"Depend upon it, Sir," said Dr. Johnson, "when a man knows he is to be hanged in the morning, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." The same might be said of entire countries, or at least of their intellectual classes.
Colombia—which I visited recently—is a case in point. A complete collapse of its institutional order is possible, though not yet inevitable. Forty percent of Colombia's territory is now under the control of Marxist guerrillas seeking to overthrow the government; only one road out of Bogotá, one of the world's largest cities, has so far escaped guerrilla attack; none of the roads linking the nation's cities is safe to travel.
Under cover of political instability, every kind of crime flourishes in Colombia. There are four times as many violent deaths as 20 years ago, with something like a quarter of a million people killed in the last ten years. Eighty percent of homicides are non-political, though they are most frequent where guerrillas are active. Fifty percent of all the recorded kidnappings in the world take place in Colombia; but the guerrillas, searching for funds to prosecute their war against the government, are responsible for only half of them. Even taking a taxi is hazardous, since kidnappers and robbers often pose as taxi drivers.
In Bogotá, where a third of all Colombians live, the insecurity is palpable. Soldiers stand permanent guard outside apartment buildings in which prominent people live; private security companies are everywhere, with uniformed men holding truncheons and restraining ferocious-looking dogs; guards wave guns, ranging from small firearms to automatic rifles, at passersby as banks receive cash deliveries; and hundreds of gun-toting men surround the presidential palace. But security precautions are not a substitute for peace, and no one feels safe.
Colombia's intellectuals bear heavy responsibility for their nation's descent into barely restrained anarchy. The climate of opinion in Colombia—which of course the intellectuals created—long legitimized violence in the furtherance of utopian ideas. At no point until quite recently did the intellectuals acknowledge that civilized existence requires some measure of conservation of the social order and its key institutions, imperfect as they undoubtedly are.
But today, as Colombia verges on disintegration, its traditionally leftist intellectuals have suddenly discovered the virtues of what they once despised, or affected to despise: namely, the prosaic institutions such as law courts and parliament that bind society together.
Bogotá's excellent bookshops—Colombia has large printing and publishing industries—overflow with studies that try to explain the country's catastrophic fate. One major thread runs through many of the studies: that the old way of explaining violence as an inevitable response to poverty, or as a mere continuation of an immemorial tradition of violent rebellion, no longer persuades. For the least violent areas of Colombia are also among the poorest, and the most violent among the richest. Violence also has no correlation with income distribution, so relative deprivation is not the explanation either. Rather, the authors attempt to understand why people decide to act violently; for without the decision, there would be no violence.
Colombian intellectuals are also beginning to realize that their nation's high levels of crime and violence grow out of the leniency of the criminal-justice system. Colombia's law prescribes lesser sentences for violent offenses allegedly committed for political ends, implicitly recognizing a partial right to resort to arms whenever a citizen thinks it just to do so; it should be no surprise that the resort to arms has been continual if not quite continuous.
Now, books with titles like Crime and Impunity abound. It seems that when an impending catastrophe will affect them personally, in their very flesh and blood, intellectuals start to think more clearly about the legal and institutional prerequisites of a free society.
Of course, it is difficult enough to learn from one's own experience, let alone from anyone else's. Moreover, there is a deep-seated and somewhat arrogant resistance to learning from countries poorer than one's own. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to disregard the Colombian experience on such grounds. Intellectuals should not require the virtual decomposition of their own society before learning a little realism.