Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Violence Specialists

Alice Ristroph

In the terminology of a recent book by two economists and a political scientist, “violence specialists” are those who use violence professionally. Violence and Social Orders is a grand theory of human societies (the book’s subtitle is “A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History”) expounded in rather dry, matter-of-fact prose. The matter-of-fact tone makes the phrase “violence specialists” particularly striking. In a contemporary society like the United States, the authorized violence specialists include the military and police forces. But we don’t tend to speak of our military and police in this way. Indeed, it might be more common to hear police and military personnel described as potential targets of violence than as agents of violence. The police, and the troops, are often praised as “those who put their lives on the line.” And we say, abstractly, that police and military forces keep us safe or protect the public, but the rhetoric of safety and protection tends to obscure the violent means by which safety is ostensibly secured. Given our usual ways of speaking, “violence specialists” is an attention-grabbing phrase.

Unless you think the word violence always implies that the force in question is used wrongfully, the phrase “violence specialists” doesn’t itself pass judgment on the actions of police or soldiers. Max Weber famously described the state as the entity with a monopoly on legitimate violence, and one could view the police and military as the agents of that distinctively legitimate violence. But there’s something to be gained, I think, by directly acknowledging the extent to which police and military forces are agents of violence and not only noble, self-sacrificing targets of it.

Among other things, thinking of police officers and soldiers as violence specialists might prompt some uncomfortable, but necessary, reconsiderations of appeals to their safety. There seems to be a strong presumption that even amidst the ritual expressions of gratitude toward “those who put their lives on the line,” we should do everything possible to prevent their lives from actually being put on the line. In Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, “officer safety” has become a talisman used to justify shrinking protections for individual privacy and broader police discretion. In the national security context, the safety of the troops seems to have similar talismanic appeal. It’s nearly taboo, I think, to suggest that officer safety or troop safety is one goal among many rather than a priority to be pursued at all costs. Thinking of the police and the military as violence specialists acknowledges both the risks these professionals face and the risks they impose.

[Cross-posted at Concurring Opinions.]

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