Wednesday, 30 April 2014

The Limits of Self-defense, the Threat of Violent Right-wing Extremism and the Job of Leviathan

One night, I'm being attacked in my home by a right wing extremist neighbour, who doesn't like the anti-racism slogan on my door. He catches me by surprise when I come home from this evening's grocery shopping and, armed with a stick and bottle, he forces himself into my hall as I unlock and open my door. Inside, he starts to push me further in, yelling violent threats and hitting me. But I manage to regain the initiative, because a friend of mine is sitting in my living room, waiting for me to return, for us to prepare some dinner together, and when she joins me, we outnumber the extremist attacker and counter the violence wielded against us, using whatever weapons we can grab. Yelling back and now making a threatening figure, we make him turn around and back out of the door, we continue out of the flat, into the outer hallway of the house, following him back down the stairs to make sure he exits the house. When we open the front door, we can see the attacker disappear surrounded by some police, who have now arrived, one of which meet us right outside my house and asks us to stop our pursuit. But I'm doubting the capacity of the police – after all, where were they when that madman attacked me in the first place? And I'm angry and scared and full of violent energy – that /%€#*! I so want a bite at him, don't I? Plus, I feel I have the right on my side, since I was attacked because of my political opinions, which I have all right to hold and to communicate publicly. I also hold a knife in my hand, which I grabbed in the moments earlier as a last resort, fearing the attacker who was armed. So, I ignore the policeman's instruction and start running after the attacker, catching him fleeing before any of the cops have managed to get at him, and I stab him in the back. Deep. Several times. He sinks to the ground, blood flooding, and I realise he might die. But I feel safe now. Ten seconds later I'm arrested by the police and eventually convicted for attempted manslaughter (as the attacker survived), wielding of an unlawful weapon and insubordination of a police officer. I get six years and seven months in jail. The prosecutor has been lenient and charged me with attempted m.s. rather than murder in spite of me having confessed awareness of the risk of my violence being deadly, taking account of the earlier threat against me. But the sentence is at the same time influenced by the fact that I have convictions from before – for attacking the homes of known right-wing extremists using weapons and rioting, among other things, so that counts against me sentencing-wise. Had I been younger – I'm 35 – and had had a clean record, the sentence might have been less harsh, but under the circumstances it is expected.

This is a made-up story, but it recounts in a more domestic setting and with some dramatic addition of a subjective nature, the events occurring at a political anti-racism demonstration in the Stockholm suburb Kärrtorp a few months back. An armed neonazi extremist gang attacked a peaceful anti-racism manifestation, organised by ordinary people living in the area. The people, however, drove the attackers back, using a bit of force, as they had every right to. But, having driven the attackers away, it didn't stop, a few present self-appointed "anti fascist activists" started a further pursuit of them, in spite of being ordered by the initially inorganised, surprised and outnumbered police to stay where they were. One of these activists caught up with one of the attackers and stabbed him several times in the back, causing severe inner damage, almost killing him. This person was today convicted for attempted manslaughter, unlawful threat (a charge from a separate event), carrying an unlawful weapon and violent rioting to 6 years and 7 months in prison. The reports of this are found here (in this segment the knifing is identified in a video), here, here. Seven of the neonazi attackers have already been convicted for violent rioting to varying sentences, several of them young enough to be handed over to social services for compulsory non-penal measures. The man convicted today is 35 years, already has a series earlier convictions, involving threat and violence, and is a member of the left-wing activist group, the "Revolutionary Front", whose members have recently been forced to leave the reformist left-wing party, Vänsterpartiet. In light of all these things, the sentence looks quite normal and expected, in particular if one counts that there's already been a deduction in the seriousness of the initial charge.

Videos of the events in Kärrtorp are here (the initial phase, in the latter part the knifing is caught on film, as analysed in the first news report linked to above)...

And here (the latter phase, when the attackers where further pursued out into the woods)

Many people, not least with left-wing leaning political sympathies, and especially those engaged in anti-racism have a problem accepting this outcome of things. They feel that it is the neonazi attackers who are to blame. Or that it is the police's fault, which should have been expecting trouble and been more prepared. But this reasoning is very hard to make into sense. Look at the the first made-up story. I think everybody agree that I and my friend had every right to do what we did up to the point when the policeman ordered us to stop the pursuit. True, i didn't feel safe in the story and I didn't trust the police (plus I was angry as hell), but that gives me no right to pursue a fleeing person to stab him in the back. Do you feel inclined to disagree? Change the story just one bit and give me my hunting rifle with a scope, shooting the attacker down from several hundred meters. That ok too? Now hand me my machine gun and the grenades....

But what about the police, shouldn't they have been better prepared? Indeed they should have in the best of worlds and from now on, they really should. The threat from right-wing extremist activists towards ordinary people expressing decent and ordinary opinions peacefully is very reall. We are all threatened by this group of criminals. But the fact that the police wasn't sufficiently prepared in Kärrtorp does not give people a license to kill anymore than the fact that the police wasn't there in sufficient force to make me feel safe in my first example. You're still doubtful? Let's generalize the reasoning you feel drawn to and ask what sort of society you would get....

This is the principle that applies to everyone of us: Whenever I feel insufficiently safe, I may use deadly force against other people who I, for good reason, feel threatened by. Now, imagine for a while, how the streets of a normal city would be like if that logic was allowed to prevail. That, my dear friend, is society breaking apart into the shards that we have a state in the first place to secure us against. This was famously realised by the British political philosopher Thomas Hobbes several hundred years back, in chapters 13-15 of his legendary treatise Leviathan. And to make sure that such protection remains, the sovereign power of the state is licensed to use whatever force necessary - to prevent a return of that state of nature where life of everyone is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". For that reason, to have common rules embraced that ensure that as little such state force is necessary makes a lot of sense. But that, in turn, makes it necessary for the sovereign – the state – to provide reasonable protection from what otherwise awaits us. For it is the well-known tactic of right-wing extremists – all since the successful use of the S.A. "militia" by the Nazi party in Weimar Germany in the 1930's to create a wide sense of disorder and panic, which useful idiot revolutionary left-wing groups at the time let themselves be drawn into – to lure us into abandoning our shared societal rules, in order for them to start to look like a pleasant alternative of firm order to have the trains run on time once more.

In effect, the reaction that the police needs to be better at protecting people against the violent threat of right-wing extremists makes a lot of sense. And perhaps, there is even reason to ponder a less generous freedom of association, assembly and expression (which in Sweden is much more allowing that, e.g. in Germany, when it comes to the first two). But, once again, that doesn't give us all a license to kill. Rather, the logic is like this: society has a good reason to tighten its response and protection against the apparently increased threat of violent attacks against ordinary people. And it has this reason not only because of its general duty to provide a peaceful and secure society, it has it also to forestall any undermining of the public general support of common rules according to which deadly force is not to be wielded except under conditions of extreme necessity for self-defense or defense of others. If we tread over that border, the response should be as harsh as ever else in similar circumstances, for what we engage in is not self-defense or a noble fight for a more peaceful society, it is the gradual dismantling of civilization at its core.