Thursday, July 22, 2010

Police states and "pre-crime"

In 2007 Kim Scheppele, a Princeton professor of the sociology of law who is an expert on the Soviet and Russian law, delivered a disturbing paper at the American Political Science Association. It traced the transition from a totalitarian regime to a democracy in Russia and the inverse path of the Bush administration in the United States from the rule of law and democracy to authoritarianism. She focused on the denial of habeas corpus, torture and the “Patriot” Act (this act has the same relation to a common good – democratic patriotism - that medical “insurance" companies which deny coverage people have paid for when they actually get sick and raise their rates on purchasing insurance if they survive have to decent practices of insurance- inter alia.

Scott Horton, an international lawyer, who has led the fight against American torture, the illegal firing of states’ attorneys under Bush and many other important matters (see his blog at here) has developed the striking concept of pre-crime. The secret police – named the Stasi in East Germany (it once employed 10 per cent of the populaton see here) - like to watch over people, interrogate them, warn them about how their thoughts might lead to crime. They have “committed pre-crimes” and must be counseled/intimidated. This Kafkaesque proceeding contrasts with the rule of law in which one is innocent until proven guilty and must be accused only of criminal acts. As a matter of freedom, thoughts and predispositions are private.

Some years ago, Richard Herrnstein spoke at the National Institute of Justice to police chiefs urging the police to identify “likely criminals” by their body types. Certain body types supposedly predispose to crime and this, too, is a marker of pre-crime. The same argument can be found in Herrnstein and James Q. Wilson’s wretched Crime and Human Nature which has in it perhaps – then being distinguished professors – the stupidest single “argument” produced for pseudo-scientific racism. There are 4 arguments, they contend, which suggest innate black inferiority in “intelligence” (as measured by IQ tests) to whites. There is insufficient evidence to evaluate any of them carefully, they acknowledge. Scientists usually take such lack of evidence for pseudoscientific theses to indicate – bigotry. Instead, the claim. they assert, “cannot plausibly be rejected” (the book itself – written for social scientists) – and is “probably true” (Herrnstein’s 4 page speech to police chiefs). The logic of this is: I slander you 4 ways. You show each of them to be false on the evidence. Nonetheless, I have told the truth because there are 4 [h/t Hilary Putnam].

Racial profiling is of course a leading specimen of pre-crime - breathing while brown - and the recent Arizona law, pushed by Governor Jan Brewer and recently honorably opposed by Attorney General Eric Holder and Obama is also technically pre-crime or an example of the overturning of the rule of law, the move toward a police state or fascism (a reactionary police state focused on racism and harming all citizens).

Yesterday, I commented on the description of Yonatan Shapira of his interrogation in Israel for being a Jew who stands up against the abuse of Palestinians here. The interrogator Rona makes it clear that the Knesset is about to criminalize his behavior. This, too, is a startling example of pre-crime. This is a tutelary regime in which the soul of the victim must be counseled by obscure and faceless bureaucrats before the person is rended through torture to give up their “inherent guilt". The police are never dangerous or guilty of anything. Protecting the dignity and equal freedom of individuals is, for such bureaucrats, nothing. No one is innocent until proven guilty. People are Gregor Samsa, suddenly cockroaches, and Kafka gives metaphors for this.

Every American citizen is hurt by the racism of Arizona toward immigrants – pre-crime means that the police force will become worse and worse toward citizens but just as importantly, while some are diverted to rage at the victims and build walls along the border - the theme song of the Republican party - a vast redistribution of wealth and income has occurred from most people, the bottom 80% of the population - to the very rich. See Kevin Phillips, Wealth and Power or the chart Andew Sullivan put up yesterday here. Similarly a decent or democratic regime might welcome or at least tolerate civil disobedience and Palestinian nonviolence compared to a terrorism which often takes the lives of innocents. In contrast, the Israeli state in magnifying its own violence as in the case of the Mavi Marmara here or the attack on Hanin Zuabi in the Knesset – destroying its integrity as a parliament -here and makes every ordinary Israeli more insecure. People proceed about their lives pretending these things don’t happen, as Martin Niemoller once said: after they come for the Jews – “and I did nothing”* - and the Communists and the union leaders and the Roma and the homosexuals “and I did nothing,” at last– “they came for me and there was no one left to protest.” Democracy – our fate and dignity as free people is linked in a chain, person by person. To defend the rights of the “least of these” is not just altruism or intelligence or decency (though it is all of these) but to defend one’s own equal basic rights. As Eugene Debs, the great American socialist jailed for rightly opposing American engagement in World War I, once said, “while a soul is in prison, I am not free.”

Horton’s phrase about pre-crime should become part of a general vocabulary for analyzing the assault in reactionary regimes on the rule of law. Authoritarians justify their crimes in the name of “fighting terror” and brutalizing racial “inferiors” or “others” as well as citizens who stand up for their humanity. It is both a matter of conscience and of interest to eradicate all official/totalitarian abuses involving accusations of pre-crime.

"From the Department of Pre-Crime
By Scott Horton

Here’s some news that Phillip K. Dick could work into a novel:

The lower house of the Russian Parliament passed a draft law on Friday allowing the country’s intelligence service to officially warn citizens that their activities could lead to a future violation of the law, reviving a Soviet-era K.G.B. practice that was often used against dissidents. The president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, is expected to sign it into law shortly.

The legislation was proposed during the tense weeks after two suicide bombers attacked the Moscow subway, and its stated goal was to stanch the growth of radicalism among young Russians. But rights advocates and opposition parties have warned that the expanded powers could be used to silence critics of the government. In a letter made public on Thursday, 20 leading human rights activists condemned the legislation as a blow to “the cornerstone principles of the law: the presumption of innocence and legal certainty.”

On one hand, we have the principle that persons are presumed innocent and can only be convicted of a crime based on evidence showing at least an overt act connected to a crime. On the other, we have the concept of thought crimes—that someone’s very attitudes can constitute a predisposition to commit crime, and that this is a crime itself. The first belongs to the bedrock of modern democratic society. The second is a characteristic of totalitarian systems. The two cannot really be reconciled.

America has been experimenting with the notion of pre-crime for eight years, as our Justice Department and intelligence community have set out to apprehend, abuse, and torture persons, not based on evidence that they have committed a crime, but rather on generally unreliable intelligence predicting that they are likely to do so, perhaps citing scattered words in phone conversations or emails. When the victims turn out to be clearly innocent, a dilemma arises. But the Leitmotiv of the Justice Department since 9/11 has been simple: never admit to having made a mistake. This explains the numerous attempts to extort bogus confessions through torture and oppression, and the efforts to rig a case in an attempt at least to persuade authorities that there was a legitimate basis to hold the prisoner in the first place. Maher Arar and Khaled El-Masri are but two of the victims of these shenanigans.**

This is another of those lamentable areas in which, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a convergence seems to be underway between Russia and the United States, and the Soviet model is proving far more influential than most observers would like to acknowledge."

*I sometimes call the Palestinians the Jews of the occupied territories (just can’t figure who the occupiers who have forgotten themselves are).

**Both were kidnapped and tortured. “Shenanigan” is the not the right word.


mw said...

You opposed the UN sanctions on Iraq on grounds that they harmed innocent Iraqis, but support a boycott of Israel on the grounds that they will serve to punish a fascist Knesset.

Do you want to explain your reasoning to such different conclusions?

Anonymous said...

Never put off till tomorrow what may be done today..................................................................

Alan Gilbert said...

Good question, MW. The UN boycott was initially a response to Saddam Hussain's aggression in Kuwait, an alternative to war. In this respect, boycott failed. But the first Gulf war eliminated the cause: it freed Kuwait. Yet the UN, having won, corruptly continued the boycott, supposedly over "weapons of mass destruction." That boycott of Iraq did not harm Saddam Hussain and his allies, but killed - by UN statistics - 4,500 children a month through the 1990s. It barred vital medical and food supplies to ordinary people. Such boycotts for military reasons, imposed by states, mainly by the most powerful, the US government, are directly harmful to ordinary people, in that case, genocidal, and were denounced as genocidal by 3 UN leaders of humanitarian efforts there who resigned in protest against the boycott, notably Assistant UN Secreatary General Denis Haliday.

In contrast, a boycott of Israel, focused on Israeli imprisoning and exploitation of people in the occupied territories especially weapons manufacturers, defends the people hurt by the occupation. It is humanitarian in intent. Politically, it facilitates a movement from below - one which will be nonviolent, and thus not rely, as the corrupt Hamas does, on missiles or suicide bombers which kill innocents and strengthen the Right in the Israeli government, but rather reveal the routinized, militarist horror of that government's actions in the territories. Such a civil disobedience movement is likely to attract widespread support internationally and among people in Israel who see the occupation for what it is. Hence, the desperation of the Knesset to criminalize Israeli supporters of the boycott.

This boycott, as with the boycott of South Africa, opposes oppression and puts enormous pressure on the regime about its illegal and immoral occupation.

One last point, the Iraq boycott revealed the United Nations as a corrupt entity (see John Pilger's film for the BBC: Paying the Price.) But that was just after Soviet collapse and a new period where America could have ceded authority to a decent UN, rather than corrupted it (that the UN is a genocidal organization toward ordinary Iraqis has poisoned its credibility for quite a long period I suspect), where America could have worked multilaterally for peace and human security, not militarism. Such a regime might have begun to deal with climate change, might be able to sustain Keynsian policies to put the unemployed back to work. But America has a war complex which speaks through, sadly, both parties. It did not just miss a large chance to encourage the world on a different course; it acted belligerently to bar such a course. This was, under Bush the first and Bill Clinton, one of the great political tragedies of modern history. Instead of an era of comparative peace and efforts to deal with great global problems, they made an era of unending war...

Pretty good for ordinary people to stand up nonviolently against it.

mw said...

As you know Alan, the UN sanctions were not a boycott but an embargo of specific items sanctioned by and under the under the terms of the Charter. You recall the "oil for food" aspect of it?

In contrast a boycott of Israel would, were it effective, harm Palestinians and children of all ethnic and cultural origins. This was the basis of your opposition the Iraq embargo, I thought. Your positions seem, at best, contradictory or at worst forced by ideological double speak.

If the UN is "corrupt" as you say then, Palestinians who receive UNHCR aid and other such aid should stop taking it I presume, and state which pay for it should stop doing so, I presume.

Alan Gilbert said...


The UN boycott was by the testimony of UN humanitarian officials and its food and agriculture administration genocidal. It came after a war that was won. "Oil for food" was mostly an excuse to delay, sadly. Look at Pilger's movie and consider if you really want to say this.

Israel allows Palestine no airport. It is why it can have, with Egypt, imposed a "large scale concentration camp" on Gaza. All the specific boycotts against weapons manufacturers and others who leech on the occupied territories have an effect; so would more general boycotting. The nonviolent Palestinian resistance wants this; and it does not kill the Israelis, particularly innocents. It is interesting that the supporters of the occupation, who live by guns and killing civilians alone, have no approach to dealing with nonviolent opposition.

The US government does some good things - the stimulus package for example put people to work and spent no money on war. Obama would like, other things being equal, to create green jobs. I fail to see why opposing the corrupt things that Obama does - the five wars and/or occupations. for example - requires that one oppose the good things. More generally, that one opposes very bad things including bad things by the UN, does not require that one also oppose good things.

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