The assault on the US Capitol and the culture of law and order

The handling of the assault by former President Trump supporters has provoked strong criticism of the American security apparatus, responsible for not having foreseen what would happen. Ensuring public order, however, requires means, but also a philosophical choice in the management of security by Andrea Monti Professor of Law and Order, University of Chieti-Pescara – Originally published in Italian by

The scenes of the assault on the American Capitol evoke images more suited to other latitudes than that of the country universally accredited as a flagship democracy. Leaving aside why such a disconcerting event happened, and therefore disregarding the political consequences of having triggered a violent protest, it is worth making a few considerations on “how” the public order emergency looks from an Italian perspective.

In retrospect, the troublemakers’ violence died down after just four hours, and order was eventually restored without too many more problems. The event is of enormous symbolic gravity. However, there was no real danger of a coup.

In the immediacy, it was not easy – or possible – to make such considerations as there was not enough information on the “before” and “during”. It is not a surprise that the criticism addressed to the US Capitol Police and the Department of Homeland Security concerned the incapacity to take a demonstration of right extremists and the inadequate preparation of the operators seriously.

In part, it is an excessively harsh judgement because using force at that level of tension, perhaps with the Army’s deployment, would have degenerated into a massacre with truly unpredictable consequences. However, analysing the event from a broader perspective and considering the recent experiences of the George Floyd case’s protests, it is evident that it is the American philosophy of public order rather than the criticality of contingent situations that highlighted problems.

Italy has a long tradition and experience on the subject, grown during the tragic years of terrorism, of the vast public demonstrations and urban guerrilla warfare that has been unleashed for years in the Val di Susa and weekly behind and inside soccer stadiums.

To the more immediately perceptible activities entrusted to the Reparto Mobile of the State Police and the specialised departments of the Carabinieri and of the Guardia di Finanza  (all qualified as public security operators and under the command of the Questore) corresponds an informative activity managed by the General Investigations and Special Operations Division (DIGOS). Personnel is trained in a standardised manner to adopt operational techniques defined centrally by the Ministry of the Interior, not to “beat up” indiscriminately but to operate surgically. Police prevention happens through the control of the territory. However, above all, public gatherings – whether they are official, “tolerated” or spontaneous – are never underestimated.

The Italian management of public order’s effectiveness also derives from the political choice to entrust the executive – a civil authority – without the necessity of proclaiming a “state of emergency” and thus call the military in. The Consolidated Law on Public Security provides that the use of armed forces is only possible if the Interior Minister declares a state of public danger. This detail is essential as it enforces the decision not to involve the military directly in civil uprisings’ repression. It reduces the risk of coups or, in any case, of anti-democratic drifts justified by the “state of emergency”. It is not necessary to evoke the Bivouac Speech given by Mussolini on the 16th November 1922, to understand how much the present Italian organisational set-up can protect the Republic, at least, as long as the Institutions “hold”, and paradoxically, thanks to an approach born in an authoritarian era.

This model has demonstrated its effectiveness. There have been unjustifiable exceptions – such as those of the G8 in Genoa – but exceptions nonetheless. Consequently, it would be unlikely for events like those in the American Capitol to occur in Italy.

The issue that remains in the background, but that instead becomes central, is the role of social networking and instant messaging platforms in causing protests. The ‘medium’ may be neutral, but it is a fact that from the dissemination of ideological messages to the organisation of an event and the coordination of its executive phases, technological communication platforms have proved (negatively) fundamental.

It implies that it is no longer possible to renounce confronting the paradox of tolerance formulated by Karl Popper in The Open Society and its Enemies, according to which

extending tolerance indefinitely to the intolerant, not being ready to defend a tolerant society from the aggression of those who are not, will cause the destruction of the tolerant and the disappearance of tolerance.

Popper wrote these words 1945, and even at that time, such a thesis implied the risk of dangerously restricting the right to dissent and demonstrate. However, if Popper’s thesis could be considered a cultural provocation because the times and ways of building up critical masses of protest were much longer, this is no longer the case today.

As flash-mobs and other forms of real-time protest teach us, the disorder can arise anywhere and at any time. Therefore, the point becomes the definition of a limit to the prevention of public security, which takes into account the respect of constitutionally guaranteed rights.

There is probably no structural solution, but situations must be dealt with on a case by case basis. Indeed, it is better to do this within the framework of a constitutionally oriented public order, rather than in managing disorder, which, Pavlovianly, translates into reacting to force with force.

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