Police state

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A police state is a state where the government exercises rigid and repressive controls over the social, economic and political life of the population in the service of the social class which controls the government. A police state exerts totalitarian social control, and there is usually little or no distinction between the law and the exercise of political power by the executive.

Book burnings, like this in Chile in the 1970s Wp→, have been used by police states to destroy information and culture considered dangerous or wrong.

The inhabitants of a police state experience restrictions on their mobility, and on their freedom to express or communicate political or other views, and are subject to police monitoring or enforcement. Political control may be exerted by means of a secret police force.[1]


The term "police state" was first used in 1851, in reference to the use of a national police force to maintain order, in Austria.[2] In fact, even on a local level, the use of a police force to actively maintain order, outside of emergencies, was nearly unknown before this time. The first use of a state police force in the US, for example, was the very same year, 1865, when such a force was established in Massachusetts.[3]

Up to this time, order in most European societies was maintained spontaneously, on a local level, with some weak constabulary like a sheriff being called into action for specific incidents. As the maintenance of a standing police force became common in the late 19th and early 20th century, the term "police state" came to be used more commonly to refer only to when a police force was used "too" strenuously, in a "rigid and repressive" way, as under fascism and in retroactive application to oppressive/repressive historic incidents like the Roman Empire.[4][5]

Definition and classification of a police state

The role of the police in a police state is control of the population, specifically that part of the population which is either repressed, such as African-Americans in the United States,[6] or which is engaged in resistance. Targeted policing techniques such as selective enforcement of stop and frisk laws[7] and strict enforcement[8] are directed at subservient or resisting elements.

The classification of a country or regime as a police state is usually contested and debated. Because of the pejorative connotation of the term, no country has ever identified itself as a police state. There are several non-governmental organizations that publish and maintain assessments of the state of freedom in the world, according to their own various definitions of the term, and rank countries as being free, partly free, or unfree using various measures of freedom, including political rights, economic rights, and civil liberties. The use of the term is motivated as a response to the laws, policies and actions of that regime, and is often used pejoratively to describe the regime's concept of the social contract, human rights, and similar matters.

Full fledged police states are fundamentally authoritarian, and are often dictatorships. However the degree of government repression varies widely among societies. Most regimes fall into some middle ground between the extremes of civil libertarianism and totalitarianism.

In times of national emergency or war, the balance which may usually exist between freedom and national security often tips in favour of security. This shift may lead to allegations that the nation in question has become, or is becoming, a police state.

Because there are different political perspectives as to what an appropriate balance is between individual freedom and national security, there are no definitive objective standards to determine whether the term "police state" applies to a particular nation at any given point in time. Thus, it is difficult to evaluate objectively the truth of allegations that a nation is, or is not becoming, a police state. One way to view the concept of the police state and the free state is through the medium of a balance or scale, where any law focused on removing liberty is seen as moving towards a police state, and any law which limits government oversight is seen as moving towards a free state.[9]

War is often portrayed in fiction as a perfect precursor to establishing a police state, as citizens are more dependent on their government and the police for safety than usual (see Fictional police states below).

An electronic police state is one in which the government aggressively uses electronic technologies to record, organize, search and distribute forensic evidence against its citizens.

A "temporary police state" can exist by design. For example, in Copenhagen in 2009, the Danish government enacted laws that would permit police to use unlimited discretion in detaining those that the police suspected of opposing the Conference of Parties during the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The legislation contained an expiration, but police authority during the Conference of Parties was unchecked.[10]

Examples of police state-like attributes

It is not possible to objectively determine whether a nation has become or is becoming a police state. As a consequence, to draw up an exhaustive list of police states would be inherently flawed. However, there are a few examples which serve to illustrate partial characteristics of a police state's structure:

  • The South African apartheid system was generally considered to have been a police state despite having been nominally a democracy (albeit with the Black African majority population excluded from the democracy).
  • Nazi Germany, a dictatorship, was, at least initially, brought into being through a nominal democracy, yet exerted repressive controls over its people.

Western claims

United Kingdom

George Churchill-Coleman, who headed Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist squad in the United Kingdom, expressed his opinion that Britain was moving in the direction of a police state,[11] with biometric identity cards,[12][13] mass surveillance and detention without trial all having been introduced by the government. However, the Identity Cards Act 2006 has now been repealed (by the Identity Documents Act 2010). The UK has been described as "the most surveilled country" in the world.[14] Protests within a half-mile radius of the Houses of Parliament are illegal in the UK unless authorised by the Metropolitan Police.[15] Leading politicians have been arrested under conditions of secrecy.[16] Claims of police state behaviour have been dismissed by the UK government.[17]

United States

Repression of trade unions was severe in the United State during the 19th century, see Labor history of the United States Following legalization of labor unions and strikes, repression of unions with significant communist participation continued.

After the Soviet Revolution communists in the United States were subjected in 1919 to a police state during the First Red Scare and many socialist immigrants were deported. Following World War II there was a period of severe repression, McCarthyism, symbolized by the activities of Joseph McCarthy. After 9/11 attention turned to Islamists, but for revolutionary communist activists the United States remains a police state where their activities are closely monitored and controlled by the state.

Free speech zones

Free speech zones have been used at a variety of political gatherings in the United States with the stated purpose of protecting the safety of those attending the political gathering, or for the safety of the protesters themselves. Critics, however, suggest that such zones are "Orwellian",[18][19] and that authorities use them in a heavy-handed manner to censor protesters by putting them literally out of sight of the mass media, hence the public, as well as visiting dignitaries. Though authorities generally deny specifically targeting protesters, on a number of occasions, these denials have been contradicted by subsequent court testimony. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed, with various degrees of success and failure, a number of lawsuits on the issue.


The Western Australia state parliament is currently[when] proposing new "stop and search" laws that have been criticised as being a step toward a police state.[20] The proposed new laws give Western Australian police the right to conduct searches without warrant or reason of suspicion. The laws were rejected by a parliamentary committee in October 2010, however the Western Australian premier Colin Barnett has stated that he will still be pushing for the laws with some amendments.[21]

Fictional police states

George Orwell Wp→'s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four describes Britain under a totalitarian régime that continuously invokes (and helps to create) a perpetual war. This perpetual war is used as a pretext for subjecting the people to mass surveillance and invasive police searches. The state destroys not only the literal freedom after action and thought meant by expressions like "freedom of thought", but also literal freedom of thought.

Metropolis Wp→ is a 1927 silent science fiction film directed by Fritz Lang and written by Lang and Thea von Harbou. Metropolis is set in a futuristic urban dystopia and examines a common science fiction theme of the day: the social crisis between workers and owners in capitalism.

Yevgeny Zamyatin Wp→'s novel We Wp→ depicts a dystopia in which the walls are made out of glass, the only means of getting information is the state newspaper, and imaginations are forcibly removed from people.

Sinclair Lewis Wp→' It Can't Happen Here Wp→ satirically details the rise of fascism in the 1930s United States.

The ten-part graphic novel V for Vendetta Wp→, by Alan Moore Wp→ and David Lloyd Wp→, tells the story of a masked anarchist's efforts to subvert the fascist Norsefire Party Wp→ that has gained control of the United Kingdom. (See also the film Wp→ of the same name.)

Sleeper Wp→ (1973) is a futuristic science fiction comedy film, written by, directed by, and starring Woody Allen. It is loosely based on the H. G. Wells' novel The Sleeper Awakes. Miles Monroe, a jazz musician and health-food store owner living in Manhattan in 1973, is cryogenically frozen without his consent, and not revived for 200 years. The scientists who revive him are members of an underground movement: 22nd-century America seems to be a police state ruled by a dictator, about to implement a secret plan known as the "Aries Project." The underground movement hopes to use Miles as a spy to infiltrate the Aries Project, because he is the only member of this society without a known biometric identity.

Zardoz Wp→ is a 1974 science fiction film written, produced, and directed by John Boorman. In the year AD 2293, a post-apocalypse Earth is inhabited mostly by the "Brutals", who are ruled by the "Eternals" who use other "Brutals" called "Exterminators", "the Chosen" warrior class.

Enigma Babylon One World Faith Wp→ is the state religion of the totalitarian world government in the Left Behind Wp→ series that ostensibly seeks to harmonise the remaining faiths on earth after the Rapture as portrayed in the novel.

Brazil Wp→ (1985) is a film directed by Terry Gilliam. It was written by Gilliam, Charles McKeown, and Tom Stoppard and stars Jonathan Pryce. The film also features Robert De Niro, Kim Greist, Michael Palin, Katherine Helmond, Bob Hoskins, and Ian Holm. John Scalzi's Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies describes the film as a "dystopian satire".

Battle Royale Wp→, a Japanese novel by Koushun Takami Wp→, describes an alternate timeline Wp→ Japan as being in a police state. This Japan is known as the Republic of Greater East Asia (大東亜共和国 Dai Tōa Kyōwakoku).

Colossus: The Forbin Project Wp→ (1970) is a science fiction film based upon the 1966 novel Colossus, by Dennis Feltham Jones, about a massive, eponymous American defense computer becoming sentient and deciding to assume control of the world.

Rollerball Wp→ (1975) is a dystopian fiction film directed by Norman Jewison. In the film, the world of 2018 is a global corporate state, containing entities such as the Energy Corporation, a global energy monopoly based in Houston which deals with nominally-peer corporations controlling access to all Transport, Luxury, Housing, Communication, and Food on a global basis.

Watership Down Wp→ (1972), Richard Adams' famous novel about rabbits running away from their warren and building a Utopian society, features another warren, Efrafa, which is run like a police state. Each rabbit in Efrafa is given an identification mark, sentries are posted 24/7 around its borders to prevent escapes and patrols are sent out regularly to hunt down and imprison stray rabbits. Rabbits are allowed out in the open at certain times of day, and if they are caught outside without permission, they are punished – one form of punishment shown in the book involves ripping the ears of the perpetrator.

The Running Man Wp→ (part of the Bachman books series written by Stephen King Wp→), first published in 1982, depicts a dystopian United States in the year 2025; a film of the same name with Arnold Schwarzenegger Wp→ released in 1987 (set in the year 2019) has a United States under a totalitarian police state where convicted felons participate on a television show to win a presidential pardon. The film version goes into more detail about how television controls a police state - including the use of computer-generated imagery to mislead viewers.

In 1988, Queensrÿche released Operation: Mindcrime Wp→, a narrative concept album Wp→ that proved a massive critical and commercial success. The album's story revolved around a junkie who is brainwashed into performing assassinations for an underground movement; the junkie ("Nikki") is torn over his misplaced loyalty Wp→ to the cause and his love of a reformed hooker-turned-nun ("Mary," vocals by Pamela Moore Wp→) who gets in the way. "Mindcrime" has often been mentioned by critics alongside other notable concept albums like Pink Floyd Wp→'s The Wall and The Who Wp→'s Tommy Wp→. The band toured through much of 1988 and 1989 with several bands, including Def Leppard Wp→, Guns N' Roses Wp→ and Metallica Wp→.

See also


  1. A Dictionary of World History, Market House Books, Oxford University Press, 2000.
  2. Oxford English Dictionary, Third edition, January 2009; online version November 2010.<http://www.oed.com:80/Entry/146832>; accessed 19 January 2011.
  3. http://books.google.com/books?id=M2NgAj4nFOwC&pg= PA406&lpg=PA406
  4. http://www.flowofhistory.com/units/eme/16/FC105
  5. http://pages.interlog.com/~gilgames/empire.htm
  6. "Ramarley Graham: NYPD Slays Unarmed Black Teen as Outrage over Targeting of People of Color Grows" Democracy Now! February 8, 2012
  7. "Record Number of Street Stops Prompts a Protest" blog post by Kate Taylor The New York Times February 14, 2012
  8. "Sheriff says strict enforcement planned for Occupy NPR" YouTube video Published on Nov 28, 2011 by ABCActionNews
  9. Police State (Key Concepts in Political Science), Brian Chapman, Macmillan, 1971.
  10. "Copenhagen police detain 968 in climate change rally", BBC, Sunday, 13 December 2009. Retrieved on 2011-06-03. 
  11. Travis, Alan. "Britain 'sliding into police state'", The Guardian, 2005-01-28. Retrieved on 2008-05-12. 
  12. "The introduction of ID Cards", UK Government Home Office. Retrieved on 2008-08-15. 
  13. "NO2ID – UK Anti-ID Card Campaign", UK Government Home Office. Retrieved on 2008-08-15. 
  14. "Britain is 'surveillance society'", BBC News, 2006-11-02. Retrieved on 2008-08-14. 
  15. "Arrests at Parliament protest ban", BBC News, 2005-08-07. Retrieved on 2008-08-14. 
  16. Sparrow, Andrew. "conservatives Tories express fury with police over Damian Green arrest", BBC News, 2008-11-28. Retrieved on 2009-07-04. 
  17. "No 10 rejects police state claim", BBC News, 2007-02-08. Retrieved on 2008-05-12. 
  18. Bailey, Ronald. Orwellian "Free Speech Zones" violate the constitution. Reason, February 4, 2004. Retrieved on January 3, 2007.
  19. McNulty, Rebecca. Fla. College Student Successfully Fights Campus 'Free Speech Zone'. Foundation for Individual Rights in Education Student Press Law Center, June 28, 2005. Retrieved January 3, 2007.
  20. http://searchforyourrights.org/
  21. http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/10/21/3044629. htm

External links

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