THERE ARE MOMENTS when we all, without thinking too much about what we’re saying, give ourselves away. Last Sunday (3/9/17) it was Paula Bennett’s turn. In full “Law and Order” mode, the Police Minister responded to a question about the compatibility of her just announced anti-gang/anti-P policy with New Zealand’s human-rights legislation by informing the electorate that “some” people had “fewer human-rights than others”.
Putting to one side its presumably unintended similarity to George Orwell’s famous Animal Farm formulation: “All animals are equal – but some animals are more equal than others”, Bennett’s comment possessed all the attributes of honest speech. Spoken in the context of her party’s hard line approach to what both she and the Prime Minister referred to as “the scourge” of methamphetamine addiction, the Minister’s words reflected her impatience with the sort of thinking that elevates abstract notions of rights above the all-too-material consequences of organised crime’s control of the illegal drug trade.
Clearly, Bennett sees the gangs’ involvement in the manufacture, distribution and sale of methamphetamine as proof of their members’ quasi-biological predilection towards depravity and violence. The people who engage in the illicit drug trade, heedless of the enormous damage it causes, should not, in the eyes of conservative politicians and police officers, properly be classed as “people” at all. Rather, they should be dismissed as “animals” – brutal creatures who long ago sloughed-off the crucial qualities that distinguish men from beasts.
Taken to its most extreme, this way of viewing the “drug problem” culminates in the murderous policies favoured by the Philippines President, Eduardo Duterte. Viewed from his perspective, addicts and dealers have no human rights worthy of the state’s respect because any claim they might have made to human status has been irretrievably compromised by their fatally anti-social personal choices. To Duterte and his followers, drug dealers and addicts belong in the same category as rabid dogs: unworthy of anything except a bullet.
Ultimately, it comes back to how people respond to what moral philosophers call “The Problem of Evil”. The most basic human response to the savagery of our own species is to project it outwards from our families, clans, tribes, classes and nations, to where it can be located unequivocally among the “Other”. Among Native American tribes it is quite common for the word for “human-being” to be the same as the word used to describe themselves. The Dakhota, Nakhota and Lakhota nations of the Great Plains all derive their name from “khota” – the word for “people”.
Once this projection is accomplished, the “Other” find themselves excluded, quite literally, from the tribe’s definition of humanity. If you are not “one of us”. If you do not belong to our gender, our race, our class, our nation; then you are not really human at all. And, if you are not really human, then we can treat you in any way we please. We can exploit you; we can enslave you; we can torture you; and, if we feel so inclined, we can kill you.
Within the confines of their tribe the Comanche were a caring, generous and fun-loving people. To those unfortunate to be captured by their raiding parties, however, they were a by-word for the most extraordinary cruelty. The tribe’s internal cohesion was preserved by externalising all those impulses likely to bring about its dissolution. When the encroachment of the “Americans” made raiding impossible, the Comanche nation collapsed.
As the date of the General Election draws nearer, the propensity of political parties to dehumanise the members and supporters of their opponents’ “tribes” increases dramatically.
The manufacture, distribution and sale of illegal drugs is, by definition, the preserve of organised criminals. It is a business which follows in almost every regard the rules of supply and demand that govern all commodity markets. Any dispassionate assessment of the methamphetamine “scourge” must acknowledge that every shipment of the gang’s “product” that gets intercepted, instantly produces an increase in the price of the drugs that do make it on to the street. Moreover, the addictive nature of the gangs’ product means that the demand for it will not decrease. To pay for their addiction, its consumers will simply step up the level of the criminal offending necessary to meet the increased price.
The Police Minister knows that the most effective means of breaking the gangs’ power would be to remove the criminal stigma from unwise drug use. But, like all Police Ministers, Paula Bennett knows that the drug laws are not there to end the misuse of drugs. They are there to create a nether world of criminality and addiction against which the situation of “normal” people may be favourably compared.
Her hope is that the members of the National Party “tribe” will be reassured that theirs is the only truly “human” world, and that their enjoyment of more social, economic and legal rights than all these dysfunctional “others” is no more or less than their due. Above all, the evils threatening the coherence of what National likes to call “Mainstream New Zealand” must continue to be externalised.
But there is another way of responding to the issues of crime and punishment. In the words of the Lebanese poet and philosopher, Kahil Gibran:
Let him who would lash the offender look unto the spirit of the offended.
And if any of you would punish in the name of righteousness and lay the axe unto the evil tree, let him see to its roots.