Commentary | Violent self-defence misses the point

Communities need alternatives to create a better future

Most decisions, and political ones in particular, afford us the opportunity to determine a piece of the future. While absolute consensus on what form the future should take is improbable, the future proposed by Sam Neylon and Al Blair (“We are at war,” Commentary, February 10) seems particularly bleak. Their suggestion is that a security-industrial complex encompassing many aspects of law enforcement and justice systems is a near universal controlling oppressor. The appropriate response to this situation is, we are told, violent “self-defence.”

The use of the term ‘self-defence’ here is problematic, given that it is usually understood as referring to a situation in which one (or someone nearby) is faced with an immediate and serious threat. Thus, an individual fighting back against brutality from a state agent could be understood as engaging in self-defence. Coordinated strategies of anti-state violence, no matter how we might judge their motives, are not self-defence, but planned offensive attacks. While redefining words in technical or theoretical discussions is perfectly acceptable, in this context, it collides with the widely understood legal meaning.

I am especially astonished by the way in which both “representative democratic bodies” and security forces enabling Egypt to “protect its people” are seen as undesirable, and implicitly painted as paternalistic impositions of Western institutions and media. Unless I have subjected myself to bourgeois delusions on an unprecedented scale, it seems clear to me that representative democracy and the protection of citizens are very high indeed on the Egyptian demonstrators wish list for a better future. The relentless calls for Hosni Mubarak’s resignation for more than a fortnight, and the collective elation amongst Egyptians upon his eventual departure, reflect a wish for a new head of state that is more representative of the people’s views – to be elected in a free and fair manner. To propose abandonment of all security forces sentences citizens to a future where self-interested and dangerous individuals are more able to distract the community from determining and following its chosen path. Such a suggestion is especially ill-applied to Egypt, where security forces have, to some extent, protected the right to protest, and the police themselves have recently joined the demonstrations.

The impetus for police and military action is said to be in some part derived from criminalization, defined as “the process through which behaviours or thoughts deemed dangerous or threatening are controlled and repressed.” This seems to point in a very odd direction: criminalization does indeed entail an attempt to control dangerous behaviour, but the additional qualification as repression, and later statement that “criminalization [is a] tactic of war,” appear to see criminalization as eo ipso oppressive and wrong. The notion of criminal acts is, however, not merely a war strategy directed towards state enemies: whether one lives in Canada or Egypt, it is highly beneficial to possess a criminal justice system which can effectively and fairly protect individuals and communities from those who would truly seek to harm them, irrespective of how this may relate to the state. The protection of communities comprised of individuals is paramount to a meaningful political society; this is in part why the Criminal Code does, in fact, almost universally treat crimes against the person more harshly than those against property. People, and the communities they form, should be able to freely determine their future, without unnecessary threats or hindrances. The statistic nihilism proposed through “violent community responses” demonstrates a far greater understanding of theoretical vanguardism than of the concrete steps which can allow repressed citizens to create a better future for their respective societies.

Isaac Stethem is a U2 Philosophy & Political Science student, and co-director of Amnesty International McGill. He can be reached at

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