If one assumes the Western culture that we more or less enjoy today in the United States began in earnest in Classical Greece, we are standing on the shoulders of some 2,500 years of deep thought about how to govern ourselves well and wisely. Getting from there to here sometimes required violent action and always required courage. However deeply divided we remain about the details, the hallmark of Western society is our fierce commitment to a secular political space where decisions affecting the common good are made democratically and without violence.
The core of our political deal is that we value freedom and the worth of the individual. We have reluctantly invested our government with the exclusive right to use force — to maintain order and keep us from each others’ throats and our nation secure from foreign enemies — because history taught us in the West the hard lesson that both the discipline of divine right and the anarchy of every-man-for-himself lead eventually to a bloody mess. The details, every other political decision, is decoration to be contested in the common nonviolent, secular political space — the more fiercely the better. As annoying as it is, politics is good.
For an excellent explication of a different way things are organized in places that never enjoyed the transformational experiences of Western culture — i.e., the ancient tribal governance common to much of the world with which we are in conflict today — read The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs by David Pryce-Jones. The book is not actually only about the Arabs, and the author’s terminology has been criticized in that regard. No matter, read The Closed Circle and you will more easily grasp the logic of governing among “tribal” leaders from Yasser Arafat, Hassan Nasrallah, Saddam Hussein, and Osama bin Laden to the surviving-boss-0f-the-week in Hamas. The values of these societies are considerably different from ours.
Gangster values are also different from and fundamentally hostile to everything Western culture stands for. One of the first people I interviewed in researching my book on Latino gangs was a “gang culture” expert in the FBI. When I asked him to describe the gang culture, he turned the question around on me. The conversation went something like this:
Expert: Do you have children?
Expert: Do you try to teach them values?
Me (wondering where this was going): Well, yes.
Expert: Well, just turn those values upside down and you will begin to understand gang culture. Everything you think is good, they think is bad. Everything you think is bad, they think is good.
In his monograph A Contemporary Challenge To State Sovereignty: Gangs And Other Illicit Transnational Criminal Organizations In Central America, El Salvador, Mexico, Jamaica, And Brazil, Max Manwaring describes the values of the gangster culture that he writes has overrun the Mexican states of Quintana Roo and Sinaloa:
This corrupt environment affects everyone and everything, and has been described as feudal or medieval. Local gangs and their TCO [transnational criminal organization] allies have a safe haven from which to operate; enjoy immunity within that safe haven from any illicit actions; “tax” residents, travelers, and businesses at will; and maintain their own self-determined system of law and order. Actors in that world are known to derive their values from norms based on slave holding, sexual activity with minors and their exploitation in prostitution, the “farming” of humans for body parts, and the killing and torture of innocents for political gain and personal gratification (as sport). Notions such as due process of law, right to jury trial, individual privacy, and human and women’s rights may exist as concepts among some, but do not appear to be practiced. Thus, in Quintana Roo and Sinaloa, people live in a feudal environment defined by patronage, bribes, kickbacks, cronyism, ethnic exclusion, and personal whim.
If you think such violence is a phenomenon peculiar to geography south of the border, think again. One need not go to Quintana Roo or Sinaloa to find the real-life, on the street, acting out of this ruthless “self-determined system of law and order.” Examples abound in the United States.
What is ultimately at stake is not how many drug addicts there are more or less. Or how many misguided youth might be saved by secular or sectarian healing.
What is at stake is which value system will prevail in our society.