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On Education and Law Enforcement

10/06/2012

Writer, Gore Vidal once quipped that “It is not enough to succeed, others must fail” and on another occasion he is quoted as saying, “A narcissist is someone better looking than you are”. Vidal has an irking tendency to say incredibly witty things that you wish you had said yourself, but when on the topic of law enforcement, his epigram was less piquant and more blunt, “There is something about the State putting the power to bully into the hands of subnormal, sadistic apes, that really makes my blood boil”.

School principal Rachin in the French film Les Choristes was fond of saying, “Action. Reaction”. When one of the boys would get out of line or commit some misdemeanor, Rachin or one of his subordinates would punish the child so that he would come to associate regret with disobedience and hence would come to obey the rules set down by the school and wider society. Despite the obvious failings of his teaching, there is a less apparent wisdom in it that even Rachin, probably was not aware of. When an institution adopts a policy of action, reaction, the situation invariably becomes accentuated in the long run, each side reacting with greater vigor than the other until it eventually spirals out of control.

Schools are an integral part of any society. They are the first place that people congregate, socialise and exchange ideas. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “The philosophy of the school room in one generation is the philosophy of government in the next”. This makes it all the more worrying that schools, all around the world, tend to operate authoritarian regimes, making children associate fear with wrong doing or more importantly, perceived wrong doing. As the Lincoln quote would suggest, the schools serve as a microcosm of the nations they are a part of. Congruently, most countries to greater or lesser degrees, run an action, reaction state, and with this arrangement, people become disgruntled and increasingly turn to either crime or insurgency.

In Ireland, there are just over 14 000 members of an Garda Síochána, the guardians of the peace. Like any police service, the guards are riddled with inherent corruption. A number of court cases have ensued recently following cases of blatant police brutality but the courts generally dish out only mild sentences. The convicted criminals generally avoid prison time because of the authority their positions lend them. Countless cases of brutality and corruption continue to play out. Give a man the slightest amount of power over his fellow man and he becomes intoxicated with it. Grave questions can also be catechized about the enrollment policies of the police, what kind of people are attracted to such a job, and what level of education do they have to have completed.

Speaking of prisons, these are also a part of the malignancy of the standard system of justice. Prisons or ‘correctional facilities’ are often bastions of more serious crime than the variety its inmates were convicted of doing in the first place. Prisoners enter them on some minor charge and leave them with a schooling that will equip them with the know-how to smuggle large quantities of narcotics, cross-border.

Nobel laureate, Prof James Heckman of UCD has found over the course of his extensive studies that by merely providing all children with a good quality pre-schooling in addition to the first two years of primary level education, you can cut major crime by over a half and effectively eliminate functional illiteracy. The cost of providing this basic level of education, that is supposed to be a human right as enshrined in the UN declaration on the matter, would be far cheaper than the budget most governments currently expend on their respective police services. It also worth noting that funding in education needs to become more directed towards resource material and not additional teaching staff. Despite what teachers’ unions would have us believe, class sizes have consistently been shown to not be as important as the quality of resource materials and the teaching itself.

Of course, I am not suggesting that we just expend with our police services altogether, but major reforms need to be made. Firstly, the number of officers should be slashed, this can be done once crime is seen to have been visibly diminished. The police are a service like any other and if crime is on the fall then so should their enlistment.

So, Colm, if your education’s so great then why don’t governments pursue this policy? Simply, the positive effects of this policy would take roughly three decades to manifest. The primary objective of any (successful) government is to get re-elected at the end of the term, usually a duration of about 5 years. In tyrannies and oligarchies where elections don’t exist or are rigged, government’s have no interest in educating their citizens regardless. If a policy of this order was ever to be pursued it would have to be at the beck of the majority of the electorate in advance of a general election.

Delving deeper into the issue, we can look at social housing. In Ireland, our local governments erect large ‘corporation flats’ where the poor are provided with cheap accommodation and free basic services. This form of accommodation is a vast improvement upon the tenement flats where entire families used to dwell, cooped up into one room with several other families, but they still serve as a fulcrum of crime and violence in society. By grouping the poorest of society as well as many ex-convicts together in one place, we have succeeded in creating an entire sub-society, often willing to act towards the detriment of the greater population. Most countries, also have some form of project, ghetto, shanty town, cité, or bidonville which serve to breed crime thus keeping the police in business. Some have tried to follow a policy whereby 10% of the apartments in any complex being erected have to go towards the needy at a much reduced price. Under this system, members of different income groups live alongside one another and no one can tell who paid the full price and who paid a reduced price for the accommodation. The problem lies in the inertia of residents, many families have lived in corporation housing for generations and don’t want to move somewhere where they will be split up from the community they have become integrated into.

What I am calling for is an end to our current policy of ‘Action. Reaction.’ as Rachin so aptly put it. I would like to see governments elected with a sustainable approach to crime-fighting, education and social housing enshrined in their manifestos and protected by a legal contract. I beard the government and demand greater spending on children’s education and housing and a proportionate and gradual reduction in the number of serving police officers. Above all, I would like to see us progress as a society and bring an end to our policy of disenfranchising sectors and co-ercing them into poverty and crime, because, as the poet W.H. Auden observed, “I know what all school children learn, that those to whom evil is done, do evil in return”.

~Colm

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