Tuesday, 9 June 2015

The Wisdom of Terry Pratchett, and Police Killings

Terry Pratchett is a name that I had tucked away in the back of my mind for a rainy day. I had come across a quotation of his--"If cats looked like frogs we'd realize what nasty, cruel little bastards they are. Style. That's what people remember"--and, as a true lover of cats, I was struck by the pointedness, the accuracy, and the humour in the quotation. One day, I was sure, I was going to look up this fellow's books and see what else is in them.

That day came a couple of months ago, shortly before Sir Terry died. The Vancouver Public Library provided me with Night Watch, Thud, Snuff, Going Postal, Making Money, Small Gods, and Thief of Time. The Kobo Book Store has since provided me with others. The first three of the books I had mentioned feature Sam Vimes, a watchman (police officer) in a grubby, industrializing city-state called Ankh-Morpork. Ankh is on one side of the river; Morpork is on the other. They combined their names as well as their government just as Buda and Pest did back in 1873.

I like Sam Vimes. I like the fact that he resents the upper classes, even when he increasingly, and unwillingly, is forced to enter them. For example, in Feet of Clay, he looks at the sedan chair that the city's ruler had given him as a wedding present.
Lord Vetinari knew that Vimes loved walking the streets of the city, and so it was very typical of the man that he presented him with something that did not allow him to do so.
Nevertheless, he had to use it. His wife expected it, and Lord Vetinari would have his little joke, but he would use it in his own way. He ordered one of the bearers into the sedan chair and prepared to take the bearer's place.
"'It's a nice morning,' said Vimes, taking off his coat again. 'I'll drive myself.'"
 Similarly, I was charmed by Vimes' detestation of the game of chess, which is explained in a footnote in Thud.
Vimes had never got on with any game much more complex than darts. Chess in particular had always annoyed him. It was the dumb way the pawns went off and slaughtered their fellow pawns while the kings lounged about doing nothing that always got to him; if only the pawns united, maybe talked the rooks round, the whole board could've been a republic in a dozen moves.
This passage reminds me of my dad, although he taught me chess and played it with me on many occasions. We had been living in various places in Whitehorse, Yukon: old RCAF housing then an apartment, but both mum and dad had good jobs, so the time arrived when we bought a new house in the "good" part of town, in Riverdale. My dad seemed a bit upset by the move, though, not happy at all. I asked him why. "Well," he said, "when the revolution comes, we'll be on the wrong side of the barricades."

Now, Terry Pratchett's Discworld, though pure fantasy with trolls, dwarfs, goblins, wizards, dragons, and the like, allowed him to explain his views on numerous issues facing our world: illicit drugs, intolerant religions, secret police, the art of government, and gun ownership. The link between his writings and the subjects of police killings and state-sponsored brutality interests me most right now. There have been a number of well-publicized cases of killings of unarmed men and women, some of them already in restraint, some of them actually running away, and none of them a danger to the officer at the time of the shooting. The FBI keeps track of the fatal shootings that are voluntarily submitted by police departments, but the sum vastly understates the number. A quotation in a Washington Post article, I think, explains why.
“They are used to giving commands and people obeying,” said Stinson, who previously worked as a police officer. “They don’t like it when people don’t listen to them, and things can quickly become violent when people don’t follow their orders.”
That wouldn't be the police officer's point of view in any service run by Sam Vimes. Pratchett explains in Snuff:
It always embarrassed Samuel Vimes when civilians tried to speak to him in what they thought was “policeman.” If it came to that, he hated thinking of them as civilians. What was a policeman, if not a civilian with a uniform and a badge? But they tended to use the term these days as a way of describing people who were not policemen. It was a dangerous habit: once policemen stopped being civilians the only other thing they could be was soldiers.
Can we say that he (whether Vimes or Pratchett) is wrong? I don't think so.

The idea that a police officer is a civilian is odd, to a North American, odd to the point of being disconcerting, but Pratchett is not North American. He is English, very English, and the police in his country were formed according to principles laid down by Robert Peel. One of these is
...police officers are regarded as citizens in uniform. They exercise their powers to police their fellow citizens with the implicit consent of those fellow citizens. "Policing by consent" indicates that the legitimacy of policing in the eyes of the public is based upon a general consensus of support that follows from transparency about their powers, their integrity in exercising those powers and their accountability for doing so.
In other words, policing is a genuine alternative to military intervention, not an alternative way of delivering military intervention.

It is unfortunate, in my opinion, that the origins of the police here in Canada and in the US lie in a different tradition than Robert Peel's. The RCMP's name in French includes the word "gendarmerie," meaning a paramilitary force. Its uniform, too, is based on the British Army's uniform. The American police had a complicated origin but, in the West, the posse, called together by a sheriff, provided armed defence against armed and violent individuals and gangs. Where there was no sheriff, the vigilante or the lynch mob provided the same service. In some parts of the country, the police, vigilantes, and lynch mobs were, at least in part, intended to protect citizens from slaves and minority groups. Nevertheless, it is never too late to keep in mind the ideal that police should think of themselves as civilians who are helping to protect civilians. Not bombing houses from the air in Philadelphia nor drawing handguns on teenagers at a pool in Texas nor firing fifteen shots into a couple through their car window in Ohio.

Sam Vimes had other points of view, well expressed, that coincide with my deepest beliefs. For example, what would he have said to the photographs that came from the US military prison at Abu Gharib?
http://rt.com/files/usa/news/abu-ghraib-scapegoats/abu-ghraib2.jpg
He'd have said this (as he did in Thud),
Beating people up in little rooms...he knew where that led. And if you did it for a good reason, you'd do it for a bad one. You couldn't say we're the "good guys" and do bad-guy things.
(Italics are mine).

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