Opinion, by Michael Royster
RIBERÃO PRETO, SP – Last Monday President Jair Bolsonaro paid a visit to Ribeirão Preto, on the opening day of its annual “AgriShow” extravaganza, whose official name is “International Trade Fair of Agricultural Technology in Action”.
President Bolsonaro was not there to talk about technology, international trade, or even agriculture. He was talking about action: what his government could do for the rural sector.
First, he announced he would sponsor a bill in Congress that would eliminate criminal penalties for rural landowners who repel invaders of their land by shooting them. He also announced that Congress would soon vote a law permitting unlimited use of firearms within rural properties.
Part of his electoral campaign message to the rural sector was to classify (absurdly) the largest “landless” activist group—Movimento Sem Terra (MST)—as a terrorist organization.
To the Curmudgeon, this is reminiscent of wild-west, frontier “justice”, where a Colt 45 was oxymoronically called a “Peacemaker” and where righteous citizens wearing white hats could act as prosecutors, judges, juries, and hangmen.
Bolsonaro’s declared intention with all this is to reduce violence in rural Brazil. As he told his admiring audience, lawbreakers should now fear you, “righteous citizens”, rather than righteous citizens fearing lawbreakers.
Using his logic, lawbreakers will not invade righteous citizens’ land if they know they risk being met with a gunshot.
The Curmudgeon submits that Bolsonaro has based his proposals on dangerously wrong grounds—factual, legal and moral.
Factually, murderous violence abounds in rural Brazil. However, statistics show that it is not invaders who kill homeowners or landowners; it’s the other way around. Large landowners routinely gun down anyone—rebellious workers, union organizers, indigenous groups, missionaries—they deem a threat to their business.
Almost no such murderers are ever brought to justice. The rich and powerful “colonels” in Brazil’s hinterland control the police and the judiciary—impunity reigns.
Legally, the right of self-defense, especially defense of your home and property, has always been sufficient to exclude criminal penalties. However, criminal law insists that defensive measures must not involve “excessive force”, i.e. more than is needed to stop the crime.
Killing an unarmed trespasser on your farm who tries to steal your corn is now considered excessive force; it won’t be if Bolsonaro’s proposals are enacted.
MST musters unarmed civilians to invade unproductive, uninhabited lands having absentee, city-dwelling owners. Under Bolsonaro’s proposal, those landowners may now shoot to kill unarmed invaders.
Property, says Bolsonaro, is sacred; human life clearly is not.
Brazilian police murder Brazilian citizens at a rate unknown elsewhere in the civilized world; they are protected by an ineffectual “justice” system that convicts no one.
Bolsonaro’s favorite campaign pose has him holding his (empty) arms in position to fire an automatic weapon; meanwhile, Rio’s Governor has ordered police snipers to kill anyone who carries an automatic weapon.
Morally, the Bolsonaro proposals are one more demagogic application of the repugnant premise that the “only good bandido is a dead bandido”.
Wild-west frontier justice is not justice; rather, it is the embodiment of the failure of the rule of law. Justice Minister Moro knows this; the Curmudgeon hopes Bolsonaro will consult Moro before proposing such violence-inducing legislation.