November 1, 2014
Law and order back in fashion
Sergio Massa stole a march on all his rivals by suddenly making law and order his pet issue. That gambit could make his life a bit harder should be succeed Cristina in the Pink House, because he would then be expected to back up his words with some forceful measures, but in the meantime it will do him no harm at all. His chance came when he got wind of some draft proposals in the works that, among other things, would allegedly make life easier for serial offenders.
Though a Radical and a prominent member of Mauricio Macri’s PRO party who had a hand in drawing up the reform blueprint strenuously denied they wanted to be soft on crime, they could only wriggle and squirm and complain they had been misunderstood.
As the days passed, leading politicians queued up to say that they too were against any reforms that seemed to favour wrongdoers, let along corrupt politicians.
We have been here before. Periods in which public concern about trigger-happy cops tops the agenda are regularly followed by others in which stopping criminals in their tracks by whatever means are necessary takes priority. The problem would be simpler if the local police had the kind of reputation British bobbies once enjoyed, but that is far from being the case. In many people’s view, they all too often switch sides to make common cause with the merciless thugs who prey on society. Many attempts have been made to weed out the ones who take bribes, run chains of brothels or moonlight as drug dealers. None have been successful.
Last December’s police mutinies accompanied by widespread looting in which some cops took part did little to restore public trust in the men and women who are supposed to protect them and who, it must be said, often get killed when doing their duty. The fact that the rebellion began when Córdoba’s governor tried to purge the local force of senior officers he said were in the pay of drug cartels did nothing to help matters.
Just what the would-be reformers of the Penal Code had in mind is unclear, but the general feeling, encouraged by Massa and his supporters, is that they are just a bunch of leftish theorists, led by the notoriously permissive Supreme Court Justice, Eugenio Zaffaroni, who care far more for the rights of low-life thugs than for those of their many victims. True or false, the public mood is such that politicians would be ill-advised to give the impression they think the time has come to give criminals a break. That is why, one by one, most rallied behind Massa, thereby helping the former Kirchnerite cabinet chief turned dissident improve his rating in the opinion polls.
If there is a consensus, it was summed up by Tony Blair’s appealing catch-all slogan: Though on crime, tough on the causes of crime. Translating it into a workable policy is anything but easy. An all-out offensive against crime would not only mean letting the more macho cops do their stuff by gunning down delinquents. It would also entail the building of many new prisons to house the ones that are captured alive. Until the country gets hold of large amounts of ready cash, such a programme will have to remain on the backburner.
If the causes of crime were easily identifiable, politicians would at least know what would have to be done to remove them though, seeing that would probably require spending a great deal of money, for the time being they would have to limit themselves to fighting a delaying action. This would certainly be the case were there any reason to take seriously leftwing and populist thinkers who blame street crime on “capitalism,” made even crueller by the baleful influence of “neoliberalism” that, by encouraging greed, transforms otherwise honest proletarians into predators willing to murder their fellows for a pair of running shoes or a cheap mobile phone. Strangely enough, people who think this way did not protest against Cristina’s emphasis on the merits of rampant consumerism. In any event, capitalism is here to stay, so assuming it encourages criminal activities is not very helpful.
Equally dispiriting are the views of the many who suspect crime is a natural consequence of poverty or inequality though, most hasten to add, poor people are by and not only honest but are also the principal victims of those individuals who are not. No matter how brilliant Argentina’s future economy ministers may be, much of the population will be poor for many more years to come, while, if what is happening throughout the world is anything to go by, income inequality seems certain to increase.
Others attribute the sheer viciousness that has become the hallmark of so many delinquents to a moral collapse that, according to them, has corrupted just about everybody by undermining authority. There may be something in what they say, but changing a society’s culture so that all its members respect one another as they supposedly did in former times would by no means be a straightforward task. Could “zero tolerance,” as preached by the admirers of US conservatives back in the 1980s, help? Perhaps, but it could easily lead to a harsh crack-down on petty offenders that would feed hostility towards the police in the dilapidated urban districts in which violent crime is already rife.
The outlook, then, would seem gloomy were it not for the fact that in many countries, among them the UK and the US, crime rates have fallen sharply in the last couple of years. If that surprising phenomenon has anything to do with the economic turndown, Argentina should share the benefits. After all, there can be no doubt that hard times are on the way.