I am going to say uncomplimentary things about some American realities. I would not want to be misunderstood. I love this country. I felt at home from the moment I arrived here when barely aged eighteen, and it was with a sense of great privilege that I became a citizen a few years later. I would not want to live anywhere else. But it is a duty of citizenship to be critical of the dark underside of one’s country. Every country has a dark underside. The Scandinavian democracies have often been cited, justly so, as exemplars of good governance and respect for human rights. Still, I don’t think I would want to reside in a Norwegian prison or a Swedish nursing home.
I have no idea whether Dominique Strauss-Kahn is guilty of the offenses he has been charged with. I have no particular affection for members of the French elite. I have equally little affection for American prosecutors. Tom Wolfe’s novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, gives a credible picture of the delight they must feel if they can get their hands on an upper-class character, so much more exciting than the riffraff they must usually deal with. I admit that I have paranoid tendencies, but I have a lurking fantasy that, if ever accused of a crime in the state of New York, my prosecutor will be Eliot Spitzer. Be this as it may, three photos accompanying newspaper accounts of Strauss-Kahn’s arrest have greatly disturbed me.
The first photo showed two policemen marching Strauss-Kahn through the so-called “perp walk”, when an alleged perpetrator is paraded publicly so that the press can take pictures. He was handcuffed, with his hands secured behind his back. His jacket has fallen off his left shoulder. The second photo showed him at his arraignment. He was unshaven, visibly shaken. The third photo was taken at the bail hearing. At least Strauss-Kahn had now had the opportunity to shave, and he seemed more controlled. But no fewer than three policemen stood close behind him, handcuffs visibly ready on their belts. I suppose they were to make sure that the “perp” did not try to run away in order to seek sanctuary at the French consulate or the United Nations. Or perhaps, unhinged by all that was happening to him, Strauss-Kahn might jump up and bite the judge, who was lecturing him on the conditions of his bail in tones suitable for a five-year old guilty of having raided the cookie jar.
The “perp walk”, as far as I know, is a peculiar American institution. The police like to use it especially with high-status defendants, who would be particularly embarrassed by such public exposure. Beyond serving to enhance relations between the police and the press, the practice is also supposed to express democratic egalitarianism—look, we can do this to anybody—corollary: watch out, we could do it to you. The “perp walk” is what the sociologist Harold Garfinkel called a degradation ceremony. It serves no legitimate purpose whatever. Its only purpose is to humiliate and to show the helplessness of the “perp”. It is an egregious offence against the presumption of innocence. I know of no similar practice in any other democratic country (though it has been common in China). A faint parallel may be the “dock” in British courtrooms, also suggesting that the “prisoner in the dock” is guilty, but it does not have the humiliation and helplessness inflicted on the accused.
Then there is the routine use of handcuffs, usually fastened in the back of the arrested individual. Again, this is a distinctively American standard operating procedure. We can see it over and over again in episodes of “Law and Order” and other television crime portrayals—an individual’s arrest is solemnly announced, the handcuffs are put on, and the Miranda rights are read. Common sense dictates that the procedure is plausible in the case of an arrestee known to be dangerous. Even then, cuffing the individual with the hands in front guarantees almost the same inability to resist, especially with police holding both arms. The current procedure gives a gratifying sense of power—gratifying, that is, to the holders of power. Like the “perp walk”, it imposes helplessness and humiliation. And, again, it expresses egalitarianism—this is done to everyone, including women and old people short of complete fragility.
A person arrested in the United States is instantly transformed from citizen into convict—not, thank God, legally (he may still count on a fair trial)—but psychologically. The historian Eugen Weber in his book, From Peasants into Frenchmen, described the modernization of rural life in France. The change could also be described as one from serf to citizen. We now go through an (admittedly mild) reverse transformation every time we go through airport security. For quite a while now we have been deprived of much of our clothing, of shoes and metal accessories. More recently we have had to empty our pockets completely and step into a machine that electronically strips us naked. We stand there, shoeless and beltless, arms raised in a gesture of surrender, in one hand clutching all that remains of our earthly possessions—a driver’s license and a boarding pass. Perhaps some men may derive libidinal gain from imagining one of those cute young women in uniform feasting her eyes on their genitalia. I tried, but I evidently lack the requisite erotic fantasy.
But the other day I had to go to the next step. A grim-faced TSA officer stopped me from rushing to secure my basket containing, among other things, my wallet and credit cards. He mumbled something into a microphone attached to his left shoulder. I had to stand there for several minutes, very much a serf facing unchallengeable authority. I had not understood what he had said across his shoulder—it was in some sort of code. Was he calling for sharpshooters? For a terrorism consultant? No, it turned out that he had called for another TSA officer, who then just stood by while his colleague undertook a manual search. He ceremonially announced which part of my body he was about to touch. (Why? Did I have the right to object?) I must note, in fairness, that he did not touch my “junk” (promises, promises….). But what was the other guy there for? To subdue me, in case a bomb was found in my underwear?
I am reasonably sure that this search was a random one, not triggered by some potentially dangerous characteristic of mine. And that, of course, was again an expression of the aforementioned egalitarianism. I see before me Janet Napolitano, the head of the Transportation Security Administration, grim-facedly stating on television that she had zero tolerance for any sort of “profiling”. (I stipulate that Napolitano is likely to be a warm-hearted person in her private life, but she has to look grim in her official role—looking ever so much like one’s least favorite aunt when she is really, really annoyed.) Does all this make us more secure? Perhaps. In which case the reduction to temporary sefdom is no more than an inconvenience. It seems, however, that the Israelis manage to achieve security by relying more on intelligent interviews with travelers. In any case, the tabu against “profiling” is egalitarianism run amok. I imagine this young bearded man murmuring in Arabic being allowed through, while Mrs. Enquist, an eighty-year old widow from Minnesota, is randomly searched. Other than egalitarian ideology, what could be a rationale for this disparate treatment? Well, perhaps Mrs. Enquist, finally enraged by Garrison Keeler’s jokes about Norwegians, has converted to a radical Islamist sect and volunteered to be a suicide bomber….. Everything is possible.
Before I leave this topic of symbols of tyranny, there is one more I want to mention: The physical arrangements of Congressional hearings: The senators or representatives in charge of the hearing sit on a raised platform. The witnesses sit at tables well below the platform, to which they have to look up. Let me propose that this is an inappropriate arrangement in a democracy—even if the characters up on the platform do not harangue or insult the witnesses, as happens all too often. The physical trappings of political life are not unimportant. I think that the architecture of the Kremlin strongly symbolizes tyranny. By contrast, there is the simplicity of the White House, suggesting a government open to the citizenry (even if today the basement is full of individuals with submachine guns and rocket launchers). That is indeed an architecture of democracy. It should also mark the interior furnishings of hearings in the Capitol. I recently watched hearings by the Parliamentary committee of inquiry into the British role in the Iraq war. Legislators and witnesses (including Tony Blair) sat at tables arranged on the same level. No one looked down, no one had to look up.
At Fatehpur Sikri, the splendid capital founded by the Moghul Emperor Akbar not far from Agra, one may still visit the splendid building in front of which imperial audiences were held. The emperor sat on his throne, those who had to appear before him stood far below, looking up. Very close by there was a place where the imperial elephant sat during audiences. If the emperor got really, really angry, he would give a signal, and the elephant would walk over and squash the subject who had made the emperor angry. The elephant is an apt metaphor for the violence that is at the foundation of every state, however enlightened or democratic. The purpose of democracy is to restrain the elephant, symbolically as well as physically.