A recent article about police brutality in Sudan got me thinking about something that occasionally crossed my mind during the recent Arab revolutions.
It’s easy enough to imagine people rising up en masse against injustice, social decay and everything else on the menu marked ‘totalitarian state.’
What is a lot harder to understand is what served as the counterpoint to the mass protests- the mass brutality meted out by the state.
We saw and read enough disturbing things to know that in many countries, violence and brutality has become institutionalized.
But I can’t help wondering how such brutality becomes entrenched and how state ‘enforcers’ actually resort to it so readily.
One can see how a ruthless dictator hell-bent on keeping power can be comfortable with the idea of a few broken skulls and bullet-ridden bodies. Putting aside psychopathic tendencies, there is a sense of distance between the leader and his ordered actions.
Once he has given orders, there is a gap between him and his suffering citizens. He does not see the action first-hand and even if he gets pangs of conscience, he can always rationalize the situation as actions directly carried out by others. Indeed, he can disconnect himself from the reality on the ground in any number of ways, all of which are connected to the ‘distance’ idea.
But what about the truncheon-wielding officer on the street? What about all the men who run the torture cells that so terrorized those Countries before and during the revolutions? What about those who obey the orders with such enthusiasm? How do groups create a culture where terror and violence are the norm?
If cornered, the men in question might state that they were merely following orders, but that excuse has been morally and intellectually bankrupt for a very long time. Others would probably be diagnosed with psychopathic disorders if treated by experts, but the number cannot be statistically significant enough to explain this puzzle.
Group brutality is incredibly difficult to understand, especially in cases like the mass protests where the momentum and legitimacy was clearly with peaceful protestors. Rationally it would have made more sense to join them.
But, of course, such brutality preceded all these revolutions. It is quite startling to think of the network in those Countries composed of thousands of men dedicated to doing little more than sowing terror to preserve the regime of a malevolent dictator.
These groups- whether intelligence agents, police or soldiers- have to first override the religious and social bonds that characterize their societies.
For example, how would a devout Muslim policeman in Egypt rationalize his torture sessions with the Qur’an? . And in doing so, you are in many ways setting yourself outside your own society.
You have- ironically- become the outlaw in a relentless attempt to enforce your nation’s twisted version of the rule of law.
It seems-another irony- that many of the things that should prevent state brutality and violence on the ground actually contribute to their perpetuation.
Many of those are so wrapped up in a twisted and extremist version of nationalism that they feel there is no such thing as going too far.
By association, because they feel their Country is intertwined with the state religion then defending the latter also entails extreme measures. Whichever way you look at it, this institutionalization of brutality is too deeply entrenched to disappear after a few revolutions.