“Law and order” as a political slogan

In right-wing Italian politics, “law and order” means burning Roma out of their homes.

Guy Dinmore, reporting in the Financial Times

… the racist rhetoric of some rightwing candidates elected in April on law and order platforms has unleashed a spate of assaults against the Roma, or Gypsy, people who are blamed for fomenting crime.

Savor for a moment, if you will, the delicious irony of “law and order” used in this context. It’s not that Dinmore is at all sympathetic to the behavior he documents; he’s simply using the phrase as it’s ordinarily used in politics. (The behavior is horrid enough, in all conscience: “In the Naples mob-controlled suburb of Ponticelli, criminal gangs and residents have torched the homes of several hundred Gypsies.”) “Law and order” in this country never meant opposition to lynching, or attacks on Freedom Riders, or violence directed at abortion providers, or mob attacks on school integration (“forced busing”) or the militia movement.

It’s not hard to see why liberals tended, and to some extent still tend, to think of crime as a made-up right-wing issue. And there’s lots of language leaning in that direction in Dinmore’s article. That’s a terrible mistake: the same one that helped cement the generation of right-wing dominance we now hope is coming to an end.

Europe has a big and growing crime problem. Aside from homicide, European crime rates, even rates of violent crime, are now generally substantially above U.S. levels. And (unlike the U.S.) in much of Europe the crime problem is intertwined with immigration. The fact that the Roma are being burned out of their homes by mobs, with the evident collaboration of the police, tempts any decent person to deny, or at least ignore, the facts about Roma culture and its attitudes toward crime against the gadje. But that is a dubious tactic ethically, and a losing tactic politically.

Liberals must stand firmly behind the rule of law, and be willing to take the necessary steps against lawless behavior even by members of groups with genuine grievances. Only then can we ask conservatives to stand with us against the lawless behavior directed at them: most of all the lawless behavior of those charged with enforcing the law.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com