Why you should never settle for societal disruption and disorder
I had an incredible experience once during the early days of the war in Afghanistan. I was there just after the invasion on a small special operations team living for a year among the Afghan people. My team was hours away from any military base. We sometimes rode horses, grew beards and operated very independently as we established relations among the local and tribal leaders.
In Afghanistan, devastation was everywhere. If it wasn’t destruction caused by a near decade of Taliban thuggery, then it was leftover destruction from the days of the Soviet occupation. Land mines were everywhere. Old destroyed tanks and armored vehicles lay by the sides of roads and in ditches. Scraps of weapons here and there and farmers choosing to plow or not plow based on where they remembered that bombs might still be in the ground in their fields.
Basically, the detritus of war was commonplace. So much so that the people of the country just lived among it. I once saw a full-sized bridge with its abutments made out of former Soviet tanks whose hulls had been filled with dirt and concrete to make the base for the bridge to stand on. I have pictures of kids playing on an old destroyed armored personnel carrier like it was part of a playground.
My team’s area of operations was in the north past the Hindu Kush mountains, but our headquarters was well to the south in Kabul. The Hindu Kush was an amazing and historically daunting obstacle.
Hindu Kush is translated loosely as “the blood of the Hindus” because it was said that in centuries past invaders from the south in what is now India and Pakistan died trying to get over those mountains. Epic snow-covered peaks reached so high that the rarified air made it nearly impossible to fly military helicopters over them. They are the Rocky Mountains of Southwest Asia.
On a few occasions, I had to come in from the field for business at headquarters. It was no small thing to get there but on one occasion one of my men and I made it down and promptly got stuck. No air assets could move us back north. We were locked down with my team still out there. After five days, I finally convinced my commander that if he would give me two old Toyota pickup trucks from the motor pool I would head north overland. To my surprise, he agreed.
It was no small thing but we did it and for quite a while we were some of the only Americans to have traveled the length of that route over the Hindu Kush by way of the highest tunnel complex in the world, including a tunnel built by the Soviets through the Salang Pass at over 11,000 feet above sea level.
It was high adventure let me tell you. No interpreter went with us. Just a handful of Americans, including one intrepid reporter from the New York Times who heard what we were doing and wanted to tag along.
We passed through every war-torn village and countless bombed-out structures as we made our way north. But I will never forget one village high in the mountains. A place that stood out to me as being different than anywhere else in the entire theatre of operations.
Well above the rest of the world it seemed that this one village had escaped all of the ravages of the lowlands. With beautiful fields of cultivated sunflowers and crops growing beside rushing mountain streams with little ornate footbridges. Even the traditional small brown mud-brick homes that stacked the hillsides and perched above streams seemed well kept and beautiful. I told one of our crew that it was like the war had never even been to that village. It felt like we had discovered the legendary Shangri-La.
But you know what the real difference was? The people cared. They cared enough to not live amongst the debris like so many who had acquiesced to their supposed lot in life down in the lowlands. The villagers in that high-mountain paradise cared and would not succumb to the mindset that “this is just how it is."
They took care, they had pride in their homes. They lived with the understanding that they could not change the world but they could change where they lived. It was so evident. I would love to go back and see it again one day under different circumstances.
But here’s the thing — here’s my point in telling you that story — the point is that the people of any community do not have to just settle for disruption and disorder. They don’t. The people in the small mountain village prove that point.
While I’m not a fan of big government and frequent attempts by too many in office to expand the scope of government, I can tell you that I fully acknowledge that there is a role for government. To provide for the common defense, support the general welfare, and ensure domestic tranquility …. those are phrases written into our founding documents. When government fails to maintain order the people suffer.
Too often liberal progressives feel that their role in elected office or civil service is to make life easier for criminals and harder for law-abiding citizens. Too often the law-abiding citizens become like the vast number of Afghan citizens I knew who just accepted that they were to live amongst the spoils of societal upheaval. But that village in the mountains? They got it. They knew better. They did not have to settle for disorder.
That’s why I’m a fan of what some refer to as "broken windows policing." Broken windows is the name given to the social science theory that holds that if a window in a building is broken and not repaired, then before you know it the rest of the windows will be broken. Just one un-repaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing to the lawbreaker because there are no penalties.
Visible signs of crime, anti-social behavior and civil disorder create an environment that encourages further crime and disorder and eventually leads to more serious and even deadly crime. The broken windows theory suggests that policing methods that allow the targeting of minor crimes such as vandalism, public drunkenness, and fare evasion help to create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness.
It was this very theory that Mayor Rudy Giuliani used to clean up New York and return it to the jewel of the world status. Just the opposite was done by Mayor DeBlasio to tear law and order apart and make it hard for tourists to want to go to the Big Apple now.
Basically, the broken windows theory is a community saying to the criminal element that disorder, crime and violence will not be tolerated. Because a community says, “we live here, this is our home, and we care."
And this is not a faraway lesson from another land. Right now in Birmingham, Alabama, the Mayor himself is issuing blanket pardons for drug offenses dating back to 1992. One of the DA’s in Jefferson County has said that he will not enforce Alabama’s abortion laws. Why should criminals be concerned if they know that those in charge will aggressively seek to excuse their law-breaking?
You can see the effects of soft-on-crime policies in places like Atlanta, Chicago, Portland, San Francisco, and yes, right here in Birmingham. For too long the people of the Magic City have just accepted that there is nothing they can do. They live with it because …. well, just because.
Law and order matters. It is about quality of life. And if an idyllic village in the high places of Afghanistan can make itself look like a postcard, then we can certainly do so right here at home.
Because this is our house, and it matters, and we care.
Phil Williams is a former State Senator, retired Army Colonel and combat veteran, and a practicing Attorney. He has served with the leadership of the Alabama Policy Institute and currently hosts Rightside Radio M-F 2-5 pm on WVNN. His column appears every Monday in 1819 News. To contact Phil or request him for a speaking engagement go to www.rightsideradio.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819News.com.