Modernity is the first historical epoch which has concerned itself more with crippling the powerful than with improving them. The results of this unhappy experiment are by now clarion.
Little less than two weeks ago, two Italian police officers were killed in Trieste, within the very police station where they worked, by a pair of Dominican brothers who had been brought in for questioning.1 Why these brothers were present on Italian soil is not altogether clear; it is known that they had sojourned in Germany, and had subsequently fled, perhaps on account of a car theft. They had been taken into custody in Trieste for the robbery of a scooter, when one of these brothers, one Alejandro Augusto Stephan Meran, requesting the use of the restroom and being accompanied hence by a police officer, evidently made a grab for the officer’s side arm. Somehow seizing the officer’s pistol, he turned this weapon upon the two policemen detaining him and his brother, shooting them a total of seventeen times, before attempting to fire his way out of the police station, leaving several other officers wounded. The gunman and his brother both survived and were taken into custody again.
It would be easy enough to engage here a somewhat facile, but nonetheless quite justified critique of immigration (what in the devil’s name brought these two Dominicans, evidently with a known proclivity to crime,2 halfway across the globe? On what possible grounds were they admitted to the Schengen Zone, and how could they have so easily obtained residency in two European countries? How is it possible that two Italian families have been shattered by foreigners, whose presence here is apparently the latest consequence of our ‘philanthropic’ largesse? And even if we fully cede to this same philanthropy the extraordinary rights it claims for itself in our day – which of course we should not do – would our good philanthropists consider this a reasonable price for their despicable benevolence?). However, we avoid this easy target to address another question which lies somewhat beneath the surface.
The reactions to this event varied predictably, but among the most interesting were those to come from what we might consider the pedestrian, and therefore more reactive and instinctual, representatives of contemporary ‘liberalism’. Many of these responses appeared in comments on various online newspapers or on the social media, and, as is fully unsurprising, they tended to lay the blame for these events squarely on the shoulders, not of the delinquent ingrates, but of the police officers themselves: these officers evidently did not take sufficient precautions to avoid such a grisly outcome; they were evidently not sufficiently prepared for the dangers to which their professions might expose them. As if the Italian Questure were not, and rightly so, considered among the safest places on the whole Italian territory – as if it were commonplace that individuals requisitioned for mere questioning regarding a theft should engage in shooting sprees in retaliation – as if this event were not totally exceptional so far as the law and order of the Italian state is concerned. The most worthless Italian scoundrel would not consider doing something of this kind within a police station, and the very worst of the mafiosi would never be so stupid.
But this aside, our point is quite another. The reaction we have noted here contrasts most starkly with the common reaction made by individuals of precisely the same persuasion whenever a criminal is ‘mistreated’ to the slightest degree, or his ‘dignity’ even slightly offended, by the police. As in practically the whole of the West today, whenever policemen are seen using the least amount of physical force against a presumed criminal, the response of bystanders and commentators inevitably leans toward reprimanding the policemen for ‘brutality’ without even bothering to try to understand the context which might have made their actions necessary. Far be it from us to suggest that no policeman has ever abused his office; but what is interesting here is the careless presumption of guilt which is brought against any man wearing the uniform. In the United States, where ancient racial tensions have begun once more to flare up angrily about the country, the situation has gone so far that many officers fear to use even the most innocuous force in the execution of their duties, even in the interests of self-defence, for fear that this might be lead to their reprimanding, penalizing or even dismissal. This hesitancy on their part puts them, as well as the innocent civilians they are charged to protect, into mortal danger in the many urban areas across the country where violence is the order of the day.
It would be easy for the critics of ‘police brutality’ to retort here that they are so outspoken on this issue because they are concerned with limiting violence as such – that they want a peaceful society, and that any kind of physical aggression is incompatible with civil order. This riposte, however, can hardly be reconciled with the total disproportion standing between the responses to these episodes of ‘police violence’ on the one hand, and to the wanton murder of two men of the law in Trieste, in a police headquarters no less, by immigrants on the other. No time has been wasted, in certain quarters, in prattling about the ‘mental instability’ of the killer, and attempting in every possible way, if not to excuse, at least to attenuate his crime,3 painting him as almost a third victim. Had the roles been reversed, we are certain that the police officer holding the gun would not have been treated with even a fraction of such leniency by this segment of the popular opinion, even if he had acted in unambiguous self-defence. What is more, it must be pointed out that it is precisely the persons who wish to limit the sphere of possible actions open to police officers, who would have exploded in outrage had these two delinquents, for instance, been brought into police headquarters in handcuffs on a mere robbery charge. But our good liberals cannot have things both ways: either our police officers should be invested with the power to use extraordinary force whenever necessary – in which case criminals or even suspected criminals will now and then be hurt or killed – or else they should not be – in which case, it is policemen and innocent bystanders who will be the necessary victims.
Indeed, what is revealed in all of these events, and above all in the ‘liberal’ reaction thereto, is less a distaste for violence than a deeply ingrained detestation of authority. The rule of thumb for such people is simply this: authority is wrong, whatever it does, wherever it stands and in whatever conditions it finds itself. The blame lies always with the powerful.
It is easy enough to see how this kind of attitude was planted deep from the very start of the modern period. The Enlightenment from the very first evinced a keen mistrust of power, identifying power with effete ‘aristocratic’ frivolity, systemic social and political injustices, unaccountable greed and rife corruption. Indeed, few expressions are so simultaneously wholly ridiculous and wholly characteristic of modern times than that ubiquitous bon mot of Lord Acton, to the effect that ‘power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely’.4
So far as the Enlightenment thinkers were concerned, power wants restriction and ‘balancing’; authority is to be limited, constrained, contained. The French Revolution culminated, not accidentally but in accord with a stringent internal necessity, with the decapitation of countless aristocrats, who were slaughtered regardless of their achievements or their true calibre. The Russian Revolution turned its rage even more broadly against the kulaks, land-owners of comparatively petty rank; in the two centuries from the first great Enlightenment-style revolution to one of the latest, the scent for authority and status, and the hatred against it, had grown hundredfold more acute. We in our peace-loving contemporary West, though ‘revolution’ seems farther from us than Trinidad and Tobago are from London and Paris, have inherited the revolutionary sense where we have not inherited its fury; any ‘progressivist’ today bears the clear signs of the anti-authoritarian strain.
But it is one of the greater errors of our time to believe that despising and mistrusting authority will eradicate or limit it; to the contrary, opposing it mechanistically or institutionally does nothing but render it more dangerous by driving it underground, into the secret snares and pitfalls of the silent, dark, ultra-venomous spiders that live in those musty places. As Vilfredo Pareto teaches with his concept of the ‘circulation of the elites’, one can never eradicate the ruling class, one can only displace it. The contemporary displacement has been of peculiarly obnoxious detriment. In the old ‘opaque’ days of the European aristocracies, in which it was entirely possible for the rulers of European societies to shamelessly keep countless ‘state secrets’ or even ‘family secrets’, power itself was for that very reason transparent and lucid; one knew precisely where to find the centres of power, one could practically put one’s finger on them. One did not always know what the powerful were up to, but one knew with geographical precision where they were enthroned. Today, in our day of unprecedented ‘transparency’, few are the men who even suspect the true seats of power, or who know so much as the names or the faces of the men that sit them; not only the deeds and secrets of the powerful, but even the powerful themselves have become almost invisible to the public’s eye.
Make no mistake, this as a direct result of the modern hatred for authority. Everyone in our contemporary ‘liberal democracies’ is hopelessly and almost fanatically distracted by this grandiose parliamentary puppet-show, featuring its line-up of presentable and more or less charming politicians who, despite all our delusions to the contrary, are neither the most powerful men of their nations, nor the true representative of their peoples, and who take to beating one another like marionettes in public arenas for the entertainment of the common man.
As a most curious ‘externality’ to all of this – to employ a dirty euphemism beloved to our economists – the true ‘power holders’ in our time, who are often enough of so scurrilous a degree of corruption that the most contemptible of Louis XVI’s pampered and powdered courtiers seems a mere harmless dandy by comparison, are not only immune to the generalized mistrust of authority, but even become themselves its unlikely champions and profiteers. It suffices for them to manipulate the press or to perfect their own ‘public relations’, establishing themselves as the friends of the underdog and the opponents of abuses of state; they can even ostensibly turn against the very political classes they themselves have helped create, thereby painting themselves as the friends of democracy and the intransigent enemies of the corrupt political classes – and lo and behold! The people rally around them as around heroes, proclaiming their names as if it were some new Moses come down to us, ready to lead us out of our bondage. And all the while, these clever spiders work in the shadows they have gathered about themselves, ever with the aim of establishing a kind of reverse meritocracy, in which the most ruthlessly capable, the most soulless, the most psychopathic members of our society, are able to rise to influential and affluent positions by compromising themselves in every imaginable respect with each new step along the way.
Modernity is the first historical epoch which has concerned itself more with crippling the powerful than with improving them. The results of this unhappy experiment are by now clarion: our day, which has uncritically accepted Lord Acton’s judgement on power, is perhaps the first epoch in all of human existence to transform that telling error into a near truth.
3To be sure, the perpetrator was known to have ‘psychological trouble’ of various kinds. This is not the place to enter into questions which needs must touch upon the problem of free will and the justice of punishing the mentally handicapped; for the present it suffices to note that these ‘psychological troubles’ evidently led no one to suspect beforehand that this individual might be incapable of acting responsibly with all the freedoms granted to rational individuals, despite his history of crime in various countries. It is convenient to bring his ‘troubles’ up at this point, after he has launched himself into really hot water; but such groping for extenuating circumstances has about it all the smell of a will to relativize a situation which is clear enough to any man uncorrupted by the necrotic touch of contemporary moralysis. We are pleased to report at least that Matteo Salvini has cut through this nonsense, insisting that non of this should mitigate the murderer’s sentence.
4The implication of this view is that man is inherently made of corruptible material; leaving aside Lord Acton himself, who was probably superior to this statement of his, which he made in passing in a mere letter, it seems to us probable that the idea in question sheds more light on its holder than on human nature as such.