Authoritarianism And The Petty Tyrants

Worst band name EVAR. But that’s not what this post is about.

One thing that’s patently clear in even the most precursory study of authoritarianism is that authoritarian regimes rely on ‘petty tyrants’: officials, including very minor ones such as policemen, who abuse their power. This abuse can be ideologically motivated or simply due to ‘power-tripping’ (or, of course, both). A recent case is the detention of French historian Henry Rousso for ten hours, even though he had a valid visa (boldface mine):

U.S. authorities came close to deporting an Egyptian-born French Jewish scholar on his way to speak at a symposium at Texas A&M.

Henry Rousso was detained in Houston when the university enlisted one of its law professors who specializes in immigrant rights to intervene, The Eagle, a news site covering the Bryan-College Station area, where the university is located, reported on Saturday.

The newspaper reported that there was a “misunderstanding” regarding Rousso’s visa, leading authorities to classify him as an illegal alien. Fatma Marouf, the law professor, told The Eagle that she had not previously seen such strict enforcement.

“It seems like there’s much more rigidity and rigor in enforcing these immigration requirements and the technicalities of every visa,” said Marouf, who helped author an amicus brief earlier this month against President Donald Trump’s executive order banning entry to refugees and to travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries….

It’s not clear what led to Rousso’s detention and near-deportation; Egypt is not among the Muslim-majority countries listed.

He was detained for ten hours and nearly deported; Rousso has visited the U.S. many times, and was previously a visiting faculty member at Texas A&M.

This NYT report on the recent joy among certain parts of our internal security forces might be relevant (boldface mine):

At Kennedy International Airport in New York, passengers arriving after a five-hour flight from San Francisco were asked to show their documents before they were allowed to get off the plane.

The Trump administration’s far-reaching plan to arrest and deport vast numbers of undocumented immigrants has been introduced in dramatic fashion over the past month. And much of that task has fallen to thousands of ICE officers who are newly emboldened, newly empowered and already getting to work.

Gone are the Obama-era rules that required them to focus only on serious criminals. In Southern California, in one of the first major roundups during the Trump administration, officers detained 161 people with a wide range of felony and misdemeanor convictions, and 10 who had no criminal history at all…

Interviews with 17 agents and officials across the country, including in Florida, Alabama, Texas, Arizona, Washington and California, demonstrated how quickly a new atmosphere in the agency had taken hold. Since they are forbidden to talk to the press, they requested anonymity out of concern for losing their jobs.

The White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, said on Tuesday that the president wanted to “take the shackles off” of agents, an expression the officers themselves used time and again in interviews to describe their newfound freedom.

“Morale amongst our agents and officers has increased exponentially since the signing of the orders,” the unions representing ICE and Border Patrol agents said in a joint statement after President Trump issued the executive orders on immigration late last month….

But for those with ICE badges, perhaps the biggest change was the erasing of the Obama administration’s hierarchy of priorities, which forced agents to concentrate on deporting gang members and other violent and serious criminals, and mostly leave everyone else alone.

A whirlwind of activity has overtaken ICE headquarters in Washington in recent weeks, with employees attending back-to-back meetings about how to quickly carry out President Trump’s plans. “Some people are like: ‘This is great. Let’s give them all the tools they need,’” said a senior staff member at headquarters, who joined the department under the administration of George W. Bush.

But, the official added, “other people are a little bit more hesitant and fearful about how quickly things are moving.”

Two officials in Washington said that the shift — and the new enthusiasm that has come with it — seems to have encouraged pro-Trump political comments and banter that struck the officials as brazen or gung-ho, like remarks about their jobs becoming “fun.” Those who take less of a hard line on unauthorized immigrants feel silenced, the officials said….

Agents are, in fact, predominantly male and have often served in the military, with a police department or both. New agents take a five-week Spanish language program as well as firearms training; they also learn driving maneuvers and have to pass seven written examinations and a physical-fitness test that includes an obstacle course…

He said that he had spent a lot of time on the road, speaking at town halls where he heard a great deal from the rank-and-file agents about the priorities. “Certainly they were not terribly popular,” he said. “They wanted unfettered discretion.”

…“The discretion has come back to us; it’s up to us to make decisions in the field,” a 15-year veteran in California said. “We’re trusted again.”

Well, not trusted by everyone.

The problem is similar to that of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Most DEA officials want to stop drug manufacturers. Most are not interested in the social phenomena underlying drug use and distribution here and abroad. They simply want to ‘get the bad guys.’ People who work for ICE and CBP want to stop illegal immigration. As the article notes, while some at DEA are opposed to the Trump policy (something I’ve heard anecdotally as well), most want to ‘stop illegals.’ Some do it because they believe in the legal immigration system and don’t like ‘line cutters.’ Some, like millions of Americans, have disturbing views on Muslims and other minority groups–and they’re not congregating in the National Endowment for the Arts. Some are just very ignorant or not-very-bright people, like millions of Americans (why would one possibly think a 62 year-old French historian would try to sneak into the U.S. illegally? What possible security threat could he be? And whose job would he be stealing?). And, of course, some are power-tripping assholes–as are millions of Americans.

Roll all of that together and you wind up with a lot of people who act like petty tyrants. The problem is that law enforcement, like it or not, is policy, as I noted about the far less serious problem of jaywalking:

What I do not understand is who exactly decided this would be policy. Essentially, the LAPD is making a policy decision: they are attempting to retard the shift towards walking. It does have an effect–if Boston, D.C., or New York police officers ever decided to enforce a similar policy, that would probably be the one thing that could get every single elected official voted out of office. Cities require walking.

Yet the LAPD has decided that Los Angeles doesn’t. Is this a Ferguson-style attempt to raise revenue? Is this an attempt to fill monthly quotas (if they truly exist)? Probably not. Instead, it seems like the Police Department has decided, unilaterally, to try to limit pedestrian fatalities–a good thing to do. However, they clearly didn’t ask any elected officials, as shown by Councilmen Bonin’s and Huizar’s reactions.

While jaywalking obviously isn’t an issue of life and death, this is one example of how a police department, when there is no oversight, can de facto enact urban planning policy…

What “unfettered discretion” means is that individual immigration officers and agents are unilaterally making immigration policy decisions. Lots of people with valid visas are being harassed or refused entry. This is discouraging people from visiting the U.S.–and the random capriciousness doesn’t help (there’s no way to know if you’ll be hassled or not, so there’s nothing you can do to avoid it). Is this what people wanted–even the hardcore anti-immigration types? To prevent tourists and known, skilled workers to visit the country?

Maybe enough Americans really do want this. Well, as I’ve noted before, Democrats aren’t in much of a position to save Republicans and conservatives from themselves. This is really going to hurt the U.S.–and by the time the bozos figure it out (or go chase a shiny new toy), the damage will have been done by many little tyrants.

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1 Response to Authoritarianism And The Petty Tyrants

  1. harrync says:

    I read one report that said that Henry Rousso’s difficulty arose from the fact that he was here on a visitor’s visa but was receiving compensation for the presentation he was going to give. The agent apparently knew that getting paid for services rendered was generally not permitted if you only had a tourist visa; what he apparently did not know was that the law had an exception for honorariums for speaking at academic conferences, so the visitor’s visa was all Rousso needed.

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