Anarchy in the Streets

April 13, 2003

Anarchy in the Streets

By Gwynne Dyer

Watching Iraq’s cities dissolve into anarchy, many people wondered why the American and British soldiers didn’t intervene to stop the looting and revenge-taking. Some assumed that this is what always happens when dictatorships fall. Others, however, were struck by how thin the civilised veneer of law and order really is.

The foreign troops didn’t act because they were trained for combat, not for police work. They don’t speak Arabic, and if they intervened on a large scale they would end up killing too many civilians. But this is NOT what automatically happens when dictatorships end.

There were no scenes like this in Manila after the overthrow of the dictator Marcos in 1986, or in East Germany after the Berlin Wall came down, or in Moscow when the Soviet regime collapsed, or in Belgrade after the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic three years ago. But those were all non-violent democratic revolutions coming from within, whereas this is a foreign invasion that drove all the police off the streets.

The police are the heart of the matter, and the phenomenon has nothing to do with Iraq being an Arab country or a recent ex-dictatorship. No city is more than 48 hours away from violent anarchy. Consider two films that are making the rounds at the moment.

One is Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Gangs of New York’, a vivid and meticulous recreation of the terrifying slum called the Five Points (where Foley Square is now) from the 1840s to the 1860s. The other is Fernando Meirelles’s ‘Cidade de Deus’ (City of God), a jittery, hand-held pseudo-documentary chronicling gang life and death in Rio de Janeiro’s teeming, ultra-violent Zona Norte from the 1970s to the 1990s. The two films could not be more different in style — but they are essentially the same film.

The arc of the stories is identical: twenty years in the life of the gangs, as youthful apprentices murder their way up the local power structure, enjoy their moment of glory, and are eventually deposed by the next lot of ruthless juvenile killers. What’s curious, given that New York and Rio de Janeiro are cities of about the same age, is that the stories are set more than a hundred years apart. Rio didn’t have gangs like that a hundred years ago, and New York City has not had them since. How come?

There were certainly criminals operating in Rio in the 19th century, and there are lots of organised criminal groups still operating in New York today. But what you didn’t have in Rio then, and haven’t had in New York for over a century, are large gangs of violent criminals, drawn from the poorest class, who openly control whole neighbourhoods, wage pitched battles against each other, and sortie out into the wealthier parts of the city to rob, terrorise, pillage and kill.

So what causes them? If you only watched ‘Cidade de Deus’ you might say it was drugs, for that is the main source of income for the gangs of Rio and the main cause for wars between them. But there was no drug trade of the same kind in New York in the 1840s, and the gangs thrived anyway.

Poverty, then? You need a critical mass of desperately poor people to get gangs of this sort, certainly, but why do we not see the same phenomenon in Mexico City, Cairo and Delhi, cities that have millions of desperately poor people? There is plenty of crime in those cities, but nothing to compare with brazen, lethal gangs of 1840s New York and present-day Rio.

The real answer is in the films themselves. A dominant theme in both ‘Gangs of New York’ and ‘City of God’ is the corruption of the police, who are in league with the gang bosses. The entire structure of city government, police force and gangs is one vast criminal conspiracy, and everybody thrives except the public. The key is the police: so long as they have a basic commitment to the preservation of law and order, anarchy and gang rule can be avoided. If they lack that commitment, or simply are not present on the streets, all hell breaks loose.

It’s not that everybody is a potential criminal waiting for a chance to break loose, but such people do exist everywhere. In small societies, the discipline that keeps them under control comes from social pressure, backed by direct action when necessary. In societies so big that most people are strangers to one another, social discipline has to be backed up by a police force. It’s as true for Boston and Bombay as it is for Baghdad: if the police stop doing their job, it’s a matter of hours before the wicked and the desperate seize their opportunity. Anarchy is never that far away.

The chaos in Iraqi cities will subside in coming days as the occupying powers get the local police force back on the streets. Most of the looting could not have been prevented — but a curse upon the commander who ignored the pleas of archaeologists from all over the world and failed to guard the National Museum of Iraq from the looters. For the want of a dozen soldiers, tens of thousands of irreplaceable artefacts from the earliest human civilisations have been lost. In the broadest sense, that officer is guilty of a crime against all humanity.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“So what…Rio”)