Sunday, September 13, 2015

Hubris of Unlimited Power: Gods, Gangs, and Narcos

Image of powerful Greek God Zeus
What would it be like to have unlimited god-like power? I am not talking about being a vigilante / superhero like Batman or Superman who use their skills and powers to right the wrongs in the world. I mean to have power that exceeds the reaches of nature and to be suspended beyond the tentacles of the law and the limitations of morality; hence, to be a Zeus-like entity that often engages in a self-absorbed, shamelessly and unapologetically narcissistic show of power.

To be someone to be reckoned with. Perhaps the most tangible and vivid image that comes to mind would be the God of the Old Testament. He is filled with wrath and the power to destroy and demolish anything he so wishes, be it individuals or whole towns. He is basically ready to eliminate anything and anyone that do not please him or do not abide his bidding. There are no limits to his reach and nowhere for you to hide since he can track you down, find you and make you pay for your sins and transgressions.

The closest example that comes to this power on Earth would not be the American president but rather somebody like a ruthless dictator or a scrupulous drug pin like Pablo Escobar. The problem with the president is that his powers are limited in scope and reach. As we often see, despite having executive orders, there are many things that the president in the Oval Office cannot do, such as scrap guns or close Guantanamo.

Elected presidents are bound by laws and morality (to a certain extent at least), which may limit what they are able to say or do. They can circumvent these limitations by using doublespeak or by changing and distorting facts and events to their advantage, but few of them have the guts to downright speak their mind. Again the only ones that do not mince words and have the power to back it up are dictators. They are free to act as they please, be it for good or bad (mostly it is the second as absolute power does corrupt).

Yet somebody like Escobar and his fellow narco counterparts today are the closest we come to absolute power. I have been watching the brilliant and addictive series Narcos and it shows us an astute and cunning businessman at first who becomes a megalomaniac shamelessly abusing his power in his latter years.

One of the strongest traits of this drug lord was his extensive network. He had information, and that gave him power (I suppose the NSA is trying to copy that kind of network, but this is better left unsaid). In one of the early scenes of the Netflix series, Escobar intimidates a group of boastful military police officers at a road check by enumerating not only their names, but detailed personal events in each of their lives, such as one of their mothers being sick in a hospital or so-and-so having a beautiful wife. Having all this intimate knowledge coupled with the power that money brings and affords him, he is indeed invincible.

If anybody dared to oppose him, no matter who it was, they would feel the wrath and fire of this man. He could kidnap their children, torture their relatives, and, at the last instance, assassinate them at a whim. At the same time, he is untouchable because of a sort of unofficial and unspoken immunity nor can he be found or located, let alone arrested due to his multi-faceted connections. The mention of his name alone only induces fear.

Who would not sometimes dream of having this type of power? Not to have to run to the Godfather in times of emergencies so that they can take vengeance on our behalf for the slights and insults we suffer every now and then, but to simply be that person. Imagine to threaten the person that disgruntles you and have them shake in their boots! A simple phone call or with today's technology a simple text message can arrange the problem and seal the fate of those who malign you or treat you wrong.

In life, we see the opposite occur. We bow our heads and obey the authorities, official or otherwise. It could a teacher, school director, landlord, boss or higher-up at work, a government employee, judge, security guard or police officer. It seems that the list is never-ending and despite living in a democracy and having recourse to the law, we are quite limited in our powers.

This may be also a main reason why youth are attracted to join dangerous cults, radical groups or gangs. They feel not only validated in those cohorts, but it also gives them a (false) sense of empowerment. They feel protected by a god, for instance, who they believe will guide them through danger, or by gangsters who (supposedly) treat them not only as family, but give them also protection from authorities; the same gang leaders also give them symbols and weapons to assert their new-found identity. The young initiates see themselves as somebody stronger and better, somebody not to be messed with or else consequences will ensue upon the perpetrators.

This power that they feel with and within those radical or criminal organizations is in direct proportion to the helplessness they feel due to lack of cultural or national identity or simply due to the erosive nature of poverty. Incidentally, Escobar himself was poor in his younger years, which may explain his general sympathy for the poor, but also his unbridled ambitiousness.

His desire was to attain absolute power. This power transcends morality in a Nietzschean way since any action by this Übermensch is justified and righteous in itself. What would Nietzsche say about Escobar, I ask myself? Like the God of the Old Testament, you need to obey and never ever dare to negate anything. This embodied power is to be respected because of the fear it induces and its suffering it can create in a flash.

Yet in reality this power, no matter how extensive it may seem, comes up a little short. Escobar's dream of becoming a president of his country was cut short. With all his powers, influence and money, and despite the ramping corruption, that was one dream he could not fulfill. And despite being so powerful, he had to, for a large part of his life, live in hiding and even worry about the safety of his family members and friends.

And again, dealing with the hard currency of reality, there are always rivals and competitors who will try their best to make you tumble and fall. They may be as ruthless as you are, if not more so. And your vengeance after vengeance will lead to more and more bloodshed and misery for all. Put differently, such power and privilege comes with a bloody price tag attached to it.

But as an occasional daytime fantasy, it does fulfill some needs. We can imagine we had those powers and that we are respected in a society that pushes us around, whereas laws and regulations equally protect and stifle us. For the downtrodden and the poor or for the dreamy middle class with a little bit of control and say, all we can do is to hold onto floating pieces of dignity, that small space we call our own and not be all too fazed or impacted by the slings and arrows of the world.

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