Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Plug It In, And...

Recent events and discussions have really brought to the forefront the issue of power. It's not something that gets talked about much in the cybersphere, at least not directly, because it seems like such a simple thing. So everyday. It is so desirable, so necessary, so inevitably useful... intoxicating... easily abused.

Forgive me if I wind up repeating myself, but thanks to that recent, oh-so-controversial law passing in Arizona, there has been an awful lot of talk about just how much power police should have and just how they should exercise it. People are quick to bring up the problems of both illegal immigration and Mexico's drug wars and how Arizona seems to be bearing the brunt of it all. These are very valid arguments, of course, and it's easy to see how people feel so strongly about them. But then you have the other side of the coin, i.e. the human side; specifically, there is the matter of how human beings, i.e. the police, will respond to such increased power.

Since I've already been misunderstood, I want to make some things very clear here. I have become personally acquainted with a number of current and former police officers (even more if you count security guards) over the years. Two of them are relatives. A few more are people I count among my friends. Without exception, I would regard any of them as respectable, professional, and very serious about what they do/did.

On the other hand, and this is central to my point, many of them, maybe even most of them, have boasted to me on at least one occasion about how they abused their power. Mostly this involved them targeting people who belonged to a particular ethnic group or segment of the population (or a particular type of person), singling them out, and harassing them even though they'd done nothing wrong. Their reasoning was simply that the targeted person or persons were one of "them" and therefore suspect by default.

One policeman acquaintance put it to me this way: "It doesn't matter if only one in ten is bad. I mean, one in ten...don't you think it makes more sense just to assume they're all that way and keep 'em out of our neighborhoods?"

Actually, the communities served by those policemen would probably be in total agreement (like Arizona now), and therein lies the rub. Like I said, these are not "bad cops" at all; they are simply letting their zeal for their job get the better of them, and in so doing they are overstepping their boundaries for their perceived good of the people. A guy on Facebook recently told me that for policemen to ignore the written legal code and impose their own arbitrary law, even to the point of trampling on the legal rights of innocent people, was simply "the rules" and "there [sic] right". However, there is a dictionary term for that sort of thing; it's called "vigilante justice", and it is technically a crime. Fighting crime with crime is not supposed to be part of a law enforcement officer's repertoire. Good or bad, it is abuse of power.

Don't think I'm only singling out police here. Any kind of power over others carries with it the potential for abuse. Schoolteachers like myself have power over others, and that power can be and sometimes is abused (as the news media is so fond of pointing out whenever possible). Ironically, in my college days, education was the one occupational area I vowed to avoid at all costs simply because I saw so clearly how many (but definitely not all, maybe not even most) teachers misused their authority, mainly in the form of favoritism if not outright bigotry (i.e. "I don't like that kind of person, so I'm not gonna pass him"). After actually becoming a teacher, I saw even worse abuses, sometimes even inflicted by senior teachers on junior ones. For that matter, here in corporate-ruled Japan, the tradition has long been for people to be constantly at the mercy of those above them; if you work for a company, for example, your superiors are traditionally expected to control every aspect of your life, business or personal, and abuse of that power in the form of bullying, theft or destruction of property, and/or sexual harassment (if not rape) was long considered simply par for the course. As Japan has become more internationalized (read "Westernized"), people have begun to question both the traditional hierarchy and the abuses that tend to go with it, but it is still very much part of the culture. In recent times we have also seen that abuse of power can and does happen even at the hands of our beloved, supposedly-moral spiritual leaders, as the recent morass of sex scandals in the Catholic Church has come to show. (Heck, I've even been accused of abuse of power in my execution of the role of administrator of this blog!) Despite their trusted status in society, these people are all human, and the old adage, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," definitely seems to hold true.

The intrinsic dangers of power over others were shown with chilling clarity by the Stanford Prison Experiment. College student volunteers were taken to a simulated prison and separated into two groups, prisoners and wardens, and then told to serve their assigned roles in a simulation of prison life. It was intended to be a two-week experiment to analyze the psychology involved in prison life, but it had to be terminated after only six days because things went horribly wrong. Many parallels have been drawn with the Abu Ghraib debacle with regard to how the warden group began to abuse its authority in increasingly sadistic ways. Even after the experiment was stopped, the personalities of the student volunteers seemed changed; those who had been wardens had become more aggressive and brutal than before while those who had been prisoners suffered from depression and stress disorders. These were perfectly ordinary college students who were more or less the same in the beginning. When one group was given total power over another they learned to regard as "bad", that power was almost immediately abused.

And if it can happen that easily among students carefully screened from a much larger pool who knew from the beginning they were participating in an experiment, think how easily it could happen in a much more uncertain, real-life situation.


  • I am a bit curious whether the reality is meeting the perception. Violence is not up on Arizona border despite Mexican drug war

    There is no doubt to anyone with eyes that there are many, many more Mexican immigrants trying to find work than there were 30 years ago. The question is whether it is a good thing or a bad thing.

    When Mommy and Daddy had jobs, they could afford to buy junior a clunker; it didn't matter that the field jobs and fast food/kitchen work were becoming strongholds of immigrant labor. Now that one of them is unemployed and they owe more on that wonderful house they bought in 2007 than it is worth, junior gets no car and all of a sudden we have an immigration problem because we have 2 jobs to fill that someone else already has (and quite frankly is probably better at due to familiarity with the task).

    There is historical precedent in the US where falls in the economy have resulted in pushbacks against immigration or against the poor in general. We are not exempt from human nature just because we passed human rights legislation in recent history. Both Obama and Bush have seen to that by choosing to ignore some laws and enforce others based on ideological or corporate preference.

    This brings us up to your point that human rights can and will be ignored. The stage has been set, now the players will carry it out.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 5:33 AM  

  • Excellent post Moody!...I think the adage "Absolute power corrupts absolutely" applies here. You've shown examples of just what a little power can do to most people. Also, since unfortunately most cops also have to deal with the not-so-nice portions of our society, I"m sure that informs their justification sensibility for the aforementioned incidents. The problem as I see it is Arizona is lock-step inline to hijack the Police Force into some kind state militia...something you DON'T want your local law enforcement to be.

    A guy we know trains folks to be law enforcement in Afghanistan. He says he has to fight against in the tradition of 'cops" not becoming a local landlord's personal enforcement patrol, and constant mentoring and education are key. People there are terrified of the police. Me...reminds me of the local "knights" (glorified bullies with swords) that hung around the local Baron's place ...When you get beyond the romantic idealization of Tristan & Isolde..King Arthur and such... the reality was pretty dismal. The vast majority of these knights could not even read....ok a bit of a tanget but you get what I mean.

    PS When I lived in Mexico everyone was very afraid of the police and the border guards (the Mexican ones!). I was explicitly instructed never to speak to them directly and to play dumb. That wasn't too hard as my Spanish is negligible...

    By Blogger ladybug, at 5:51 AM  

  • Oh my. Ladybug reminds me that I had a couple of experiences with Mexican Federales which made me never want to go there again. In one instance I thought my companions and I were going to be shot dead by a certain Lieutenant with a chrome plated Colt 45 in his hand.

    In the US, I think the use of "non-lethal" weapons by police such as mace and then tasers, has increased rather than decreased the violence in law enforcement. Much easier to "tase" someone than to reason with them. No social skills required.

    I've known two police offers well - not easy to do if you are not in the police community. One that I particularly liked quit after a short time. The other, who was in a band I played in for a number of years, was nice enough to joke around with, but his attitudes on policing and race really scared me - and that was in multi-cultural Hawaii.

    Happily for me, so far my few encounters with police in Japan have been brief and pleasant ones.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 8:54 PM  

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