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Wednesday, April 27, 2005


The [global] policeman

It seems to me to be straightforward that those policing a community should belong to that community. If they do not, how do we prevent the order imposed by the police being seen as a coercive imposition from the outside? A force of oppression used on the behalf of others. An [armed] occupation even? The idea that the community to which the police belong plays no part in their ability to perform the task of policing a community has bolstered the institutional racism of the British police, and no doubt the police of nations all around the world. Of course, the idea of community is fluid, and the community with which people identify, or are identified with varies between people and over time. Nevertheless, we cannot escape the fact that a predominantly white police force with a history of racism will not be seen as the legitimate police of a black community with a history of being the victims of racism. For this state of affairs to change it does not simply require that the police force in questions eliminates racists from its ranks, but it also demands that the police force recruits people from the community in question. Policing must be a consensual act, patently not at the level of the individual criminal, but certainly at the level of community. Of course, communities overlap and interact, and when this is considered the police force that brings order to these overlaps and interactions must be drawn from both these communities in order to keep its legitimacy.

I would like to suggest two examples of police as occupiers. The first is the policing in South Yorkshire during the 1984 Miners’ Strike. The South Yorkshire Police were seen as too soft on the miners, reluctant to use force where the use of force could be avoided, being aware that, as members of the communities in question, their future was bound to the future of these communities. In response to this ‘softness’, the Metropolitan Police were drafted in. These men bore no obligations to the communities they were sent to police, and so acted with a brutality not seen on such a large-scale in Britain. Excepting, of course, where white police forces ‘brought order’ to black communities.

The second is the ‘policing’ of Iraq by US and British soldiers. These men not only bear no links to, not even speaking the language of, the communities they police, but they also conceive of themselves as belonging to a different people. This is not so much a complaint that men trained as soldiers cannot perform a policing role, though I nevertheless believe this to be largely true. More, it is that men from beyond the boundaries of the community, men with their future not tied to that community, men who return to ‘the world’ that exists outside of this community to continue with their lives, simply cannot be policemen. They are occupiers. The occupation of Iraq may be a necessary task, though I would argue that it is not. But it cannot be claimed that these men are policing Iraq.

This argument extends into discussion of the idea of America being the ‘world’s policeman’. I have lost track of (okay, I never started counting) the number of opinion pieces in which members of the American right and their international allies complain that ‘the world’ expects America to provide the power required for a policing role when it suits them, rejecting the right of America to act using this power in other circumstances. These commentators present themselves as being baffled by such double standards. But there are no double standards at work if we consider America to be the world’s policeman. The police carry out their policing with the consent of the community they serve and police. As in this case the community that is being policed is ‘the world’, it is ‘the world’s’ consent that is required. To believe that America, as policeman, should be allowed to deploy force in its own interests and justify these actions as policing is to argue for a concept of ‘police’ that has more in common with ‘gangster’ than the concepts and legitimation of police, and the power we invest in them, that are used in democratic societies. To be fair, this concept has many aspects in common with the concept of ‘police’ used in dictatorships. Even in these, the police act to bring order and security to people pursuing their day-to-day business. But they also are primarily the servants of the ruling minority, and the force the police possess is deployed in their interests.

I would argue that as America represents only a fraction of the community that is ‘the world’ it cannot perform the role of ‘policeman’. But if American power is to be deployed in a policing role, this must always be done with the consent of the wider community being policed. As so many commentators who appear to be in tune with the ideology of America appear to view the role of ‘world’s policeman’ not as an obligation to serve the world but as a licence to use their military power, I would argue that their use of the term police is empty rhetoric, designed to persuade a doubting but liberally minded world public than as an ideological commitment. Well, it is either that or the more frightening proposition that the idea that the dominant American political philosophy holds a concept of the proper role of police is akin to that which the rest of us would describe as gangsterism. Except possibly without the pension plan.

In the interests of amity I shall skip past your amusing and tendentious views on the nature and purpose of the British police force, and concentrate on the development of your arguement aprapos the nature of American power.

You are right, I believe, to complain of laxity in language, particularly the sort of 'journaleese' that produces phrases like 'the world's policeman'. Happily, the more steely-eyed of the internationalist wing of the American Right is not the least confused. Just as Britain (and Rome) did in the past, so America does now. It perceives (rightly or wrongly, that's another argument) certain interests to be pursued or defended, and deploys the force required to attain those objectives. It wishes to do so, untrammeled by the ludicrous notion that its freedom of action should be subject to a veto issued by sundry gangsters, despots, mass-murderes and commercial and political rivals pretending to be high-minded neutrals.

It's called 'realpolitik', and long may it thrive.
Andrew, your comments on the British police are important and timely. In essence there is nothing new in what you are saying; the problem is that these issues are often overlooked as an essential element of sound governance. Too often factors of class and ethnicity are shaded over in such debates, and it is proper that we return to these points least we lose sight of them in the current neo-liberal climate, where issues of ‘community’ are washed aside in favour of rampant individualism.

As for your points about the US, I agree that the idea of the ‘world policeman’ is a licence for military power. The consent of the ‘wider community’ is a contentious issue in that consent is a slippery concept, but that does not excuse evasion of the responsibility to dialogue openly around the idea of consent, nor does it suggest that it should be abandoned for some reckless notion of the ‘neo-realpolitik’. No nation has the right to act imperialistically, whether that is in military or commercial terms, without accounting for itself.

This is no ludicrous notion, but the only sane basis for international relations.
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