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In criminological discourses the term “war crime” is a contested one, not because there are no atrocities committed at war, but because for some of us, war is a crime in its own right. There is an expectation that even in a war there are rules and therefore the violation of these rules could lead to war crimes. This very focused view on war is part of a wider critique of the discipline. Several criminologists including, Ruggiero, DiPietro, McGarry and Walklate, to name a few, have argued that there is less focus on war as a crime, instead war is seen more as part of a metaphor used in response to social situations.
As far back as the 1960s, US President Johnson in his state of the union address, announced “The administration today here and now declares unconditional war on poverty in America”. What followed in the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act, was seen as the encapsulation of that proclamation. In some ways this announcement was ironic considering that the Vietnam war was raging at the time, 4 years before the well documented My Lai massacre. A war crime that aroused the international community; despite the numbers of soldiers involved in the massacre, only the platoon leader was charged and given a life sentence, later commuted to three and a half years incarceration (after a presidential intervention). Anyone can draw their own conclusion if the murder of approximately 500 people and the rape of women and children is reflected in this sentence. The Vietnam war was an ideological war on communism, leaving the literal interpretation for the historians of the future. In a war on ideology the “massacre” was the “collateral damage” of the time.
After all for the administration of the time, the war on poverty was the one that they tried to fight against. Since then, successive politicians have declared additional wars, on issues namely drugs and terror. These wars are representations of struggles but not in a literal sense. In the case of drugs and terrorism criminology focused on trafficking, financing and organised crimes but not on war per se. The use of war as a metaphor is a potent one because it identifies a social foe that needs to be curtailed and the official State wages war against it. It offers a justification in case the State is accused being heavy handed. For those declaring war on issues serves by signalling their resolve but also (unwittingly or deliberately) it glorifies war as an cleansing act. War as a metaphor is both powerful and dangerous because it excuses State violence and human rights violations. What about the reality of war?
As early as 1936, W.A Bonger, recognised war as a scourge of humanity. This realisation becomes ever more potent considering in years to come the world will be enveloped in another world war. At the end of the war the international community set up the international criminal court to explore some of the crimes committed during the war, namely the use of concentration camps for the extermination of particular populations. in 1944 Raphael Lemkin, coined the term genocide to identify the systemic extermination of Jews, Roma, Slavic people, along with political dissidents and sexual deviants, namely homosexuals.
In the aftermath of the second world war, the Nuremberg trials in Europe and the Tokyo trials in Asia set out to investigate “war crimes”. This became the first time that aspects of warfare and attitudes to populations were scrutinised. The creation of the Nuremberg Charter and the outcomes of the trials formulated some of the baseline of human rights principles including the rejection of the usual, up to that point, principle of “I was only following orders”. It also resulted in the Nuremberg Code that set out clear principles on ethical research and human experimentation. Whilst all of these are worthwhile ideas and have influenced the original formation of the United Nations charter it did not address the bigger “elephant” in the room; war itself. It seemed that the trials and consequent legal discourses distanced themselves from the wider criminological ideas that could have theorised the nature of war but most importantly the effects of war onto people, communities, and future relations. War as an indiscriminate destructive force was simply neglected.
The absence of a focused criminological theory from one end and the legal representation as set in the original tribunals on the other led to a distinct absence of discussions on something that Alfred Einstein posed to Sigmund Freud in early 1930s, “Why war?”. Whilst the trials set up some interesting ideas, they were criticised as “victor’s justice”. Originally this claim was dismissed, but to this day, there has been not a single conviction in international courts and tribunals of those who were on the “victors’” side, regardless of their conduct. So somehow the focus changed, and the international community is now engaged in a conversation about the processes of international courts and justice, without having ever addressed the original criticism. Since the original international trials there have been some additional ones regarding conflicts in Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The international community’s choice of countries to investigate and potentially, prosecute has brought additional criticism about the partiality of the process. In the meantime, international justice is only recognised by some countries whilst others choose not to engage. War, or rather, war crimes become a call whenever convenient to exert political pressure according to the geo-political relations of the time. This is not justice, it is an ad hoc arrangement that devalues the very principles that it professes to protect.
This is where criminology needs to step up. We have for a long time recognised and conceptually described different criminalities, across the spectrum of human deviance, but war has been left unaccounted for. In the visions of the 19th and 20th century social scientists, a world without war was conceptualised. The technological and social advancements permitted people to be optimistic of the role of international institutions sitting in arbitration to address international conflicts. It sounds unrealistic, but at the time when this is written, we are witness to another war, whilst there are numerous theatres of wars raging, leaving a trail of continuous destruction. Instead of choosing sides, splitting the good from the bad and trying to justify a just or an unjust war, maybe we should ask, “Why war”? In relation to youth crime, Rutherford famously pondered if we could let children just grow out of crime. Maybe, as an international community of people, we should do the same with war. Grow out of the crime of war. To do so we would need to stop the heroic drums, the idolisation of the glorious dead and instead, consider the frightened populations and the long stain of a violence which I have blogged about before: The crime of war
So, we have a new prime minister Boris Johnson. Donald Trump has given his endorsement, hardly surprising, and yet rather than having a feeling of optimism that Boris in his inaugural speech in the House of Commons wished to engender amongst the population, his appointment fills me with dread. Judging from reactions around the country, I’m not the only one, but people voted for him just the same as people voted for Donald Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky, the recently elected Ukrainian president.
The reasons for their success lie not in a proven ability to do the job but in notions of popularity reinforced by predominantly right-wing rhetoric. Of real concern, is this rise of right wing populism across Europe and in the United States. References to ‘letter boxes’ (Johnson, 2018), degrading Muslim women or tweeting ethnic minority political opponents to ‘go back to where they came from’ (Lucas, 2019) seems to cause nothing more than a ripple amongst the general population and such rhetoric is slowly but surely becoming the lingua franca of the new face of politics. My dread is how long before we hear similar chants to ‘Alle Juden Raus!’ (1990), familiar in 1930s Nazi Germany?
It seems that such politics relies on the ability to appeal to public sentiment around nationalism and public fears around the ‘other’. The ‘other’ is the unknown in the shadows, people who we do not know but are in some way different. It is not the doctors and nurses, the care workers, those that work in the hospitality industry or that deliver my Amazon orders. These are people that are different by virtue of race or colour or creed or language or nationality and, yet we are familiar with them. It is not those, it is not the ‘decent Jew’ (Himmler, 1943), it is the people like that, it is the rest of them, it is the ‘other’ that we need to fear.
The problems with such popular rhetoric is that it does not deal with the real issues, it is not what the country needs. John Stuart Mill (1863) was very careful to point out the dangers that lie within the tyranny of the majority. The now former prime minister Theresa May made a point of stating that she was acting in the national Interest (New Statesman, 2019). But what is the national interest, how is it best served? As with my university students, it is not always about what people want but what they need. I could be very popular by giving my students what they want. The answers to the exam paper, the perfect plan for their essay, providing a verbal precis of a journal article or book chapter, constantly reminding them when assignments are due, turning a blind eye to plagiarism and collusion*. This may be what they want, but what they need is to learn to be independent, revise for an exam, plan their own essays, read their own journal articles and books, plan their own assignment hand in dates, and understand and acknowledge that cheating has consequences. What students want has not been thought through, what students need, has. What students want leads them nowhere, hopefully what students need provides them with the skills and mindset to be successful in life.
What the population wants has not been thought through, the ‘other’ never really exists and ‘empire’ has long gone. What the country needs should be well thought out and considered, but being popular seems to be more important than delivering. Being liked requires little substance, doing the job is a whole different matter.
*I am of course generalising and recognise that the more discerning students recognise what they need, albeit that sometimes they may want an easier route through their studies.
Alle Juden Raus (1990) ‘All Jews Out’, Directed by Emanuel Rund. IMDB
Himmler, H. (1943) Speech made at Posen on October 4, 1943, U.S. National Archives, [online] available at http://www.historyplace.com/worldwar2/holocaust/h-posen.htm [accessed 26 July 2019].
Johnson, B. (2018) Denmark has got it wrong. Yes, the burka is oppressive and ridiculous – but that’s still no reason to ban it, The Telegraph, 5th August 2018.
Lucas, A. (2019) Trump tells progressive congresswomen to ‘go back’ to where they came from, CNBC 14 July 2019 [online] available at https://www.cnbc.com/2019/07/14/trump-tells-progressive-congresswomen-to-go-back-to-where-they-came-from.html [accessed 26 July 2019]
Mill, J. S. (1863) On Liberty, [online] London: Tickner and Fields, Available from https://play.google.com/store/books [accessed 26 July 2019]
New Statesman (2019) Why those who say they are acting in “the national interest” often aren’t, [online] Available at https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2019/01/why-those-who-say-they-are-acting-national-interest-often-arent [accessed 26 July 2019]
One image, one word, one report can generate so much emotion and discussion. The image of the naked girl running away from a napalm bombed village, the word “paedo” used in tabloids to signal particular cases and reports such as the Hillsborough or the Lamy reports which brought centre stage major social issues that we dare not talk about.*
Regardless of the source, it is those media that make a cultural statement making an impact that in some cases transcends their time and forms our collective consciousness. There are numerous images, words and reports, and we choose to make some of these symbols that explain our theory of the world around us.
It was in the news that I saw a picture of a broken window, a stone and a sign next to it: “Leave my country”. The sign was held by an 11 year old refugee with big brown eyes asking why. This is not the only image that made it to the news this week; some days ago following the fatal car crash in New York the image of a 29 year old suspect from Uzbekistan appeared everywhere. These two images are of course unconnected across continents and time but there is some semiology worth noting.
We make sense of the world around us by observing. It is the media that are our eyes helping us to explore this wider world and witness relationships, events and situations that we may never considered possible. It must have been a very different world when over a century ago news of the sinking of the Titanic came through. We store images and words that help us define the way our world functions. In criminology, words are always attached to emotion and prejudice.
I deliberately chose two images: a victimised child and an adult suspect of an act of terror. They have nothing in common other than both appear foreign in the way I understand those who are not like me. Of course neither of these images is personally relatable to me but their story is compelling for different reasons. Then of course as I explore both stories and images, I wonder what is that remains of my understanding of the foreigner?
Last year, the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo produced a caricature of what would little Aylan would have done if he was to grow up, presented as a sex pest. The caricature caused public outcry but at the time, like this week, I started considering the images and their meanings. Do we put stories together based on the images we see around us? If that is a way of defining and explaining our social world then the imagery of good and bad foreigners, young and old, victims and villains may merge in a deconstruction of social reality that defines the foreigner. In that case and at that point the sign next to the 11 year old may not be voiced but it can become an implicit collective objective.
*At this stage I would like to mention that I was considering to write about the media’s “surprise” over the abuse allegations following revelations for a Hollywood producer but decide not to, due to the media’s attempt to saturate one of the most significant social issues of our times with other studies with varying levels of credibility. We observed a similar situation after the Jimmy Saville case.
The 1st of October was a bad day, I watched the news on television in dismay, as I seem to frequently do these days. Fifty eight people killed and hundreds injured by a gunman in Las Vegas. Over a few days I thought about this and continued watching news bulletins and the discussion on gun control and the right to bear arms. I recall previously seeing Barak Obama on television, lamenting the illegal use of guns in the United States and attempting to convince people that gun possession needed to be controlled. He failed, but from news reports not for the want of trying. The gun lobby and politics were a powerful block on any movement in that direction.
The present incumbent Donald Trump does not seem to have much to say about the matter other than the usual platitudes that come out at a time of national disaster. So my thoughts turned to politics and ideology. I can’t profess to know much about American politics or the American Constitution but as I understand it, the right to bear arms is written into the Constitution. The debate about whether the Second Amendment intended that ordinary citizens had the right to bear arms or the right to bear arms was intended for the militia is one that has continued for many a decade and it seems the courts, not without some dissent, fell on the side of the citizen.
As I continue to try to make sense of it all, I question what was intended by those great people that drafted and redrafted and finally agreed the American Constitution. If the very people that debated and drafted the constitution were to consider the matter now, in contemporary society, knowing the advanced technology and the damage that firearms have caused across America, including the illegal use of firearms in the name of the law, would they have drafted the second amendment in such a way?
Of course we can think about this concept a little wider and apply it to various ideologies across the world. Take the concept of free speech, would those that drafted the various constitutions and rights in many a country have foreseen that the concept of free speech would be used to spread hate against various groups of people? Did they intend that free speech would be used to adulterate and twist religious texts so that hate could be espoused and acted upon?
These rights were drafted and agreed in a different era. Those that espoused them could perhaps not have conceived that they would be abused to the extent they are now or that the concepts would cause so much damage and misery. If we could bring all those great minds together now, would they amend those rights perhaps putting some stipulations on them?
I have a feeling that many a great mind would turn in their graves at these notions and of course I understand it is not quite so simple but I do just wonder? Is freedom too great a price to pay?