Criminal Gangs, Then and Now

For criminals and criminal states alike, it is in no way lawful to slay the innocent

Change is a constant, with mixed results. But so, too, is a grim stasis, a permanent condition in this Vale of Tears. With regard to change, the players surely change. In St. Augustine’s time, the Roman Empire still held sway, though invaders from the North stormed its borders and sought to establish their own empires. Will Rome’s Empire fall? In his City of God, Augustine questions the grandeur of empire. Does it make sense, he asks, to boast of empire “When you cannot show that men lived in happiness, as they passed their lives amid the horrors of war” and “under the shadow of fear?” We could ask the same question of those who gather today in the Command Centers of fading empires and the War Rooms of their aggrieved assailants.

Augustine warns that to answer his query honestly, “we must refuse to be fooled by empty bombast” or “to let the edge of our critical faculties be blunted by high-sounding words like ‘peoples,’ realms,’ and ‘provinces.’” Today we can add to the list “spheres of influence” and “grand alliances” and “historical patrimony.” And, yes, given their constant abuse, “national security,” and “collateral damage.”

Having read Plato’s Gorgias, Augustine carries forward its central theme: it is better to suffer evil oneself than to do evil to another. Thus he insists that the reign of tyrants harms first of all those who wield power. He makes a telling contrast. “The evils inflicted on the righteous by their wicked masters are not punishments for crimes but tests of virtue,” yet the tyrant becomes “the slave of as many masters as he has vices.”

Today, in countries small and large, in Haiti and El Salvador and Ecuador, in Russia and China and India, tyranny is notoriously “shape-shifting.” From dawn to dusk, tyranny proceeds to darken the lives of decent people. There is, tragically, no reason to suppose that it could not become so in our country. Indeed, preborn infants are at grave risk, as are candidates for “assisted suicide.” Augustine raises a further question, one that we would do well to pose to ourselves. “Remove justice,” he asks, “and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale?” (Remota justitia, quid sunt regna nisi magna latrocinia?)

Houthi insurgents imperil shipping in the Red Sea. Somali pirates remain a threat. They are instances of a long, familiar pattern. Augustine tells the story of an exchange between Alexander the Great and a captured pirate. Alexander challenges the pirate. “What is your idea, in infesting the sea?” The pirate has a ready answer. “The same as yours in infesting the earth! But I’m called a pirate while you are called an emperor.” Far worse than any pirate, the Great Powers of today rely on nuclear weapons. Their very ownership is a death threat to the world we know.

But what is this justice, the removal of which turns Kingdoms and States into criminal gangs? It requires that each of us receive what is our due. It equally demands that we all work for a shared and common good that is more than an aggregate of individual interests. Indeed, this common good is the proper end of law.

Justice, moreover, has a distinctive regard for the innocent. St. Thomas underscores the critical role that the innocent play in promoting the common good. He writes that “the life of righteous men preserves and forwards the common good, since they are the chief part of the community. Therefore it is in no way lawful to slay the innocent.” For criminals and criminal states alike, the slaying of the innocent is the twisted order of the day.

Kyrie eleison, Christe Eleison, Kyrie eleison


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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