Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, tried to have it both ways when he promised to be “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime,” a position that was cunningly designed to placate a vengeful populace without upsetting the influential minority that believes thugs are victims of a social disease, as gang members chanted in the musical West Side Story, and should therefore be dealt with in a kindly fashion. Though most democratic politicians the world over pay lip service to the approach that was so neatly outlined by Blair, their efforts to be even-handed have rarely enjoyed much success. Understanding just why some people become criminals and others, whose backgrounds are similar, continue to respect the law, is far harder than many wellmeaning progressives assume.
The causes of crime vary from place to place and from generation to generation. Explanations that might have seemed realistic a few decades ago tend to be irrelevant today. The habit many people have of looking at everything through an ideological prism is not helpful; all too often, they blame crime on whatever they happen to dislike about the modern world.
If they are left-wingers, they say crime is the natural result of inequality and capitalist greed and unless something is done to eliminate such vices, tough measures are bound to prove counterproductive. Others disagree; they think crime has to do with family breakdown, contempt for traditional values, permissiveness and, of course, their leftist adversaries’ determination to invent excuses for antisocial behaviour.
In Argentina, defenders of the notion that criminals are really victims of a terribly unjust society and therefore deserve sympathy have long been at loggerheads with those who would like to see them treated like vermin. Until quite recently, progressives who think criminals have been dealt a bad hand and therefore should be given a break held the whip hand, but that may be about to change. A week or so ago, President Mauricio Macri raised many eyebrows by publically praising an off-duty cop, Luis Chocobar, who early last December had shot dead a thief who had just knifed a North American tourist. Chocobar was then charged with employing excessive force because the thief, who was running away, was not about to knife him; however, as was quickly pointed out, while trying to escape he would in all likelihood have stabbed any bystander unlucky enough to get in his way.
Macri and some government members, among them Security Minister Patricia Bullrich, take it for granted that the country is crying out for what they call a paradigm shift. From now on they want the police and representatives of other law-enforcement agencies to be given the benefit of the doubt in all but the most outrageous cases, instead of repeatedly finding themselves under fire for allegedly overstepping the mark from jurists such as former Supreme Court justice Eugenio Zaffaroni and human rights organisations closely linked to Kirchnerite factions.
According to Jaime Durán Barba, the Ecuadorean political strategist who helped steer Macri toward the Pink House and continues to play an influential role in the country’s affairs, poll results show that much of the population would very much like to see the death penalty brought back as part of a “brutal” offensive against crime. If that is what most people are thinking, and there is no reason to doubt it, the hard line preached by Macri and Bullrich could prove highly popular. In many Western countries, support for the death penalty hovers around 50 percent of those consulted by pollsters and tends to increase in the days following particularly gory crimes.
As Argentina has been experiencing a rash of these, it would not be at all surprising if a majority blamed the current situation on judicial softness, coupled with the reluctance of policemen to gun down delinquents unless their own lives are in immediate danger. Few days go by without an officer getting murdered, so now they have been told that the government is behind them, many will be sorely tempted to shoot first and then, if they are of a thoughtful disposition, ask themselves if they really had to. It would seem that, as far as crime is concerned, the country is back where it was in 1999, when the man who would soon become governor of Buenos Aires province, Carlos Ruckauf, made “slugs for thugs”(it sounds even catchier in English than in the original Spanish), a winning electoral slogan. Since then, the crime rate has soared.
Does police ruthlessness really work? If it evidently did help keep crime at a minimum, arguing against it would be anything but easy; as far as most people are concerned, the safety of honest citizens should always be given priority over the rights of the predators who prey on them, killing them, as frequently happens, for a few pesos, a pair of running shoes or simply because they find extreme violence enjoyable.However, things are not that simple. What is happening in Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela and Honduras – countries where the murder rate is far higher than in Argentina – shows that societies in which police brutality is routine quickly become even more brutalised than they were before. Criminals who otherwise would limit themselves to stealing valuables without harming their legitimate owners know their lives are always on the line, while those who fear them are tempted to acquire arms they will be all too ready to use. Lynch law certainly has its attractions, but it does not ensure public safety.
Extreme violence can become normal. Criminals grow accustomed to the idea that they would be foolish indeed to do things by halves. Many already see policemen and women as their mortal enemies and feel they are entitled to kill them on sight. Friends and relatives who in other circumstances would help the authorities get forced to choose sides and, quite naturally, stick with their own because they know full well what would probably happen to them were they to fall into the hands of the law. Though a greater degree of police toughness may well be called for, too much of it could have catastrophic consequences for a society that, by the grim standards prevailing in much of the rest of Latin America, is still relatively law-abiding.