The Al Jazeera headline read: “Haiti asks UN, US to send troops after president’s assassination.” In the interests of order, they thought armed soldiers in the streets might be a good thing. Another news clip I watched yesterday, noted the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. The troops there have been playing police and there is fear Afghanistan will fall into anarchy if the Taliban regains control.
The Taliban originally stepped in, when there was a power vacuum and no functional government. Crime ruled the streets. The Taliban promised to restore order by brutally enforcing strict Sharia law. One young man cited in the papers was caught listening to secular music, and was left almost crippled by his beating from the authorities. Women complain that they fear going out in public. They must be covered head to toe, or risk rape or worse… from the authorities. You do not want to find yourselves on the wrong side of those in charge.
It makes you wonder how things can get so bad that people would prefer rule by cavemen as a solution. It reminds me of some basic political theory. Thomas Hobbes wrote a book in 1651 called Leviathan, referring to a mythical beast from Job chapter 42 in the Bible. The leviathan is used as a metaphor to describe a social contract whereby a population agrees to be ruled by a sovereign power, if that ruler will provide law and order. The alternative is the war of all men against all other men, and a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.
The big question behind these real life equations, is whether people can choose to be good, or whether they must be coerced. Some have said that virtue cannot be decreed it if does not begin in the human heart.
There is a balance in here, where the law allows most well intentioned people to go about their business freely, while punishing wrongdoers. What we had in the west has until now been a fairly good balance. Western norms have been influenced by Christianity, that people should suppress their worst instincts with the help of God and a bit of self-discipline.
There is that thing called the public weal, that mythical and hard to measure space in public that people share peacefully together, the idea that there should be common spaces. If things are working as they should, people of all stripes should be free to come and go in such a public space, without harm.
In Toronto they recently tore down a homeless encampment that had grown up around Trinity Park. People had camped out and eventually anarchy set in, when the ones who were supposed to be in charge did not seem to be in charge. In a vacuum, power simply defaults to who can play the local enforcer. The law deviates to whoever is most scary on site.
By Hobbes system, the “scary guy” is supposed to be impartial, to have laws that apply to everyone, and to enforce that law without preference. What we are seeing unfold in the world today is a little more baffling because laws are increasingly bent and unevenly applied when challenged.
Summer 2021 was the summer of lawlessness. Mobs have prevailed in public spaces, and torn down monuments to the past, signalling some kind of revolution. No one has said exactly where this revolution is going, except that it will have a new set of winners and losers and the prize so far seems to go to the most vocal and the most violent. The war of all men against all men seems to have arrived, and Christianity’s mediating effect on culture is dwindling with the times. Over thirty churches in Canada have been torched or vandalized this month, and the police note only that the blazes are “suspicious”. There seems to be no serious intent to apprehend the culprits, and the tacit message is that Christians are an acceptable target.
Of course, the question arises: in an atmosphere of anarchy, who is going to enforce the law? It might be unsafe to be out and about your business, and in the absence of consistency, people have been known to take the law into their own hands. Worse, they go to political extremes when a strongman appears on the horizon who promises to fix things. Hitler comes to mind. Indeed, we live in strange and scary times. What is clear is that when those charged with keeping the social contract do not uphold the law, they invite disorder of a worse kind and where this all goes will be anyone’s guess.