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Trump is treading a dangerous line on state-sponsored violence

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THE exercise of violence is a subject where it is very easy for people to become either sanctimonious or cynical, and almost impossible for governments to avoid well-founded criticism. The fact that Marxists – themselves, of course, supporters of an explicitly violent doctrine – bandy about phrases like “the violence inherent in the system” doesn’t mean that there isn’t any. Most political theories grapple with how violence is used to obtain or preserve power, and how governing powers attempt to reserve for themselves a supposedly exclusive “right” to use it.

Even those who believe that liberal Western democracies are fundamentally benign and beneficial should concede that order and the rights of their citizens is preserved by a state monopoly on the use of physical, violent force; both internationally, with standing armed forces and war or the threat of it, and domestically, through the police, courts and prison services.

The development of centuries of theological, philosophical and political theories tackling this issue has led to widely accepted conventions. They include things like treaties on the treatment of prisoners of war, prohibition of particular kinds of weapons and measures designed to minimise harm to civilians in war zones.

The 20th century, which saw warfare, genocide and the oppression of domestic opposition practised on a hitherto unknown scale, may not have provided very compelling reasons to believe that we are improving on the past. But since at least the end of the Second World........

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