Who Wields The Batons?
When autocrats order underlings to suppress civil dissent, who are those who rush to act violently against fellow-citizens?
It’s a familiar sight: an autocratic regime clings to power against the wishes of a majority of citizens. Protests erupt. Thugs in uniform and thugs incognito are sent in to terrorize the crowds. The thugs act with total impunity, brutalizing unarmed people of all ages by smashing them with batons, firing munitions indiscriminately, and even driving their vehicles into crowds.
We don’t call these anonymous actors thugs, of course; we call them government agents, police officers, and whatever other titles are used to spread a thin veneer of legitimacy over what is nothing more than raw violence used to suppress and intimidate ordinary people expressing their discontent with the misrule of the autocrat.
We’ve seen this in so very many countries, from several well-known South American dictatorships and across most of Africa and also across far too much of south-east Asia. We see it today in China and across Russia and Belarus. And we see it in the USA.
It is a very effective tactic. Xi Jinping isn’t going anywhere soon and nor is Vladimir Putin. Although people who’ve watched far too much Disney and read far too few history book imagine that “in the end, the people’s voices will be heard,” the reality is that everywhere on Earth for most of human history the rule has been one of de facto dictatorship, whether we dress it up as the Divine Leader, Caesar/Tzar, the King, or the Emperor.
Although US citizens imagine their “great” nation has “freedom,” in reality it’s always been an authoritarian regime; the only difference between Trump and his less-infantile predecessors is that hitherto the regime restricted its use of violence by targeting only minorities. Today, under the blustering orange moron, the thugs have been let loose against white middle-class citizens too.
So who are the anonymous thugs who, in their thousands, guarantee the autocrat’s longevity through their mindless obedience to orders?
They are not uniquely aggressive individuals, and no more than usually stupid. They are not people who consciously want to smash and terrorize their neighbors, nor do they necessarily dream of overseeing vast secret complexes in which hapless citizens are stripped, beaten, and subject to torture. Those who wield the batons are not, in short, caricature villains from the pages of a comic-book or a spy novel.
They are our neighbors, our friends, our family members. Sometimes they are us.
Although the Stanley Milgram studies have been rightly discredited for their lack of proper scientific rigor it nevertheless remains true that most ordinary people, under the right (or far-right) circumstances, will willingly perform atrociously evil acts. We do so under the blanket excuse of “I was just doing my job” and “I was just following orders.”
We do these terrible things because we’re all members of a group primate species called homo sapiens and we’re all hardwired, to a greater or lesser degree, to follow the herd. If the people on either side of us are doing something then we’ll do it too in order to fit in. It’s psychologically very uncomfortable for us to stand out from the crowd, and all societies have explicit and implicit mechanisms for punishing those who make any such attempt. It is therefore rational for us to do what we’re told by purported authority figures: the cost of disobedience can be very high indeed.
And when we’re the ones who are beating and torturing others, we have a very clear understanding of what the consequences will be if we step out of line. Given the choice between being the torturer or the tortured, which will we invariably we choose, if for a moment we can be honest with ourselves?
Furthermore, while it’s charming for us to imagine that we would have the moral courage to stand out from the crowd, let’s remember that we’re the biggest conformists of all. We stroke our phones compulsively because everyone else is stroking their phones compulsively. We pour ice over our heads and plank in strange locations because everyone else is pouring ice over their heads and planking in strange locations. We have tattoos because everyone else has tattoos. We watch the same shows and circulate the same memes because everyone else is watching those shows and circulating those memes.
We are, in short, just like the thugs we deride for their mindless adherence to group norms.
There are, however, factors that predispose people to seek jobs where they will have coercive power over others. People with below-average IQ, people who have been abused during childhood, and people with deep-seated feelings of inadequacy will tend to seek jobs that provide them with some ability to compensate for these deficiencies. Uniforms have a powerful appeal to those who resent the fact they’re near the very bottom of the social order. Such people are more likely than average to seek satisfaction by brutalizing others when given the opportunity to do so, especially when this can be presented as “maintaining law and order.”
Such people never question how “law and order” can be maintained by explicitly violating law and order through imposing illegal physical violence and restraint on ordinary citizens. But we humans rarely question anything, so this omission is hardly surprising.
Very few police forces do what the Scandinavian nations and the Dutch do: screen out those whose obvious psychological defects predispose them towards thuggishness. In most countries, such mental defects are seen as a necessary qualification, not as a clear and present danger to social stability. For the few who become government functionaries despite lacking a sense of grievance and inadequacy, the culture of the organization ensures they either fall into line or are ejected rapidly.
And so government and police agencies reliably end up being little more than groups of thugs in uniform, acting with impunity under the thin veneer of “maintaining law and order.” This is made infinitely easier for them by the endless distortions pumped out by the entertainment industry, which brainwashes ordinary people by presenting a completely illusory picture of what real policing and government activity is like. This is why a majority of US citizens fondly imagine that the job of the police is to “protect and serve” whereas in reality no police organization anywhere in the USA has those two items in the official job description.
The only “protecting and serving” that happens is done the various police unions, whose job very clearly is to protect and serve their members regardless of what abuses those members may regularly commit.
Furthermore, as a great many people are very stupid indeed, it’s easy for a significant percentage of the population to cling to mindless thought-bubbles along the lines of, “those people must have been doing something wrong otherwise the police wouldn’t have done that to them.” And so even modest pressure for reform is defeated by the reliably infantile thinking of around half the population.
As government agents and police officers live inside a world of clear rules and expectations in which obeying orders is Job One, it is hardly surprising that the typical agent or officer will happily don riot gear and go out into the night to wreak havoc. They are, after all, only doing their jobs and obeying orders. By behaving as perfect automata, such people maintain their psychological equilibrium and of course protect not only their paycheck but also their eagerly-sought retirement benefits.
It’s necessary when operating in this mode to see everyone else as “the enemy.” After all, if a thug in uniform saw a man in his seventies, perhaps rather like his own grandfather, as a real person he’d be less inclined to attack the old man. If a thug in uniform saw a middle-aged woman as rather like his own mother, he’d be less inclined to drench her in tear-gas and club her with his baton. The rubric of “law and order” requires that the enemy be clearly defined, dehumanized, and attacked without hesitation. To the agent or officer, that harmless old man is a vicious enemy who must be subdued before he does terrible things with his…. cellphone. To the agent or officer, that middle-aged woman is a terrorist who must be stopped at all costs before she…. keeps waving that placard.
It would be adorable to imagine that one day the thugs will wake up, see the insanity of what they do every day, feel remorse, and stop. It would also be adorable to imagine our species being able to fly courtesy of wings on our backs.
History shows clearly that there are never any meaningful consequences for the millions of those who do terrible things while “just obeying orders.” Postwar Germany saw fervent Nazis working in all levels of government and industry, consequence-free. Postwar France saw all those collaborators who eagerly helped shovel Jewish citizens into the Holocaust working in all levels of government and industry, consequence-free. Post-Soviet Russia likewise saw former KGB agents not only continue to operate with absolute impunity but also gain the office of President.
Sure, every once in a blue moon some hapless junior underling somewhere is sacrificed to create an illusion of consequence so ordinary people can jump up and down and squeal happily like overly excitable children at a birthday party, while in reality everything goes on just as it did before.
What this means, in our world of increasing populism, is a widespread return to regular use of force against citizens who have the temerity to object to government malfeasance. As populist policies reliably destroy jobs and turn neighbor against neighbor, economies slump and discontent grows. Autocrats then rely increasingly on their militias (police forces, various government agencies operating with or without legal authority) to suppress growing discontent. For a very long time indeed this strategy can be successful. The Soviet Union lasted for seventy-three years and before it the Tzars ruled through violent repression for centuries. The USA since its very foundation has used force against minorities in order to preserve white privileges. China has always, in one form or another, been an autocracy.
Civil liberty is a rare and temporary phenomenon. It’s simply because we’re so ignorant that we presently mistake it for the norm.
As Trump and Brexit and Modi’s Hindu nationalism and Erdogan’s incompetent Sultanate and so many other examples of populist stupidity wreck economies and societies around the world it’s clear that we’re in for several very nasty decades. Perhaps during this time of horrors a few clever people will reflect on what made it all possible, and contemplate ways to avoid automatically surrendering to the least admirable aspects of human nature in future.
Until then, those giving the orders to the baton-wielders will continue to use violent suppression as their go-to strategy because simply because it is the easiest and most effective option available. And our neighbors, friends, and family members who happen to also be police officers and government officials will continue to wield those batons because, after all, they’re just doing their jobs and following orders.