Monday, 26 March 2012

Unleash the dogs of criminalisation.

The history of criminalisation is one of casting first stones, scapegoating and of tribes seeking safety in convention. It is an entirely understandable and necessary social reflex, but possibly the most abused of all. Much of criminalisation is indefensible by almost any moral standard; from the spuriously sadistic retributions threatened by the great religions, via heresy to witch burning, to castration of young inmates of church-run boarding schools (recently revealed to have taken place in the Netherlands in the '50s). And then there is the one recent example of potential decriminalisation that beats them all: the Moroccan law that allows a rapist to marry his victim in order to save her honour (sic). Yet, my friends from LEAP, who have spent much of their lives at the sharp end of criminalisation, have explained to me just how little time the average law enforcement officer gets to spend on dealing with "proper" crime, like murder, rape and arson, and how much time goes into controlling kids with "substances" in their pockets, never mind harassing respectable housewives with substances. Which must be one of the reasons why the US has the largest prison population in the world: a quarter of the world's prisoners for 5% of the world's population - more than China - and a rate seven times higher than Europe.

But we Europeans like to learn from our American friends: the recent violent life and death of Mohammed Merah, in France, has prompted President (and candidate) Sarkozy to promise criminalisation of such things as visiting Jihad web sites, going to areas like eastern Afghanistan for no good reason , etc. Law enforcement officers and judges take note: when that woman from Médecins sans Frontières with the North African features (because her Algerian grandfather fought in the French army) checks into Charles de Gaulle  off a flight from Kabul, pull her out of the queue.  OK, it's election time, but we already have crazy laws, like the one making it an offence to deny the holocaust. Not that I believe denial of historical facts should be encouraged, but the holocaust is one of history's most documented and undisputed facts, and those who do deny it are usually so implausible (or mad) that they strengthen the holocaust case every time they open their mouths. I also get this queasy feelings sometimes about the 900,000 or so Germans who died in the allied bombing of their cities in WW II, most of them civilians, their memory unprotected by laws criminalising denial or even trivialisation of what happened to them.

The act of criminalisation always raises the issue of what is permissible in lawmaking when judging those who are not like yourself. "Otherness" (l'altérité" in french) is a familiar concept in sociology and anthropology. It is the mainspring of tribal and racial conflict which can lead to the sort of massacres I have mentioned. It was probably the greatest single factor in anti-semitism throughout the ages (that and owing money to Jews). It is one of the toxic by-products of immigration, not because immigrants are bad, but because today many (European) host countries  park their immigrant communities in no-hope housing with no-hope education, keeping them quiet with welfare but making it extremely difficult for them to belong, even if they do get through the social barriers. This doesn't justify shooting Jewish school kids or former soldiers, nor for that matter, cutting Theo van Gogh's throat or planting bombs on the London tube, but it should warn us that this may have to be dealt with in other ways than criminalisation. Killing people is already a crime.