge’s robes, tall policeman’s hat, guardsman’s bearskin shako, flashing police car lights — all designed to make the wearer look bigger and clothed with the authority of the state. However the relative lack of coercion allowed them to build what has been called “high trust” societies. In such societies, people generally assume good faith, and they are more likely to cooperate and engage in mutually beneficial relationships. They spend less time looking over their shoulders and more time creating.

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But recently a disturbing intermediate way to overawe the public has been taking shape: the so-called weaponization of the justice system at the hands of people convinced they — like Dyer — must pursue a higher social good, and there’s no other way of succeeding except by overaweing the reluctant through intimidation.

Law enforcement can be used as a political instrument in different ways. One way is to use the criminal justice system to suppress opposition, limit dissent, and maintain power. This can involve the selective prosecution of political opponents or the use of excessive force against protestors. Another way is by politicizing law enforcement agencies themselves. This can involve appointing officials who are loyal to a particular political party or ideology, rather than their ability to enforce the law fairly and impartially. Law enforcement agencies can be used to surveil political activists, monitor their communications and track their movements. This can be done in the name of national security, but its actual goal is to suppress political opposition.

And it’s all in a good cause.

But there’s a steep price to be paid for using this. In most cases, the psychological effect of prolonged intimidation is to erode trust between different groups and create divisions within communities. It creates an atmosphere of suspicion and fear, and can not only damage social cohesion and the fabric of civil society, but destroy it altogether. The high trust society goes away, dissolved in the acid realization that everybody’s phone is tapped.

But is it worth it to win a glowing future?

In this respect the weaponization of the justice system can inflict damage far beyond its immediate effects. When law enforcement is used as a political instrument, things may reach a point when few trust it any more. Without a framework for resolving disputes, protecting individual rights, and enforcing contracts; with no recourse except to small, informal groups of people who cooperate without any formal legal system. In this scenario the glowing future vanishes and what starts out as a project to preserve an empire results in a fragmentation into tribes.

Ironically Reginald Dyer’s actions at Amritsar, intended to save the Raj, is now believed by historians to have hastened its demise. The list of countries ruled by intimidation is the list of the most broken countries on earth. So much for the “pile of little arms”; so much for showing who’s the boss.

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