Violence Specialists

In the terminology of a recent book by two economists and a political scientist, “violence specialists” are those who use violence professionally. Violence and Social Orders is a grand theory of human societies (the book’s subtitle is “A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History”) expounded in rather dry, matter-of-fact prose. The matter-of-fact tone makes the phrase “violence specialists” particularly striking. In a contemporary society like the United States, the authorized violence specialists include the military and police forces. But we don’t tend to speak of our military and police in this way. Indeed, it might be more common to hear police and military personnel described as potential targets of violence than as agents of violence. The police, and the troops, are often praised as “those who put their lives on the line.” And we say, abstractly, that police and military forces keep us safe or protect the public, but the rhetoric of safety and protection tends to obscure the violent means by which safety is ostensibly secured. Given our usual ways of speaking, “violence specialists” is an attention-grabbing phrase.

Unless you think the word violence always implies that the force in question is used wrongfully, the phrase “violence specialists” doesn’t itself pass judgment on the actions of police or soldiers. Max Weber famously described the state as the entity with a monopoly on legitimate violence, and one could view the police and military as the agents of that distinctively legitimate violence. But there’s something to be gained, I think, by directly acknowledging the extent to which police and military forces are agents of violence and not only noble, self-sacrificing targets of it.

Among other things, thinking of police officers and soldiers as violence specialists might prompt some uncomfortable, but necessary, reconsiderations of appeals to their safety. There seems to be a strong presumption that even amidst the ritual expressions of gratitude toward “those who put their lives on the line,” we should do everything possible to prevent their lives from actually being put on the line. In Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, “officer safety” has become a talisman used to justify shrinking protections for individual privacy and broader police discretion. In the national security context, the safety of the troops seems to have similar talismanic appeal. It’s nearly taboo, I think, to suggest that officer safety or troop safety is one goal among many rather than a priority to be pursued at all costs. Thinking of the police and the military as violence specialists acknowledges both the risks these professionals face and the risks they impose.

[Cross-posted at Balkinization.]

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9 Responses

  1. A.W. says:

    i think the term “violence” is a loaded one. and so you wonder why they don’t instead use the term “force specialists.”

    But word games are ultimately uninteresting to me. ultimately the word will take on a meaning that reflects our attitude. The story of what we call black people is a great case in point. in the 1800’s, negroes, colored people etc. were considered nice terms. the n-word was a nasty one, but so, fascinatingly, was the term african american. yes, african american was once considered a slur, indicating that somehow black people were less american than white people. then slowly terms evolved until african american is considered okay. of course that term is pretty problematic. for instance, James Taranto pointed out that Theresa Heinz Kerry, having been born in Africa, and being an american, is an african american–but of course no one would call her that.

    Or take the word “special.” handicapped people faced prejudice, so they played the word game. “oh, he is not handicapped, he is _special._” So they got everyone to use that word, but guess what? it started to be a slur. see, e.g. the president saying he bowled like a special olympian.

    There are certain people especially on the left who think that if you get everyone to call a hated thing a nice term, that we will start to think happy thoughts about that hated thing. and the confusion can work a while. at first when i heard the term “progressive” i was confused and didn’t realize it was just another word for liberal. but when you figure it out, if anything, you get annoyed with the persons who do that because it is bullsh–. But then i have always been allergic to bullsh–.

    As a disabled person i resist efforts to use silly euphamisms. when a person says they want to call me challenged, i resist it. instead i change the attitude. yes i am disabled. its not as bad as people think it is. indeed, i find most disabled people agree that the prejudice is a bigger problem than the disability itself, although obviously individual cases vary.

  2. fishbane says:

    A.W.: Why is “violence” a loaded term (although it is an unintended pun)?

    It strikes me (hah) as more precise – the word “force” is employed elsewhere, in terms of being “forced to do one’s homework”, but I don’t think Mom falls into the category of “force specialists”. Police, soldiers, and corrections officers fall in to a pretty tidy category, defined by training for violence as the word is commonly used, not the word force, as commonly used.

  3. ohwilleke says:

    The trouble is that the subset of law enforcement and even military professionals who regularly dispense violence is quite modest.

    Few police officers, for example, fire their service weapons in anger more than a few times in a career, and a large share of these uses are defensive; a typical police officer makes one arrest a week, often with little or no resistance from a suspect.

    Perhaps SWAT teams within police forces are really active uses of violence, but while American law enforcement officers are typically armed, the vast majority more closely resemble British bobbies or Japanese neighborhood office cops than TV depictions of the role. Some specialties, like CSI, are almost completely devote of personal violence use. Most law enforcement officers mostly do business in authority, rather than actual use of force.

    Similarly, while the institution of the military as a whole is to deploy violence, many military personnel are involved in dispensing that violence in only the most indirect way. There are nineteen people back at the airbase (mostly in maintenance jobs) for every airman who flies a fighter jet. Lots of Army personnel have positions which are primarily logistic (e.g. supply truck driver), or non-combat oriented (e.g. mechanics, cooks, and more soldiers described in Iraq as “Fobbits,” because they spend most of their time within the confines of forward operating bases).

    Violence is also not the synonomous with merely the use of force or the threat of force. While all violence may involve the use of force, not all uses of force or the threat of force are violent. Handcuffing someone is a use of force (even if they don’t resist having them put on), beating someone over the head, in contrast, is necessarily violent.

    Dealing with someone by confining them with bars and barbed wire fences, as one does in a prison (military or civilian) certainly involves the use of force or the threat of force to restrain someone. But, violence is not the objective. The objective is to prevent anyone from needing to or actually using force in violent way.

    Part of the core idea of a social order is to use the authority and capacity of the sovereign to use force to avoid actual violence, something that is reflected in the widespread decline of capital and corporal punishment driven in part by the fear that this sends a violent message which undermines this goal.

  4. fishbane says:

    The trouble is that the subset of law enforcement and even military professionals who regularly dispense violence is quite modest.

    I don’t see this as problematic. We say that accountants and lawyers working for Exxon/Mobil work in the oil industry, even though they aren’t drilling or driving gas around.

    Violence is also not the synonomous with merely the use of force or the threat of force.

    Exactly. That’s why we don’t include judges, school administrators and DMV clerks in the category.

    But, violence is not the objective. The objective is to prevent anyone from needing to or actually using force in violent way.

    The distinction isn’t really relevant, I don’t think. The objective of individual car insurance is to stabilize personal cash flows in the face of uncertainty*, but is completely pointless unless one is quite certain the insuring company is capable of paying a claim.

    *putting aside policy issues.

  5. birtelcom says:

    Not sure why the use of the term “violence” here is especially startling. The description of the (modern) state as being defined by its holding a “monopoly on violence” within its territory dates back at least to the translations of Max Weber’s work about a century ago, and has been widely used terminology in political science and sociology since then.

  6. The important issue here is not the semantics of violence or force but “specialist.” What’s the proper the role of specialization in a democracy?

    The military operates on an ethic of piety antithetical to the moral logic of democracy. But from Weber to Posner, instrumentalism is considered foundational: in the service of assumed ends, so society is founded on specialization as much as the military.

    A citizen-soldier has divided loyalties, a professional soldier is loyal only to military piety. I asked a soldier on a Milblog whether he was first a Marine or a citizen of the US and his response was “Semper Fi!.” No one else questioned him.

    A citizen-solder must morally and logically defy the law of non-contradiction. The defiance of that law is in fact the essence of democracy. Technocracy is not democracy. Hyper-specialization is a danger to republican forms of government because it is dangerous to republican society that forms its base. This is all basic empiricism as against fundamentalist rationalism.

  7. ohwilleke says:

    The premise of the original post, that the moral responsibility of “agents of violence” makes their safety something of reduced importance — i.e. that attacking or killing cops and soldiers is morally justifiable to a greater extent than others, is troubling, particularly because this idea is decoupled from a notion of legitimate self-defense or even of some extended notion of self-defense.

    Max Weber’s description (presumably translated from German and hence opening up the possibility that a nuance has been lost in translation) also isn’t very descriptive of reality. About half of legitimate uses of force in the U.S. (at least those statistically noted and producing deaths) are by non-law enforcement civilians. The percentage of uses of force by police that would not be legitimate if carried out by civilians is even smaller.

    Specialization is hardly controversial as a general concept. Nobody stays up nights worrying that mechanics don’t make their own bread and don’t grow their own tomatoes. Even “use of force specialist” would probably not be all that controversial. It is the use of the word violence and the implications attached to it, that are controversial.

  8. “Specialization is hardly controversial as a general concept.”
    No, actually the debate between specialists and generalists is old and ongoing, in both epistemology, as abstraction, and general politics.
    In fact it’s the most important debate going.