Thursday, September 23, 2010

A tale of two countries

Sebastian of Snowflakes in Hell posted about another attempt to link the violence in Mexico to American guns. In it, he quotes an article about Monterrey being terrorized by gangs, who have essentially taken control of the city, and asked us to imagine what would happen in Texas or Arizona (or even California) if gangs tried this and the government stood by.

But what would happen someplace less “rough-n-ready”? Well, we saw a “complete breakdown” of law and order in one of the least civically-organized large cities in the union about 5 years ago, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. I don’t mean to downplay the impact of the hurricane on the city, but despite the media’s best efforts to portray the events of the storm and its aftermath as some kind of Hobbesian environment (where life was brutal, nasty, and short); it ended up being only a very bad disaster experience when measured on an American scale. When compared to international disasters, not so much. There was some delay in repair crews rolling in due to the hyped fears of violence, but by and large, Masterblaster did not end up ruling Bartertown. The National Guard showed, but they didn’t have to fight their way in, and mostly spent their time acting as emergency workers. New Orleans was newsworthy at least partially because of the unexpected level of breakdown. Later on that year, floods in the Midwest caused at least as much devastation (by surface area affected, anyway), and there was little to no breakdown of law and order.

Sebastian is right when he says “I am not at all suggesting that the availability of your average person to arm themselves is the only variable at work here; a fairly uncorrupted police and military force is still our primary line of defense.”  The majority of people, even in the states with the most firearms-friendly laws, are not firearms enthusiasts. They don’t have the training or the inclination to hat up and bust caps. If they did, they might very well be the cops or military. Not always, though; for example, any gangers who try and terrorize the good residents of Broad Ripple, IN will lead brief and exciting lives, and IMPD will only have to bring by the coroner.

This brings me back to one of my guest posts over at SiH – about Man the Killer. Clearly, Mexico has more “killers” (antisocially violent people) than the USA does. Why might that be? I don't know, but I can offer some thoughts.

We live (in the US) in a society which works to subvert aggressive personalities into socially acceptable roles – the entrepreneur, for example. The US is also one of the easiest countries to live in – by which I mean you have to really make an effort to not be able to obtain the necessities and basics of food, clothing, and shelter. This tremendously reduces the pressure on people to develop the “killer” instinct. Together, some people who would become antisocially violent are either able to redirect their aggression or never develop it. We also have weak (exterior) intertribal and interclass barriers; if you want you can move up, around, or away. This atomizing of cultures leads to less xenophobia. I’m not going to pretend that xenophobia is absent in America, but I’ve lived overseas and read my history. Some people may have it harder than others, but nothing like the sheer impossibility of bettering your class that’s existed in almost all times and places exists in the USA of today.

Add all of this up, and you get the culture and society least likely to hold a “Bowb Your Buddy” week. Which means we get to keep that lack of tribalism and lack of a caste system. We’re not immune to rioting and tribal mayhem, but urban conflict on this scale has been acute, not chronic, and a reaction to single events, and so quickly over. Part of that is due to all the tribes having (more or less) equal access to arms; and most of it being, despite the hyperbole you hear today, that the cops and government are not a tribe unto themselves (at least, not most places). So in the event, the freelance tolltakers are going to get their just rewards not only from the locals, but John Law.

The worst incident of urban conflict I can remember in my lifetime is the 1992 LA riots (the “Rodney King” riots). Wikipedia sez it took units of the Regulars (Army and Marines) along with the National Guard to quell, and ran for 6 days (with most of the violence over by the 4th day). I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to politics in those days, but it was widely claimed at the time (and today) that the underlying causes were due to racism and police brutality – a toxic combination to functional society. It flared up fast, and was smothered quickly. But it never approached the systematic conflict that Monterrey has experienced for the past few months. One of the “iconic” events of the riots was the korean-american shopkeepers tightening up and functioning as a freelance militia, guarding their homes and stores with personal weapons. Despite some of the worst stresses on the system, it strained, but held.

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