Conflict brutalises all sides. Nothing new in that, of course. But language is often the first thing that you notice unless you are right in the middle of it (and then it’s even harder to notice your own brutalisation). It works at all levels – it is not just the people who beat or shoot their victims; it affected Adolf Eichmann just as much as his concentration camp guards, and in its own way also the victims inside, as Elie Wiesel and others have shown in their recollections. I am not talking about guilt and sin here: what I mean is the sometimes slow process of becoming less sensitive, more hateful (or whatever), and so on.
It should therefore not be a surprise us that the Metropolitan Police Force in Britain decided on a bizarre plan to limit prostitution by posting photos, names and dates of birth of sex workers in a certain area, even if they had never been convicted of a crime. Some newspapers (if you can call the Sun, for example, a newspaper), then printed this information. Note that their clients are not ‘named and shamed’ that way. I hope that some lawyers will take the Met to court over this, but is not my point here. Nor do want to mention it to highlight the process by which the police forces’ obligation to keep the law (supposedly), regardless of what it is, also leads to a disregard for what we used to call common sense, but which turned out to be a special skill called social analysis. No, what I am really want to say here is this: it seems to me that police officers have to deal with the awful, depressing, and sordid side of humanity so much, ever day of their working lives, that they become brutalised through that process (assuming that they all went in as “nice people” in the first place, which is not realistic either). Down that track lies abuse of power. That is why good supervision is so important, not to mention political oversight. But the latter, precisely because party politics is understood and practicd as self-entrenching power politics, is usually missing.
The same goes for the curious remarks of the current immigration minister in Britain, Mr Damian Green concerning the Oakington detention centre (oops, I mean, immigration reception facility). There is that odd idea of speaking about ‘detention estate’, meaning the range of prison-like facilities available to lock up certain people accused of being in the country illegally. And there is that curious slippage from accusation to conviction and execution, all in the form of one institition (the executive), when he states:
Actually, it’s been many thousands of people who have gone through that prison-like place. And it’s a nice populist thing for a government to say, of course; new labour, tory – whatever. Xenophobia always works.
The point is, however, that the police and immigration officials accused them of being in the country illegally. The legal avenues open to them (to challenge the immigration officers’ determination of their situation) had not been exhausted yet. Put differently, for people like Mr Green, people are ‘offenders’ if he says they are. Sod the law.
This is particularly important to note because the previous government introduced a deliberate strategy to use Oakington and other places to subvert the whole legal process by routinely turning down asylum claims in the first instance with the most pathetically flimsy decisions, many of which were overturned in the process later on. After all, if you simply turn down almost everyone in the first instance, you have effectively removed it as a real legal instance. In fact, Oakington was created for a ‘fast-track’ process of getting people through the legal instaces and out of the country as quickly as possible. Only callous, brutal disregard for people’s lives can cause this kind of awful strategy. Not surprisingly, the immigration officials who were given the task of putting this strategy in effect were the first to be brutalised by the system (not to mention their victims). Once again, the effects of brutalisation at all levels: a government is faced with the task of dealing with a large number of often desparate immigrants (for whatever reason), and has to respond to this by inventing a system. That is where bureaucracy comes in; that is where brutalisation (at the level of bureaucracy) comes in.
[I mention these examples here only because I still keep an eye on British politics, having lived there for eight years and a bit. The same thing happens everywhere, of course; Britain is just like every other place. But the fact that “others are doing it, too” is never an ethical argument.]
Brutalisation also affect those who are victims of the system, and/or those who fight it. It is part of a self-defense mechanism, I suppose, to avoid ending up crying in a corner every day. For example, I think it is almost impossible to work with people who have been beaten up, shot, or callously mistreated in other ways, without becoming desensitised in some ways. You can’t go to funeral after funeral of victims of violence without shutting down something in yourself. How much worse for the victims, if they are still alive, and their relatives. And it is hard, really hard, to love your enemies. That is where brutalisation kreeps in. I certainly know that it happens in me, and I have seen it in many others.
In the third part of his meditative poem addressed ‘To those who will be born after us‘, Bertold Brecht expressed it thus:
Auch der Hass gegen die Niedrigkeit
Verzerrt die Züge.
Auch der Zorn über das Unrecht
Macht die Stimme heiser. Ach, wir
Die wir den Boden bereiten wollten für Freundlichkeit
Konnten selber nicht freundlich sein.
Hard to translate (I don’t think the translation offered in the link above is all that accurate, but that is understandable – neither is mine):
Hatred of awfulness, too,
will distort your face into a grimace.
Anger about injustice, too,
makes your voice hoarse. Oh we
who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness
were not able to be friendly ourselves.
Brecht’s mistake is to accept that those who struggle against injustice are doomed to accept their own brutalisation. It happens, of course. But this brutalisation has to be fought, not just in our enemies, but also in ourselves.