In Defense of Order-Maintenance Policing

Over the last quarter century, violent crime rates fell. Nowhere was this decline more dramatic than in New York City. Franklin Zimring, a data-literate law professor, has studied the city’s achievements for years. Zimring said:

New York not only became safer than any large city in America, it did so while its population grew and its prison population fell.

Statistics illustrate the dramatic “policing difference” enjoyed by New York. While the homicide rate dropped by half in the nine largest cities other than NYC between 1990 and 2009, it dropped by 82 percent here. Rapes dropped 77 percent in New York, compared with a median rate of 49 percent in those other cities.

New York showed larger declines in every major crime, though particularly in robbery, burglary and auto theft. While robberies dropped 49 percent in other major cities, they fell an astounding 84 percent here.

What exactly changed? According to Zimring, the New York Police Department “rapidly expanded the police force and targeted specific crimes in specific areas, like cleaning up outdoor drug markets.” Following a data-centric strategy, police units were sent where their maps showed a concentration of criminal activity. By focusing on such “hot spots,” they diminished the opportunities for predation and reduced crime. In short, crime has proven to be more situational and contingent than many previously thought. Most crime appears to be opportunistic.

Any one of us could be accused of breaking the law, and any one of us could be the victim of criminal predation. A realistic concern for individual liberties, as opposed to a ritualistic one, must address both. Social norms and moral exhortation provide some restraint of despotic tendencies, but these alone are not sufficient. Punitive measures are also necessary, as the astute eighteenth century philosopher Cesare Beccaria said, “which impress themselves directly on the senses and which, by dint of repetition, are constantly present in the mind as a counter-balance to the strong impressions of those self-interested passions which are ranged against the universal good.”

Something like Beccaria’s insight lies behind “broken windows” policing, which is the practice of maintaining order in public spaces. Two proponents of this practice, William Bratton, the New York City police commissioner, and George Kelling, a professor of criminal justice, recently restated their case for a policy that is widely, and often ignorantly, disparaged. Bratton and Kelling said, “in communities contending with high levels of disruption, maintaining order not only improves the quality of life for residents; it also reduces opportunities for more serious crime.” Failure to do so sends a message that a community “cannot or will not control minor crimes, and thus will be unable to deter more serious ones. A neighborhood where minor offenses go unchallenged soon becomes a breeding ground for more serious criminal activity and, ultimately, for violence.”

Bratton and Kelling have insisted for years that order-maintenance policing is not “stop and frisk,” and it is not “zero tolerance.” They also acknowledged that some neighborhoods are singled out for more intervention than others, which they defended:

A small portion of the minority population drives the street crime and disorder in these neighborhoods, victimizing entire communities. In 2013, for example, 92 percent of murder suspects in New York were African-American or Hispanic, as were 97 percent of identified suspects in shooting incidents. One hundred years ago, the perpetrators might have been Irish, Italian, German, and Jewish, but the underlying social conditions and the patterns of crime and disorder would have been similar.

With modern, data-driven policing—exemplified by Compstat, which uses exhaustive crime data and mapping to identify crime trends and hold precinct commanders accountable for their areas—these patterns, not some determination to target minorities, determine law enforcement’s response. That is, when the NYPD analyzes and maps crime and disorder in the city, and then develops its crime-prevention plans and allocates resources to specific neighborhoods, the effort will necessarily target high-crime areas, and those tend to have a preponderance of African-Americans and Hispanics and are usually the poorest neighborhoods in the city. In neighborhoods without high levels of victimization, crime, and disorder, residents maintain order through informal mechanisms and support networks and don’t need to call 311 or 911 regularly for assistance; in these areas, police presence is far less intrusive.

Walking up to a person and pulling a trigger, as as cop-turned-sociologist Peter Moskos said, “is something some people choose to do and others do not. Somehow, lots of poor people—even in Baltimore—manage to live decent and even joyous lives without killing somebody.” It is “a strangely insulting concept,” Moskos said, “that criminals somehow represent the community more than the police.”

For years, the role played by the police in reducing violent crime has been dismissed by activists and academics. Instead, critics cite an aging population, fewer unwanted pregnancies, less use of crack cocaine, the phasing out of lead paint, etc. Other factors probably contributed something to the decline in crime rates, but I find it hard to believe that changes in policing contributed nothing. In fact, there is independent research to support Bratton and Kelling’s claim that policing matters:

Until recently, Broken Windows critics could dismiss New York’s success in fighting crime as anecdotal, suggesting correlation without causation. But in recent years, at least three randomized experiments, published in refereed journals, attest to Broken Windows’ impact on crime. Rutgers criminologist Anthony Braga and his colleagues conducted two field experiments: the first in Jersey City, New Jersey; and the second in Lowell, Massachusetts. In each case, multiple high-crime areas of the city were identified and randomly assigned to experimental and control conditions. Police in the control areas continued routine policing. In the experimental areas, police took a problem-solving approach that, in both cities, involved aggressive order maintenance. Crime declined in the experimental areas at greater rates than in the control areas and was not displaced to adjacent neighborhoods.

In the Netherlands, experimenters took a different approach. Their findings support the central social insight of the Broken Windows theory: that disorder breeds crime. University of Groningen social scientist Kees Keizer and his colleagues conducted six field experiments in which they artificially created opportunities for crime in both orderly and disorderly environments. In one case, they placed an envelope containing visible cash so that it was hanging out of a postbox. The baseline condition was a clean postbox; the experimental condition was a postbox covered with graffiti and surrounded by litter. In the baseline condition, 13 percent of those who passed the postbox stole the money. In the experimental condition, 27 percent stole the money. The other five experiments had similar outcomes.

Better policing can be an alternative to, rather than a source of, mass incarceration. “Imprisonment in New York State penitentiaries has declined by 25 percent since 2000,” Bratton and Kelling noted, “driven by a 69 percent decline in the number of New York City court commitments. Likewise, the Gotham jail population has declined 45 percent since 1992.” Fewer crimes committed means fewer people sent to jail or prison. “Young men may be receiving summonses and desk-appearance tickets for quality-of-life misdemeanors, but early and swift intervention has likely kept some of them from more serious criminal behavior that would result in lengthy incarceration.”

Apart from the deterrent effect that minor arrests may have on individual offenders, the management of public spaces to reduce disorderly behavior also lessens daily opportunities for crime. Just as disorder encourages crime, order breeds more order. As bullies and shooters get driven off street corners and the risks of being killed or terrorized diminish, the law-abiding community reemerges and starts to exert the kind of informal social control common to more prosperous neighborhoods. In these transformed public spaces, people—especially young people—are subject to more restraint and are less likely to wind up in jail. It’s important to note, too, that quality-of-life arrests represent only a portion of the overall total of misdemeanor arrests in the city. About 35 percent of misdemeanor arrests in New York City are for assault and larceny—crimes that most people would not consider minor. Traffic offenses account for 16 percent. Another 12 percent are for theft of service in the subway (fare jumping) and frauds involving MetroCards. Steady increases in these categories have been primary factors behind rising misdemeanor arrests in recent years. Taken together, traffic-related offenses, fare jumping, and crimes against persons, including domestic violence and theft of smartphones and other electronic equipment, account for 63 percent of all misdemeanor arrests in New York City. Broken Windows critics tend to overlook the fact that fewer than 10 percent of misdemeanor arrestees, of any type, are actually sentenced to jail time in New York City, and few of those for Broken Windows offenses.

Bratton and Kelling concede that some misdemeanor arrests, like for possession of small amounts of marijuana, are “unnecessary and of limited utility.” They also recognize that there are other cases where “a summons could prove just as effective a deterrent as an arrest.” Efficient penalties should be the policy goal, not theatrical severity.

Make no mistake, there should be no impunity for police officers who abuse their authority. When an officer harms or kills a suspect who posed no plausible threat to anyone’s life, they should be held to account (with due process, not by vigilante fanatics). But there can be no common cause between liberals and police abolitionists.

David Frum had a sage warning to overzealous reformers. “The first task of government is to protect the lives and property of citizens. Governments that cannot or will not perform that task forfeit their legitimacy—as will, by the way, any cause or movement that argues that citizens must accept a higher risk of violence or robbery as their contribution to somebody else’s ideal of justice.” Frum and I may not agree on whether to legalize marijuana or how far incarceration reform should go, but he speaks to something that no liberal can afford to forget. In most people’s ideal of justice, freedom from murder and predation is not negotiable.

UPDATE (August 26, 2015): Criminologist William Sousa argued that order-maintenance policing “should encourage proper discretion on the part of officers.” Many minor offenses can be handled informally, and arrests should be the last resort.

In a pithy summary of what he meant by “broken windows,” George Kelling said, “small things matter in a community and, if nothing is done about them, they can lead to worse things.” Kelling attributed his own views on “the importance of maintaining order” to his research on police foot patrol:

Starting in the early 1970s, in churches, social centers, living rooms, and walking the streets, I listened to citizens talk about their problems and demand action. If you asked them to list their five greatest concerns, at least three, but more likely four, would be “minor problems:” graffiti, youths drinking in parks, “homeless” peeing on their stoops, prostitutes attempting to hustle fathers in front of their children, “johns” hustling their teen age daughters, abandoned homes, unkempt properties, and so on. These complaints came not from white suburban or middle class areas, but from poor residents, usually minorities, in the heart of inner cities.

Kelling insisted that community policing is a necessary compliment to the maintenance of order. He also said, in a democracy, the responsibility for maintaining order is a shared one between police and citizens.

Hayek’s Progressive Hubris

There is a crippling hubris in Friedrich Hayek’s political project. It was explained well by John Gray:

Keynes’s own experience told against Hayek’s theories. As one of the 20th century’s most successful speculative investors, playing the markets on behalf of his college from a phone at his bedside before he got up for the day, he understood—in a way that the inveterately professorial Hayek did not—the ineradicable uncertainty of economic life. As a member of the British delegation at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Keynes had been horrified at the punitive conditions imposed by the Allies, which he forecast would destroy the German economy and lead to an upheaval that would “submerge civilisation itself”. Keynes had an acute sense of the risks posed to social stability by misguided economic policies. In contrast, Hayek consistently ignored these hazards.

Hayek’s blind spot with regard to politics was clear in the early 1980s when the first Thatcher government, in an attempt to reduce inflation and bring the public finances closer to a balanced budget, was raising interest rates and cutting public spending. As he had done during the 1930s, Hayek attacked these policies as not being severe enough. It would be better, he told me in a conversation we had around this time, if Thatcher imposed a more drastic contraction on the economy so that the wage-setting power of the trade unions could be broken. He appeared unfazed by unemployment, which was already higher (more than three million people) than at any time since the 1930s, and would rise much further if his recommendations were accepted.

[….]

Though he witnessed at first hand the collapse of liberal civilisation in interwar Europe, Hayek had little sense of the fragility of freedom. He observed how the Habsburg regime was destroyed, first by war and economic ruin and then by nationalism, but his response was to look for what he called in his book Individualism and Economic Order (1949) “a permanent legal framework”, which could serve as a guarantor of liberty in the economy and society. Here Hayek disregarded the principal lesson of the interwar years, which is that a liberal regime cannot be secured by legal diktat.

Geopolitical conflict and war, economic upheavals and new social movements have repeatedly damaged or destroyed liberal regimes. No ideal constitution can overcome the permanent threats to liberal values.

Yet throughout his writings Hayek invoked the mirage of a legal order in which vital freedoms are protected by being insulated from the political process. Something like this protection was provided by the Austro-Hungarian empire during the reign of the emperor Franz Joseph, and it is almost as if Hayek were trying to reconstitute the Habsburg realm in a new form that would last for ever.

The same objection could be made against what Gray called “anti-political liberalism,” which is “the ruling illusion of the current generation of progressive thinkers.” Gray made this argument (and convinced me) in his book Two Faces of Liberalism. If you want to know why the tag line for this blog is “liberal, but not progressive,” read his book.

The Upside of Political Machines

Polarization may not be what stymies American politics today. According to Jonathan Rauch, fragmentation is the real problem, and better political machines are the solution. That was the conclusion Rauch drew in his insightful and tightly argued book Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy.

Many will balk at the title alone and read no further, but Rauch’s argument is more subtle than it may seem at first. Rauch recently defended his call for stronger machines in a recent episode of The Chess Clock Debates, which describes itself as podcast “for people who love good debates on divisive issues by serious people but think moderators just get in the way.” The exchange is a good introduction for anyone skeptical of Rauch’s position.

Transactional politics are a necessity, and machines are where transactions happen. In order for governments to govern, Rauch said, “political machines or something like them need to exist, and they need to work.” He elaborated:

By “govern” I mean reliably and reasonably reach accommodations on the problems and conflicts which demand resolution from day to day.

By “political machines,” I mean informal (as opposed to legally constituted) and mutually accountable hierarchies, networks, and relationships that allow politicians to organize their environment by reaching accommodations, honoring accommodations, rewarding and protecting supporters, punishing and marginalizing defectors, and exerting coordinated influence through multiple formal channels.

By “or something like them” I mean to indicate that the famed big-city party machines of yesteryear are merely one kind of machine and that other, less sharply defined political organizations or networks can do the work of machines: for example, the “regular order” system in Congress, with its hierarchy of committees and seniority rules. Until the 1990s, the U.S. House of Representatives had a pronounced machine-like aspect, with minority Republicans claiming a piece of the appropriations action in exchange for cooperation with majority Democrats (an arrangement gleefully demolished by Newt Gingrich). Even coalitions which are independent of formal political parties and structures, groupings like the Tea Party or the Koch brothers’ network, can have some machine-like aspects, as we’ll see.

My emphasis on “machines or something like them” is unconventional, to be sure. Most realists focus their analyses on parties. And well they should: parties are important, and machines have usually been partisan (and parties, when strong and effective, have been machine-like). But reciprocally accountable political hierarchies are not necessarily partisan, as we know from the House in its relatively bipartisan days; and parties are not necessarily machine like, as we know from watching the Republican majority’s travails in Congress today. Translating the axes of analysis from parties to machines has the advantage of putting function ahead of form: it begins by asking not what an organization or system is but what it does, which is a useful place to start. It also avoids some common confusions that can arise in a party-centered analysis: for example, between strong party machines and strong party identification or ideology. It’s often said that parties are stronger than ever because votes on Capitol Hill are so consistently partisan.

But that can be (and usually is) because the majority party is allowing votes only when its factions agree, whereas machines facilitate decision making when fellow partisans don’t agree. Ideological solidarity is a brittle glue, and reliance on it for intraparty cohesion is a sign of a weak party machine, not a strong one.

Finally, by “need to exist and need to work,” I mean that they need to establish incentive structures which enable political leaders to lead and which encourage political followers to follow—thereby assisting with what [James Q.] Wilson called the assembling of power in government.

I do not agree with Rauch on every particular, but he is on to something. The potential benefits of ever-greater transparency have been wildly oversold and the costs blithely denied. Many efforts to broaden participation, in the name of democracy, have increased the veto power of activist minorities who are not accountable to voters. I am not sanguine about the role of big money, but crippling the ability of political parties to operate as political parties is no boon for democracy either.

Political Realism is not a doctrinaire book. Rauch does not have a baroque list that runs for a dozens pages on What Must Be Done. Instead, the book is a lucid reminder that even “good governance” reforms can have perverse and unintended consequences. Trying to take the politics out of politics is a fool’s errand. It does more to undermine than advance effective governance.

Red Flags for Mass Murder

Dylann Roof was not silent about his homicidal intentions. Before massacring nine people who welcomed him into their church, Roof shared with several acquaintances his violent commitment to racial cleansing:

At first Mr. Meek said he did not take Mr. Roof seriously. But he became worried enough that several weeks ago he took away and hid Mr. Roof’s .45-caliber handgun, which Mr. Roof had bought with money given to him by his parents for his 21st birthday. But at the urging of his girlfriend, Mr. Meek returned the weapon because he was on probation and did not want to get into trouble.

Now Mr. Meek and his girlfriend, Lindsey Fry, both of whom are white, say they feel guilt about the shooting. “I feel we could have done something and prevented this whole thing,” Ms. Fry said.

Asked why Mr. Roof picked that particular church, Mr. Meek replied, “Because it was a black church.”

Another friend, Dalton Tyler, said that Mr. Roof had begun talking about wanting “to start a civil war.” But like Mr. Meek, he did not always take Mr. Roof seriously.

Mr. Tyler said on another occasion, the two were driving to a strip club by the zoo when Mr. Roof saw a black woman, used a racist word and said, “I’ll shoot your ass.”

“I was just like, ‘You’re stupid,'” Mr. Tyler said. “He was a racist; but I don’t judge people.”

The last statement is reprehensible. To completely abstain from judging others would be morally deranged and intellectually dishonest.

Most of us have heard the public service announcement “If you see something, say something.” But short of someone brandishing a weapon, it is not entirely clear what to watch for. Joe Navarro is a former FBI agent who worked for years on counterintelligence and behavioral analysis. Navarro has argued that several traits are common to most mass murderers.

Political fanatics who resort to mass murder tend to view themselves as part of a vanguard, with a special authority to act without having to answer to anyone else. They speak in hateful terms, but what they express is an all-pervasive fear. They imagine the world as a conspiracy, where they are persecuted by some malignant and mysterious force. In their minds, they are engaged in a relentless battle against some existential threat. This fear and loathing, Navarro said, “can give purpose to an otherwise unfulfilled life.” It can also be taken as a license to kill.

A common practice for such fanatics is the collection of wounds. According to Navarro:

These are individuals who collect social or historical slights, procedural wrongs, injustices real or imagined, mistakes, faux pas, on and on for a purpose. That purpose is to validate their hatred and paranoia and justify just how correct they are. And they don’t just collect wounds they nurture them so they don’t die out. They take them out, dust them off, tell and retell them, think about them, and garnish them, so that they become almost mythically powerful through repetitive admiration (story telling, ideation, writing, rituals, etc.). Thus, wound collection is essential, it provides the justification for acting out.

Most of these whinging fanatics do little more than bellyache. Distinguishing the few audacious enough to act from the sedentary blowhards is no easy task. However, Navarro said there are some crucial indicators: when they seek out the means to kill, and when they engage in magical thinking about righteous violence. Though before they act, they are likely to withdraw, first psychologically and then physically:

By self-isolating the individual assures that he is not listening to outside factors (extrinsic) that would derail his [or her] thinking or ideation. Coupled with physical isolation, the individual insures no outside distractions, and they can focus on their ideology, collected wounds, and the magical solution to solve the issue. In physical isolation, they can further focus their hatred, refine their magical solution, plan how to execute their action, come to terms with their decision and how the violence will be carried out.

Early clues are not difficult to find, though they are easy to dismiss. We leak what we desire, Navarro said, “but we broadcast what we hate.” After a terrorist attack, there is often concern about possible failures of intelligence or law enforcement agencies. More disturbing to me are the failures of community and civil society.

How Not to Reform Finance

The potential for financial crises can only be mitigated, never eradicated. Few institutions are more vital in resolving a crisis than the lender of last resort. I thought progressive reformers understood this necessity, but I may have been wrong.

Senators Elizabeth Warren and David Vitter have introduced The Bailout Prevention Act of 2015. The bill would restrict access to emergency lending by the Federal Reserve and pressure the central bank to lend at steeper rates in a crisis. According to former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, it would undermine the Federal Reserve’s role as lender of last resort. Bernanke’s argument is compelling:

Imagine a financial institution that is facing a run but has good assets usable as collateral for a central bank loan. If all goes well, it will borrow, replacing the funding lost to the run; when the panic subsides, it can repay. However, if the financial institution believes that its borrowing from the central bank will become publicly known, it will be concerned about the inferences that its private-sector counterparties will draw. It may worry, for example, that its providers of funding will conclude that the firm is in danger of failing, and, consequently, that they will pull their funding even more quickly. Then borrowing from the central bank will be self-defeating, and firms facing runs will do all they can to avoid it. This is the stigma problem, and it affects everyone, not just the potential borrower. If financial institutions and other market participants are unwilling to borrow from the central bank, then the central bank will be unable to put into the system the liquidity necessary to stop the panic. Instead of borrowing, financial firms will hoard cash, cut back credit, refuse to make markets, and dump assets for what they can get, forcing down asset prices and putting financial pressure on other firms. The whole economy will feel the effects, not just the financial sector.

The stigma problem is very real, with many historical illustrations. When the BBC announced in 2007 that the British lender Northern Rock had received a loan from the Bank of England, for example, a severe run on the lender began almost immediately. Ultimately, the government had to take the firm over.

The Warren-Vitter legislation would create an insuperable stigma problem. (It has other drawbacks as well, but my focus here is on stigma.) First, the requirement that solvency analyses be released immediately (or quickly) would publicly identify any potential borrowers. No borrower would allow itself to be so identified, for fear of the inferences that might be drawn about its financial health. Second, the five percentage point penalty rate requirement would remove any doubt that those borrowing from the central bank had no access to other sources of funding, further worsening the stigma problem. (A penalty rate was not a problem in [Walter] Bagehot’s era, because, unlike today, all lending by the central bank was strictly confidential.) Moreover, because borrowers would know that the program could be terminated in thirty days if Congress didn’t approve, the benefit of borrowing from the central bank would be limited. Because borrowers would not willingly participate, broad-based lending programs (which Dodd-Frank intended to preserve) would not work, and we would have lost a critical weapon against financial panics.

The approach of Senators Warren and Vitter, Bernanke said, is “roughly equivalent to shutting down the fire department to encourage fire safety.” It would be far better to improve the fire code, which has already changed since 2008:

The Fed intervened in the cases of Bear and AIG with great reluctance, doing so only because no legal mechanism existed to safely wind down a systemic firm on the brink of failure. A key element of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, passed in 2010, was to provide just such a mechanism—the so-called orderly liquidation authority, which gives the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Fed the necessary powers to put a failing firm into receivership without creating financial chaos. (By the way, a great deal of progress has been made in implementing this authority and preparing for the possible failure of a systemic firm; see these recent remarks by FDIC chairman Martin Gruenberg.) With the creation of the liquidation authority, the ability of the Fed to make loans to individual troubled firms like Bear and AIG was no longer needed and, appropriately, was eliminated.

If the liquidation authority is not yet adequate, reformers should demand its enhancement. But undermining the Fed’s role as lender of last resort is completely backasswards. It leaves me baffled as to what lessons were learned from the financial crisis by progressives like Senator Warren.

There are reasons to doubt the stability of the financial system, as Martin Wolf has argued. But when reformers get the diagnosis wrong, they are far more likely to screw up the remedy.

Blasphemy Is the New Bigotry

If a Muslim woman is spat on because she wears a niqab, that is bigotry. If a Muslim man is denied an apartment because of his faith, that is bigotry. If a mosque is firebombed by a Christian nativist, that is bigotry. Blasphemy, however, is not.

The term “Islamophobia” conflates blasphemy with bigotry. This is no accident. In origin and purpose, this pejorative has always been illiberal. Pascal Bruckner explained:

To avoid incurring any blame, in the 1970s fundamentalism invented the term “Islamophobia,” which was supposed to parallel xenophobia: the semantic buckler was first used against the American feminist Kate Millet, who was said to be guilty of calling upon Iranian women to take off their chadors, and then in the 1990s against the Anglo-Indian writer Salman Rushdie when he published The Satanic Verses. This was a clever invention because it amounts to making Islam a subject that one cannot touch without being accused of racism.

The use of this “semantic buckler” is not confined to the Islamist movement. Garry Trudeau is no Islamist, but he has joined the campaign against those who dissent from political Islam. In the acceptance speech for his Polk Award, Trudeau said:

Traditionally, satire has comforted the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable. Satire punches up, against authority of all kinds, the little guy against the powerful. Great French satirists like Moliére and Daumier always punched up, holding up the self-satisfied and hypocritical to ridicule. Ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny—it’s just mean.

By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie [Hebdo] wandered into the realm of hate speech, which in France is only illegal if it directly incites violence. Well, voilá—the 7 million copies that were published following the killings did exactly that, triggering violent protests across the Muslim world, including one in Niger, in which ten people died.

Powerless is not an adjective I would apply to men with Kalashnikovs. But unlike Trudeau, who was punching the dead, I view Islamists as political actors.

Buried within Trudeau’s argument is a peculiar assumption about Islamist agency. David Frum teased it out:

Had the gunmen been “privileged,” then presumably the cartoons would have been commendable satire. The cartoonists would then have been martyrs to free speech. But since the gunmen were “non-privileged,” the responsibility for their actions shifts to the people they targeted, robbing them of agency. It’s almost as if he thinks of underdogs as literal dogs. If a dog bites a person who touches its dinner, we don’t blame the dog. The dog can’t help itself. The person should have known better.

An aggrieved dog also has no politics, which is convenient for Trudeau. It’s violence cannot induce cognitive dissonance. It presents no conflict between multiculturalism and liberal values.

UPDATE (April 30, 2015): Power, as Nick Cohen said, “is not fixed but fluid. It depends on where you stand.”

The unemployed terrorist with the gun is more powerful than the Parisian cartoonist cowering underneath his desk. The marginal cleric may well face racism and hatred—as my most liberal British Muslim friends do—but when he sits in a Sharia court imposing misogynist rules on Muslim women in the West, he is no longer a victim or potential victim but a man to be feared.

Fever Dreams of the Apocalypse

The allure of prophetic and messianic religion is not something many American pundits comprehend. Conservative Rod Dreher is a rare exception. Dreher views the Islamic State’s barbarism as something familiar and comprehensible, if you consider their “fever dream of the Islamic apocalypse.” In a post over at The American Conservative, he explained the intoxicating power of apocalyptic visions:

I was reading last night from a passage in the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948), who writes about the messianic urge within societies. Excerpts:

It is not only upon interpretation of the meaning of history, but also upon the formation of the very category of the historical, that messianism has its bearing. History is created by the expectation that in the future there will be a great manifestation, and that this manifestation will be a disclosure of Meaning in the life of the nations. It is the expectation of the appearance of the Messiah or of the messianic kingdom. The movement of history is also a movement towards that messianic appearance which will bring with it liberation from slavery and suffering, which will inaugurate for man a state of happiness. Messianic consciousness is born in suffering. When suffering does not crush man it is changed into a terrible power. The dynamic messianic myth is turned towards the future. It is in this respect a contrast to pagan myths, which were turned not towards the future but to the past It was characteristic of the Greeks to be concerned with the contemplation of the cosmos and its cyclic movement. This postulates that the world is eternal and has neither beginning nor end, a world, above all, in space and not a world in time. No philosophy of history is to be found either in Plato or in Aristotle. It is in ancient Israel that the philosophy of history begins, in the revelation of God in history, which found expression in the consciousness of the prophets, and in the Book of Daniel.

But it is within Christianity, Berdyaev says, that a philosophy of history first became possible because it “introduced disquietude about the future, a messianic and eschatological disquietude.” He means that Christianity accepted and extended Jewish messianic hopes, foretelling an End of History, culminating in the Second Coming of the Messiah. In this way, history has meaning. It’s not simply random or cyclical events; it is going somewhere. We can only understand the meaning of history if we have a vision for where it is going, he says. This is not something scientific; this is something “prophetic.”

Islam, which arose in the Middle East seven centuries after Christianity, is messianic in that it also sees history ending with an apocalypse. And Berdyaev observes that Hegel was also driven by a messianism, though of the post-Christian sort. So was Marx. And so are the Western democrats of today, who may or may not believe in God, but who do believe in liberal democracy as the End of History. The messianic impulse is part of what it means to be modern (as opposed to ancient). This is something that contemporary Westerners do not seem to understand. At all.

Berdyaev says that formal religion domesticates and stifles the messianic consciousness among the people. “The priest has more and more crowded out the prophet,” he writes. “Ritualism is dominant. But ritualism does not confer any understanding whatever of the meaning of history.”

What he’s saying is that people have a deep craving for the belief that what they’re going through means something. That their suffering is not in vain. That events are going somewhere, however random they may seem on the surface. This is an essentially religious impulse, but it was shared by orthodox Marxists as well as religious believers. This is at the heart of the meaning of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. We cannot let go of our sense that existence has meaning, and that the meaning will be revealed if we wait patiently and expectantly. More Berdyaev:

The messianic consciousness and expectation creates history, proclaims a meaning for it and holds it together, and yet at the same time, so to speak, breaks down history and seeks to overleap it. This contradiction has to be accepted as a part of experience. In the same way as the first Coming of the Messiah was prepared among the Hebrew people, so now among all mankind the way must be prepared for the Second Coming; and it is in this that history has its justification. The goal is no less than the attainment of the creative fullness of life and the realization of the Spirit not only in human life but also in the life of the cosmos.

It is nothing less than re-union with God, and the advent of Utopia. The end of all suffering, and the fulfillment of time. If you cannot understand why this vision has immense power, especially for the wretched of the earth, you are not looking hard enough. If you cannot understand why this vision has immense power for the bored, clapped-out, shopped-till-they’ve-dropped bourgeois children of the West, you are not looking hard enough.

The most compelling book I ever read on eschatological fanatics was Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages. The book is a sweeping account of the radical religions that thrived during the upheavals of late medieval Europe. It taught me that the expressions of this monomania are manifold and prone to moral derangement.