VIOLENCE KNOWS NO POLITICAL BOUNDARIES
Singaporeans, aghast at the recent slaying of schoolchildren by a gunman in the United States and the gang-rape of a young woman in India, might well ask whether there is any link between the atrocities and the fact that those countries are democracies.
The short answer is “no” and the long answer is “yes”. Either way, there is something to be said for the way in which Singapore, which is often accused of being a weak democracy, seeks to protect its citizens against wanton violence.
The short answer is justified by the fact that violence occurs in every political system, whether democratic, autocratic or totalitarian. An absence of democracy certainly is no protection against being attacked, whether by the Soviet-era state in Syria or by semi-literate religious militia in parts of Afghanistan or Pakistan. Dismembered cats found here in Singapore bear mute witness to the fact that violence occurs even in a well-regulated state, no matter whether Singapore is described as authoritarian or soft-authoritarian or anything else.
All societies are about power and so long as power can be established, maintained or contested through violence, all societies will be marked more or less by violence. Violence towards animals, particularly of the psychopathic variety seen in the case of the murdered cats, is violence,too.
But where the long answer comes in is that democracies, which never tire of preaching their political superiority, can and do fail spectacularly when it comes to curbing violence against the weak. This is true of both the United States and India.
To its critics, America’s gun culture is a throwback to its violent founding by Christopher Columbus. To its supporters, that culture originates in the right to bear arms which is enshrined in the Constitution.
No one in his right mind will believe that the shotguns and assault weapons openly on sale are powerful enough to protect gun-owners should the American state decide to use even its artillery power – to say nothing of its strike aircraft or its missiles – to wipe them out. But these guns and other weapons are lethal enough to kill innocent people, including children, whom the state is unable to protect from demented but determined sociopaths because the police cannot be everywhere all the time.
Over in India, democracy is a reality but it is not the only one. There are contending realities, parallel structures of violence carried out against women and children along with traditionally oppressed segments of society such as low-caste tribals and farmers.
In that culture of violence, a woman puts herself at risk when she steps out of her ascribed role of homemaker, in which she is protected by the gendered power of a patriarchal society. Her job is to produce dinners and babies. When a woman and her boyfriend flag down a bus after sunset, she becomes fair game.
Of course, most Indian males do not think like that, but there are enough of them in enough places like New Delhi to turn India’s enclaves of lawlessness into jungles of sexual warfare.
Democracy, which is meaningless without at least a degree of gender equality, is helpless against sexual transgressions rooted deeply in the male chauvinist mind. As is well-known, mothers can be as responsible as fathers in engendering ideas of macho virility and moral immunity in their sons. This is one way in which women seek to find a place in patriarchal society: by trying to appease its worst male demons of outrageous power and orgiastic violence.
In both the United States and India, democracy needs to be widened to include the most vulnerable. It must resist the ethic of violence with an ethic of rights – the right to life and sexual safety.
Singapore tries to do this by severely limiting access to guns as part of the social compact that upholds the individual’s right to safety.
Similarly, the Women’s Charter empowers women and children in real and practical ways. This freedom from physical violence and sexual oppression provides a more accurate index of the quality of life in Singapore than futile imported debates over how democratic it is.
The on-going verbal tussle over the extent of political freedom on the Yale-NUS College campus is a case in point. Unless students and academics at the college are incensed by some gratuitous assault on their academic freedom, it does not really matter what dons think in Connecticut, which is the site of both Yale University and of the school in which the children were killed mercilessly.
Private liberty cannot trump public safety.