Lynchings: hitting the panic button


One morning, we all suddenly woke up to an entirely different country. The one we knew, based on the best possible answer to its own history of nightmares (given their victims’ reaction, full of patience and peaceful struggle until they achieved a tardy justice) was no longer there. Instead, it was a land in which not only fearful people could feel free to lynch another human being but also one full of political and journalistic justification of barbarism.

It is impossible not to hear the echo of the past: a threat, an exaggeration of it, informal and uncontrolled violence applied to the bodies of the assumed guilty and a wide (but not unanimous, fortunately) social legitimization of brutality. This time the threat was no longer the Communist or the terrorist; it is the “delinquent”, a person who, even extremely young and possibly disarmed, could steal a purse on a street and for that reason deserves being assassinated by a mob. A mob of respectable “neighbours,” of course.

When a sentence starts with a condemnation and is immediately followed by a “but” we may suspect that its author is essaying a justification. From Sergio Massa and Mauricio Macri to many others, we heard the argument that the “absent state” explains the trend. Of course, they all express their condemnation but, at the same time, they understand the population’s fatigue with crime and never take the step of calling the members of those mobs “murderers” instead of “neighbours.”.

Let us be clear: insecurity is real, not a mere perception, if we compare this Argentina with a previous one. Although police is often an accomplice of criminals and the judicial system is frequently lenient, we are not living in a Hobbesian state of nature in which everybody applies an uncontrolled violence in order to preserve his or her life.

The fact that a lynching could occur in a lost street of Greater Buenos Aires or at Coronel Díaz and Charcas should make us think that state is not necessarily the problem but a collective mental condition. There is a lot of state on that Palermo corner.

Moreover, let us ask ourselves if fear and anger are sufficient fuel for killing. What other feelings and lack of limits, what kind of hatred is needed to kill somebody in a group and with our own hands?

Social environment is crucial when it comes to construct a situation like the current one. Social science has discussed it during its history, and one of those answers seems particularly suitable to describe what is going on in Argentina.

South African sociologist Stanley Cohen coined in 1972 the concept of “moral panic” as one that describes a process in which “a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people.”.

He did it in a book called Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers. What does something concerning British urban juvenile tribes in the sixties have to do with the current Argentine situation? Very much in terms of the construction of social hysteria and violence around a scapegoat by the media and political leaders.

In his book Cohen describes step by step the process of moral panic, constructed around a created “folk devil.”

That process follows a path. It starts with an initial concern explained by underlying social anxieties. That fear, first expressed in a confusing and unorganized social reaction to the threat, becomes obsessively exaggerated by social and political leaders and very specially by the modern media, which makes a stereotype of the folk devil that crystallizes in organized opinions and attitudes which shape the social reaction.

At that point, Cohen describes a “rescue and remedy phase,” which leads to the emergence of a “societal control culture” given by the action of “social control agents” who finally respond in an organized and repressive way to the threat. The disproportion between the real peril and the social reaction is always the key.

Cohen’s book is far from being an isolated case study. Instead, it inaugurated a rich tradition in History which applies his model to a number of cases of violent and disproportionate collective reactions to supposed “social deviations,” from crime waves in 17th-century Massachusetts to Church persecution of heretics.

What we just quickly reviewed allows us to deduce in what stage of the social hysteria process we are. The initial concern is already perfectly set, so as the construction of the folk devil, which refers not only to proven criminals but also to features linked to youth, poverty and even racial types. The media has accomplished its task by raising reasonable social fears of insecurity to the sky, by sketching a stereotype of the “criminal” and by justifying lynching. There is a step still to take: to establish that anarchy is no longer acceptable and, thus, that a co-ordinated repressive state action is needed to restore peace.

This will be the centre of the next presidential campaign. Massa’s offensive against a new Penal Code, which mixes aspects that could reasonably be reformed with simple distortions of reality, point in that direction. He made flabby political leaderships like the Radicals and Macri step down from a bill to which their main specialists had contributed.

“‘It is not the time to discuss the subject,” they finally conceded. Why not, with a national election one and a half years away?

Nobody, starting with the Kirchnerite government, seems ready to discuss insecurity sincerely and as a whole, including police corruption and links to drug-dealing, judicial incapacity and lack of resources, extreme and absurdly bureaucratic judicial procedures and a disfigured Penal Code in which property is more valuable than life.

If the Argentine political class wants to speak in terms of the state of nature, this is hypothetically a human condition prior to the constitution of an organized state with the monopoly of force. Let us remember that there are different ways to think about what is finally nothing but an analytical concept. According to Thomas Hobbes, it is a situation of extreme violence and anarchy defined by the war of all against all. In the terms of John Locke, it is a potentially dangerous situation but not necessarily chaotic. For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an idyllic condition of peace, innocence and harmony.

Our main political leaders have made their choice: it is an “absent state” and the “war of all against all.”. Beware: they are setting the foundation of a Leviathan.

In Hobbesian times, that meant centralized monarchy; today it means a firm hand and sheer repression.

(Nota publicada en el Buenos Aires Herald).