THE SQUAD OF eight Angels marched out of the Red Line car in the Harvard Square station. The leader blew his whistle and they lined up in four rows of two. With their conception of military precision, they marched out of the station and into the street. One on-looker commented, "I like the idea, but the para-military thing scares me."
The para-military thing should scare us all. It's easy to be taken in by the Guardian Angels, the citizens' patrol group that recently arrived in Boston. Founded several years ago by Curtis Sliwa, the Angels sought to restore some of the security that was missing from the New York City subway system. The movement has since grown nationwide.
The concept of the Angels seems to appeal to many. The volunteer force does for free part of the job that the public police force should be doing, and the force is composed mostly of underprivileged youths, who in turn receive the moral education from the Angels that the public school system should be administering. Two birds are killed with one free stone.
But as harmless as the Guardian Angels may seem, they should be recognized for what they are: a trained non-government force receiving orders from an ambitious leader, enforcing a conception of social order in public. While the Angels might seem like a good idea now, such a citizens' law enforcement entity will only weaken the authority of those who possess the only legal mandate for securing the public welfare, the police.
What do we do X number of years from now when the Angels are an active force in every major city, and for whatever reason, the aims of the police force and the Angels conflict? The flashpoints between the two groups are numerous, as has been illustrated by their history in New York City. It is doubtful that either group would represent the interests of the citizenry if a fight for legitimacy between them were to occur.
And what are we to make of Sliwa? A quick look at his background shows him to be shrewd, charismatic, and most of all, ambitious. He has not hesitated to use the politics of publicity (usually from staged media events) to further the Angels' (and therefore his own) cause. A publicly elected or appointed official should be in charge of citizen police forces, not a self-proclaimed do-gooder. Public altruism is the foot-in-the-door to the power monger.
If the revenues available to a municipality cannot support a police force that is an adequate bulwark against crime, and voluntary help from the citizenry is needed, there should be extensive development of police auxiliaries. If there is a latent army of those who have suffered injustice, the source of the injustice should be directly addressed before the latent army becomes an active menace.
BUT THE Guardian Angels should not be the sole focus of this argument. They have received far too much attention already. What we need is not a set of guidelines on how to deal with public interest street gangs, like the Angels, but rather a new way to view the kind of society that spawns them. Why do the Angels exist and why can't we see the implications of their birth and life?
That our society is capable of breaking down is clear. The groups that have noticed these anarchical trends and then stepped in to stop the slide, might very well be themselves the most powerful catalysts to anarchy. The Angels are part of a concept, as is the world that they seek to patrol. It is difficult to avoid the distraction of arguing over the Angels' specifics: their berets, their rumbles, their bragging. At a certain level, the Angels are dangerous according to these specifics, but such a proof would apply only to the Angels. The next group would make sure not to repeat the Angels' mistakes; they wouldn't wear uniforms and their leader would keep a lower profile.
Consider the category that the Guardian Angels fall under and consider their relationship to society. The Angels do not point the way towards law and order, either because of their makeup or because of the inevitable reaction to them. In both cases, they are a destabilizing--and dangerous--entity.
Maybe the Guardian Angels are not the descendants of the Brown Shirts, but only faith and not the facts justify such optimism. The Angels must rigidly be held accountable to the local government and their actions should not be given the benefit of the doubt. It's easy to be paranoid about the latent fascism behind trained citizen patrol groups, but it is better to be paranoid than wrong.
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