The thrill of righteous violence

The thrill of righteous violenceA few years ago in Moscow, I interviewed Edward Limonov, novelist and leader of the National Bolsheviks, a banned political party mostly famous for their party banner — identical to the flag of Nazi Germany, but with the hammer and sickle in place of the swastika. I expected a vivid display of crazy. I got something much more interesting.

Formally, the National Bolsheviks, which Limonov founded, are the ideological blend of ultra-nationalism and communism their banner suggests. But that’s misleading. Limonov’s politics have shifted as often and as dramatically as the weather. He has even made common cause with Gary Kasparov’s pro-Western liberals.

The reason for this political ambiguity is that Limonov — like his mostly young followers — isn’t really all that interested in politics. Discussing ideologies and agendas with me, he was bored. But political protest was another matter entirely. As Limonov described how, as a young man exiled to the West by the Soviet government, he discovered the thrill of demonstrating in the streets — of running and smashing, of bracing for the charge of the police — his eyes lit up and the pocket knife he played with throughout our interview danced and twirled.

It couldn’t have been clearer that he does not see violent action as the means to a political end. For him, politics is the means to violent action.

This was a common type in the early years of the 20th century. Politics was a licence. It permitted what was ordinarily forbidden, made righteous what would otherwise be wrong. With this licence, the young men on the street — they were almost always young men — could glory in the fight.

Today in the developed world, only the extreme political fringes licence violence and even those fringes — Islamist terrorists aside — do not permit the full skull-breaking brutality of generations past. Instead, we get the adolescent tirades of the grandly styled “Black Bloc.” Although often described as anarchist, efforts to summarize the Bloc’s politics are invariably frustrated by their sheer incoherence. That’s no accident. As with Edward Limonov, politics only interests them insofar as it licences violent protest. The real concern is the thrill of the clash. That thrill — not the G20 or globalization or the rest of it — is what motivated the mayhem on the streets of Toronto.

And that statement, please note, does not apply only to Edward Limonov’s black-clad cousins.

“Well before the much-publicized destruction on Yonge Street, I’d been threatened with arrest for ‘obstructing’ a search by trying to take a picture (at a respectful distance) of two young men being searched,” wrote Globe and Mail journalist Tabatha Southey. “An officer tried to grab my cellphone. Other officers had crowded around. They boisterously mocked the psychiatric patients coming out of the mental-health hospital behind me. When I eventually, after a heated exchange, asked the officer for a badge number, he walked toward me repeatedly, sticking his chest out, so that, if I didn’t step back quickly, I’d be hit. As he did this, he yelled, ‘You want my badge number? You want my badge number? You want my badge number?'”

The Citizen’s David Warren — hardly a simpering liberal — witnessed “a politely dressed young lady walk up to (police officers), probably asking for street directions around the demonstration. She was alone, and offered no conceivable threat. She was immediately thrown back, as if she had touched an electric fence. I saw an old gentleman, likewise, pushed over. When he shouted, ‘What the hell did you do that for?’ several of the riot police chanted in unison, ‘Keep moving.'” Later, Warren “was among a group of utterly harmless bystanders, who were suddenly charged by a riot-cop phalanx. It was memorable: the most gratuitous display of police power I have witnessed in a free country.”

There are many reports like these. There can be no doubt that goon-squad behaviour was commonplace.

In a modern society, the state claims a monopoly on the use of force and it licences the police to commit violence in its name. As it should and must. And yet that licence is at least as dangerous as the licence the Black Bloc gives itself because, fundamentally, police are no different than the hoodlums who smash windows and torch cop cars: They are human.

No drug is as delicious as adrenalin and no thrill is as visceral as confrontation. It’s primal and profound. Anyone who has ever used authorized force, even a barroom bouncer, knows it’s a hell of a rush. Put a uniform on that feeling, give it a badge of righteousness, send it into a city electric with expectation, and it can become the ecstasy Edward Limonov discovered in street battle. That’s tempting stuff.

And don’t underestimate the power of group psychology, which is especially potent when individual identities are cloaked beneath uniforms, helmets, body armour, and sunglasses. Social psychology has demonstrated emphatically that, in the right circumstances, otherwise decent people who would condemn acts of violence and cruelty will commit those same acts — and rationalize them afterward.

Thus, the very nature of policing invites the sort of brutality we saw on the streets of Toronto.

And yet, what we saw was, thankfully, close to unprecedented. In much of the rest of the world, police thuggery is routine. But Canada’s cops are, in general, restrained and professional. In maintaining order, they are themselves orderly. They have every reason to be proud of this record.

And to be ashamed of what happened in Toronto.

I don’t know what went wrong, but what ordinarily keeps Canadian police from being as brutal as their colleagues elsewhere is training and supervision. I suspect the latter is the key here. The chain of command must constantly monitor officers and strictly enforce professional standards so that officers do not succumb to the temptations of righteous violence. I suspect the chain broke. If so, senior officers are even more responsible for this appalling episode than the individual officers who indulged in an ugly aspect of human nature.

Of course, to really understand what went wrong — and answer the many other urgent and troubling questions that have been raised — a public inquiry is essential. To date, Premier Dalton McGuinty has refused.

If McGuinty persists, we will have to conclude he saw nothing wrong. And the shame of what the police did will be on him.