Some Reflections on the Democratic Policing of Demonstrations
In D. della Porta and H. Reiter, The Policing of Protest in Contemporary Democracies, University of Minnesota Press, 1998.

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Gary T. Marx

Three decades ago when the American Kerner Commission (President's 1968) studied questions of the police and civil disorders, there was very little social science research to inform the analysis. We have fortunately come a long way in our understanding since then as the articles in this volume make clear. Within western democracies we have also come a long way in the institutionalization of a more tolerant and humane response to those forms of organized protest which stay broadly within the realm of non-violence.

I first became aware of this ethos as applied to crowds in a conversation with a high ranking member of the Chicago Police Department shortly after the police violence during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. He indicated how unprofessional the department had behaved. He said that as a commander in a protest situation he is willing to listen, to negotiate, to tolerate minor infractions and to keep a low profile. He felt strongly that saving lives should be more important than protecting property or symbols. He believed that demonstrations

could actively help create, rather than undermine, political stability (at least relative to not permitting or responding violently to them). The extensive media coverage of Chicago police attacking protesters was a public relations disaster and such behavior made the police job much more difficult. At that time his views were heretical and he left the police soon after, but in the decades since (as the articles in this book make clear), they have become widely shared among police leaders both in the United States and beyond.

The views expressed by this officer contrast markedly with those found in totalitarian regimes which blur or erase the line between politics and crime. Any oppositional politics is defined as crime. But they also contrast with the creation of the first modern police department in Paris at the end of the 17th century in which the protection of public order was also equated with the protection of the political order. Indeed for many observers the connection has been reversed. That is protecting the right to protest against the political order is defined as the best way of protecting it --at least if the political order is broadly defined to involve a set of democratic principles, rather than the particular persons or groups in power.

This book is particularly welcome in that it involves scholars from countries with varied traditions and languages exchanging ideas and dealing with a common set of theoretical and social concerns. The conditions under which democracies can accept non-electoral political challenges and yet remain democracies is an issue of enduring importance.

A central argument of most of the articles in this book is that there has been a leavening of police response to protest, regardless of the country. Rather than taking an adversarial and intentionally violent approach, police seek a more neutral stance. The policing of protest has become more normalized. While police hardly welcome mass demonstrations, in general they no longer arouse the degree of hostility or fear they previously did. To a greater extent than ever before police view their job to be managing, rather than repressing protest, protecting the right to demonstrate and guaranteeing (even to those whose views they may find intolerable) due process of law.

To be sure there are many exceptions to this trend (which itself involves a series of interrelated developments) and it may not continue in the face of wrenching social changes or grave provocations. Nor is it unilinear across dimensions, groups, time periods or contexts --as any venture into marginalized, ethnically diverse, lower income areas or discussions with those who have been injured in demonstrations will attest. But viewed in comparative and historical terms in which the standard police response was, and in many countries still is, to prohibit demonstrations or to fire or charge into crowds, the trends noted in these articles are worthy of note. In this concluding comment I relate this development to some broader trends in social control and note some areas for future research.


The relative decline in police and demonstrator violence during mass protest situations can be located within wider social currents. One of these involves the decline of domestic violence associated with the rise of the modern liberal state and the continuing elaboration and institutionalization of the idea of citizenship. The state has not only come to have a greater monopoly over the means of violence, it has been more restrained in using that violence against its own citizens.

In the United States for example we have fortunately not seen a repeat of massive state violence as a response to crowd situations that was responsible for hundreds of deaths in the 1960s (e.g., Watts, Detroit, Newark, Kent State University, Orangeburg). Of course there is an element of reciprocity and interaction here (and it is difficult to say which came first) but mass protests have also generally become more muted. Perhaps this is partly out of fear of repression and memories of the police violence of the 1960s. It is also related to strategic beliefs regarding the need to avoid a backlash. The protests of the 1960s were followed by the election of Presidents Nixon and Reagan. But a more tolerant approach is also related to lessened police provocation and more ritualized, formulaic expressions of protest crafted for the mass media.

Considering this decline in violence more generally, in the United States (and I suspect in Western Europe) relative to earlier periods, there has been a decline in the police use of violence in traditional criminal contexts and in the interrogation of suspects (Leo, 1992); the practical disappearance of whipping and flogging as punishments; the abolition of capital punishment in Europe and restrictions and greater controversy over it in the United States; the decline of corporal punishment in the home and in schools and a decline in the homicide rate. The reverence for life expressed in the peace, environmental, animal rights and related movements touch similar cultural themes. Looking not just to changes in recent decades or at this and the last century but across several centuries, the work of Norbert Elias (1982) on the rise of civility would also seem to apply. The work of T.H. Marshall (19 ) on the gradual extension of economic, political and social rights implied in the idea of citizenship is also relevant.

The changes reported in this book relate to broad changes in social control and to a degree of convergence across national police systems in which there has been a general softening of social control, as the velvet glove increasingly comes to replace or at least cover the iron fist.

There appears to be an "Americanization of social control" relative to the strong state traditions of Europe. Dario Melossi (1990) has argued that American conceptions of authority broke with the European tradition of the need for a strong Leviathan state. In the United States the emphasis came to be placed on the public and on communication as the key to effective societal control, rather than on a strong centralized state. Emphasis was also placed (following the English tradition) on law as a factor controlling both elites and those they were to control.

Following WWII the allies sought to institutionalize democratic ideas and weaken strong national governments by creating a federal system (e.g., in Germany) and conditions that would favor the emergence of interdependent, cross-European entities such as the EEC and the Council of Europe at the expense of the nation state. The many ways that the victors sought to introduce their version of a democratic society to the vanquished in Europe and Japan has yet to be studied and is an issue of great contemporary significance given the changes in eastern Europe and Asia.

But regardless of its origins, there is an emerging ethos or philosophy of modern social control which to varying degrees permeates western democracies. Central to this is a particular relationship of police to law, a value on human dignity, communication and the idea of citizenship and rational analysis as filtered through science and technology. This applies to traditional criminal investigations as well as to the tasks of maintaining order. But with respect to the latter, a flexible and humane response is most important and the task of managing behavior as distinct from enforcing the law is given priority. As the public expression of an ideal this ethos involves basing police actions in demonstrations on seven overlapping ideas.

  1. police are servants of the law, not the private army of whomever happens to be in power. While they are agents of the state in one sense, they are not the personal agents of those running the state. The state or society is no longer the King, nor even the Prime Minister nor President. Police are not loyal soldiers in a war, but civil servants whose allegiance is to the law. This is central to the Anglo-American police were created in opposition to a military model of policing. The differentiation of police from the absolute control of the executive and rejection of the military model is more pronounced in the U.S. and Great Britain than in Europe, but even in Europe the trend applies.
  2. the extension of law and policy to tactics that had once been ignored and unregulated. There is a broad 20th century move toward legitimating police activities according to law and the strengthening of the belief that police means have a moral component as well as ends. Indeed this is an important idea of democracy. Max Weber's general observations about bureaucracy and modern society apply here, but take a contemporary twist in sanctifying the use of discretion. What started with efforts to legally and organizationally control how police regulate traditional criminal behavior has in recent decades been extended (to a degree) to the relatively less regulated "high policing of politics" including demonstrations.



    There is an interesting paradox and potential mine field here involving official police discretion --we see a move toward both bureaucratization and anti-bureaucratization. The rationalization of crime control need not mean subjecting it to rigid rules --quite the opposite. The move toward rule based policing also acknowledges the importance of discretion to police activity. Ironically it seeks to legitimate discretion by regulating it (rather than ignoring or denying it as in the past). This is particularly important to the fluid and emergent crowd situations but applies much more generally as well.

  4. the law must be viewed flexibly and a broad pragmatic view of the likely consequences of police action needs to be taken, rather than a moralistic or political view based on police attitudes towards demonstrators and their goals or on whether or not the law is violated. Beyond repression, police acknowledge the presence of multiple (and often conflicting) goals, as well as a variety of alternative means for reaching goals. This has been aided by a police force more representative of those to be controlled and perhaps with better understanding of the needs that lead them to protest.



    In asking how best to maintain order and minimize harm (whether material or symbolic/political), police may conclude that rigidly enforcing the law through use of overwhelming force will be counter-productive, whether in the short or long run. Maintaining order as broadly defined may take precedence over enforcing the law. The presence of the mass media is an important factor here serving to moderate police behavior. The symbolic importance of always being in control is given lesser importance than the harm that might befall police, demonstrators and third parties and the longer negative consequences that might flow from media accounts of police violence. Maintaining a semblance of order (even if at a "cost" of not intervening as forcefully as technical and legal means permit) is seen to be better than rigid law enforcement.

  6. the primary goal of police in conventional crowd situations is to manage them to see that they do not get out of hand. Police may serve as mediators and interpreters. This may protect demonstrators and counter-demonstrators from each other and irate citizens, as well protecting the property and representatives of the state. There is an emphasis on communication and procedural means for resolving conflicts. One of the bargaining chips police have is under, or non-enforcement of the law. To become law enforcers via the use of force and arrest can be seen as evidence of failure.
  7. There is an emphasis on prevention rather than on responding after the fact. If possible the latter, which often involves relying on the use of force and/or arrest, is to be avoided. It is simply more efficient to avoid problems of disorderly crowds and invariably messy coercive responses. To do this involves planning and anticipation and is dependent on the empirical analysis discussed in #7 below. But it may go beyond this to active police involvement in helping to resolve problems that might lead to escalated crime and disorder. Solving problems is seen as superior to forever dealing with symptoms. Rather than simply serving as the representatives of established interests, as buffers between them and challengers, police may serve as referees, liaisons, interpreters and even advocates for protesters to insure their claims are heard. In such situations police not only avoid criticism for over-reacting, they may be praised for problem solving, or at least helping an aggrieved group put forth its' claims. This is an important strand of the community policing model popular in the United States. Citizen involvement is an important element of prevention.
  8. there should be a "co-production of order" involving a decentralized and delegated reliance on citizens to mobilize the law and to control themselves and others rather than relying exclusively on external and imposed state agents to do this. Police legitimacy in a democratic society is seen to require popular support through active citizen participation, whether in setting policy, negotiating the terms of a protest demonstration or in using marshalls from the protest group during a demonstration. This is not only legal but practical. Since police are denied (at least formally) the draconian measures of police in totalitarian states they must work harder to cultivate good will among the public. When this is done the police job is much easier since citizens are actively involved in both self-control and the control of others. A strong state that acts negatively and coercively, imposing censorship, restricting the expression of grievances and opinions and viewing citizens as objects to be controlled rather than as a partners, is a vulnerable state.
  9. there is an emphasis on science and technology involving a)relatively dispassionate intelligence gathering and analysis and b) efforts to engineer physical and social environments. The former involves interest in broad categories of potential problems beyond particular individuals or events. There is emphasis on general problem solving and intelligence about systems and networks, as well as individuals. This also involves the development of contingency plans, empirical analysis of various scenarios and the likely costs and benefits of various police actions (including non-action) and after-the-fact analyses by police of their own and other's behavior. More sophisticated intelligence activities permit greater selectivity in response to protest activities. Rather than stereotyping all demonstrators, authorities are better able to discriminate and can be more selective in their strategies as some of the articles suggest. Thus should the use of force and arrests become necessary they can be focused on those groups thought most likely to behave violently.
The engineering of physical and social environments (e.g., fences or separate zones to keep supporters of rival soccer teams or social movements apart) may lessen disorder and the need for arrests, or if that is not possible, it may make the identification of violation and violators automatic and less fallible [e.g., through video cameras or electronic location monitoring]. The availability of protective clothing, helmets, and shields and improved communication may make police feel less threatened and vulnerable. The development of intermediate crowd control and dispersal technologies (beyond firing regular weapons or charging into crowds) reduces the need to use force should arrests be necessary. With video identification arrests may also be made at a later time apart from a potentially explosive crowd setting. An array of more exotic technologies are also available from Russian "acoustic psycho-correction" devices that claim to be able to remotely alter behavior to immobilizing nets propelled at demonstrators favored by the Japanese police, to a slippery goo sprayed onto streets. Efforts to engineer control will likely become more important in the future. They stand in marked contrast to seeking it through self-control, meetings with demonstrators and the establishment of ground rules as discussed above.

Of course the development of a democratic policing ethos is not without contradictions, challenges, risks and trade-offs relative to other models. There is no perfect solution or free lunch. There are instead optimal solutions which must be continually re-examined given changing conditions and strategic actors. In the case of efforts to regulate discretion the trick of course is in finding the right mix such that honoring discretion does not put police beyond the law and responsible political control, while regulating discretion does not introduce undue rigidity. Police discretion can be abused, and taken too far can mean a lack of police accountability and legitimacy.

The other developments discussed above such as negotiation, planning, prevention, citizen involvement and engineering also carry other risks. They can be expensive and time consuming. In periods of fiscal austerity they may be deemed a luxury. With self-policing and cooperation with authorities, protesters risk co-optation and manipulation. There are also equivalent (if less likely) risks for police. They may be accused of not doing their job and of being partial to, or captured by, the protesting group. A tolerant response may be exploited by those wanting to create maximum disorder. There is a threshold or tipping point in which under-reaction may provoke just as over-reaction may. Police are likely to face political pressures from less dispassionate leaders and groups for repression and getting tough with challengers.

Well developed intelligence systems may chill political expression, although that concern is stronger in the United States and Germany than in France and Italy with their well established agencies for gathering intelligence on all political actors, not just those prone to protest. [cites for rg and digo]

Rational planning and efforts at prevention must continually encounter surprises and unintended consequences. In addition once whetted the cognitive appetite is insatiable. Information begets the need for more information and one can never be fully sure of its validity, nor with the movement of time, its currency. Engineering solutions may appear as undemocratic, deceptive and manipulative, given their low visibility and the absence of choice on the part of actors.

Certainly these developments have not occurred evenly over time or within or between countries (the U.S. has taken the lead in police-citizen cooperative ventures and in the formalization of negotiations, Germany has gone far in using analytical techniques based on large data bases, Great Britain makes the most extensive use of engineered solutions including video surveillance, police in France and Italy seem to have the most aggressive (or at least less formally restricted) political intelligence collection and they seem to have greater discretion in crowd settings than is the case with the more legalistic police in Germany, these trends in general have come more recently to Italy and Spain). But the overall trend in recent decades is clear.

New Research Problems

Let us consider some themes for future research. Of particular salience is how social developments involving the increased importance of information technology and enhanced globalization and regionalization are likely to effect police and protest behavior.

One important area is the changing role of physical space. A possible reduction of public space and increases in private and quasi-private places such as malls, industrial, educational and entertainment centers suggest new legal issues and in many countries new private police organizations with different goals and means than public police. The generalizations made by the authors in this volume refer to public spaces and would not necessarily hold for these new settings and groups in which property is likely to take precedence over citizenship rights.

A less noted aspect of space is a possible decrease in the relevance of physical co-presence to human affairs (this of course began with the letter, newspaper and later telegraph and telephone), but it is taken to qualitatively new levels with recent developments.

What for example will be the role of new communications technologies in protest? First it is possible that with the widespread availability of faxes, cell phones, the internet and other remote means of communication that citizens will find new ways of expressing their concerns that do not require the presence of a large group gathered together at a fixed location and particular time. We can imagine flextime-protest suited to the work and family and travel schedules of protesters. Freed from traditional logistical constraints, protest could significantly expand and show increased creativity.

Traditional forms of disruption such as the sit-in and blocking of an entrance or destroying of physical property involve the risk of negative sanctions. But if was possible remotely and with anonymity would it increase in scale and destructiveness? These traditional "physical" forms may be replaced by new more remote electronic tactics. The U.S. government is so concerned about this that it has appointed a Presidential Commission to study the dangers of "info wars".

Many political leaders in the United States now have internet addresses and web sites, and attend to discussions on computer bulletin boards.

In one of the first instances of a social movement gaining a goal via computers, widespread protest over the internet against a new privacy-invading product by Lotus Corporation that would have invaded personal privacy, led to its withdrawal. One can also imagine various "flooding", "hacking" and quasi-blackmail tactics in which the communications life-blood of a target of protest is attacked more directly. Police are already developing new strategies for responding to crime and protests in cyber-space. On the other hand it is also possible that the ease of communication will help coordinate and increase physical-space based protests as well.

A related theme is the implications of increased economic, political and cultural interdependence among nation-states and the weakening of a variety of traditional borders. There is an increased regionalization and even globalization of protest with respect to issues such as the environment, indigenous peoples, gender and peace (e.g., international organizations such as GreenPeace and Amnesty International and various new right groups). In the same way there is increased cross border cooperation and integration and even some merging among police. This raises important social and sociological issues with respect to police accountability and cultural and legal differences.

Comparative Research on Democratic Policing

As important as recent research has been, our knowledge now is still largely descriptive, historical and observational. While the social sciences will never match the natural sciences in quantification or hypotheses testing, we can go much further.

While it may be true as a U.S. Congressmen said at a hearing in which he didn't like the data being presented "everbody's entitled to his own statistics", it is also the case that a systematic body of data from a representative sample will take us a step further than argument by way of illustration. Systematic analysis requires variables to be more precisely defined and measured. Given different national contexts this is challenging, but not impossible.

Building on the good beginnings offered by the articles in this book, I see at least three major conceptual and empirical tasks:

  1. further conceptualization and measurement of variables relevant to classifying police responses to protest demonstrations
  2. conceptualization and measurement of variables relevant to other types of protest events
  3. locating the policing of protest within broader frameworks for understanding democratic policing

I would suggest finding ways to operationalize the ideal type of "democratic policing of demonstrations". As noted this has seven broad components. (Table I) These are inclusive of the three tendencies characterizing protest policing in the 1990s noted by della Porta and Reiter in their opening chapter (underenforcement, the search to bargain and large-scale information collection). More broadly relative to the past, the enforcement ethos is soft, tolerant, selective, preventive, consensual, and flexible as della Porta and Reiter argue (see their Table I in Chapter I).

In addition della Porta and Reiter suggest formal-informal and professional-artisanal dimensions. These are of a different nature and I think less determinant in their relationship to the democratic policing of demonstrations. They are however important factors and under different conditions may either support or undermine democratic policing. I would add to the list of less determinant factors (of democratic policing) a high or low tech variable (this refers to the sophistication and breadth of crowd control means).

Five additonal variables in the more determinant range likely to be associated with democratic policing are:

  1. representative vs. unrepresentative police (refers to degree to which police are representative of those protesting)
  2. high or low visibility of police and demonstrator actions (refers to demonstrators as well the presence of mass media)
  3. identifiable vs. anonymous police and demonstrators (refers to ease of identifying particular individuals)
  4. administrative procedures for reviewing police behavior and means for citizens to express grievances (present or absent and fair or unfair)
  5. cooperative vs. adversarial demonstrators (refers to degree of cooperation/provocation from protesters)
Adding these factors offers a fuller picture. In adding dimensions of demonstrator behavior which are the reciprocal of police behavior, we can more fully take account of the interactive nature of the event. We can also theorize whether non-violent and non-provocative (if sometimes disorderly) demonstrator behavior is explained by the same factors as a non-violent and non-provocative police response.

In principle these factors and those shown in Chapter I, Table I can be viewed as analytically and empirically distinct dimensions, even though in practice certain clusters are likely to occur together. Thus all seven factors would not have to be present in equal degrees for us to characterize a setting as an example of democratic policing . However the more they are present the more the ideal type is approached.

We might try to predict either police or demonstrator behavior based on behavior by the other, or we might link them to broader clusters of factors such as those discussed below.

Given the on-going nature of social life variables can be viewed as either independent or dependent. They are often complexly intertwined with other variables such that making causal statements is ill-advised. Yet even then, identifying the factors helps to direct our attention and spurs thought.

Other Types of Protest Event

While this book is concerned with the "police handling of protest events," in general attention is devoted to only one type of "protest event" --relatively nonviolent demonstrations.

It would be useful to devote equivalent research attention to responses to other types of protest event such as holding meetings, circulating petitions, publishing articles, lobbying, raising funds and making contributions, posting signs, wearing symbols and engaging in various forms of civil disobedience (e.g., a refusal to pay taxes or follow an unpopular law). In democratic societies how generalizable is a tolerant police response to demonstrations?

Police response to one protest activity may be highly related to response to others. As a visible and dramatic example, police response to demonstrations may be taken as a short hand indication of their more general response to other forms of protest behavior. One would expect a degree of consistency. That is regimes that were tolerant of demonstrations would also be tolerant of a free press, would restrict surveillance of political dissidents and subject police to stringent legal requirements for eavesdropping and searches. But that should be subject to empirical documentation and there is certainly variation.

Many protest events do not require a physical gathering. The behavior may be hidden and so too may the response, thus potentially reducing accountability on both parts. In that sense a police policy of toleration in the face of public demonstrations can certainly coexist with a policy of covert dirty tricks. A regime may indirectly seek to restrict other forms even as it accepts the freedom to organize and collectively demonstrate.

A related question is how responses to nonviolent protest relate to police responses to terrorism and other threats to state security. One hypotheses is that states that are tolerant of protest will be less likely to face terrorism since grievances can be legitimately expressed, but that ignores the role that international conflicts now play in domestic terrorism (e.g., expressions of the Algerian struggle in France). Since all states will respond to such threats, the issue here is to what extent the police and secret service agencies are given a free hand, as against facing restrictions (whether prohibitions of some actions or procedural requirements). Variation here may or may not relate to how tolerant police are of demonstrations.

Policing in Democratic Societies

Another major task is to locate the policing of protest within broader national comparisons of policing in democratic societies. While there is a growing literature to inform this, in general (with a few notable exceptions) it is not very analytic and most often focuses on only one country. Or if more than one country is considered, this is most likely done in parallel, rather than in a truly comparative and integrative fashion. There is a need to locate the policing of protest within a broader family of dimensions of democratic policing. We need better ways of conceptualizing and measuring this. The next task would then be to explore the correlates of this.

Among factors whose correlates for democratic policing more generally should be explored:

Some standard sociological variables that should also be considered: Having once defined what we wish to account for from the variety of dependent variables relevant to protest policing and democratic policing more generally, we can explore the implications of clusters of causal variables from those shown above.

Yet even if we had very clear measures of what we wanted to explain and of possible causal variables, we would of course note continuing significant variation between and within countries with their very different histories, cultures and social structures. Yet I think we would also find, as these articles and other recent research suggest, a movement, if halting, toward convergence and amalgamation in the form of a standardized, democratic, industrial policing model. The pace and contours of this vary and the reasons for it are diverse, but it is a vital topic for future research. It is exciting to see the collaborative efforts among scholars from different countries and perspectives on this topic and I look forward to continuing to learn from them.


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Marx, G.T. "Civil Disorder and the Agents of Social Control," Journal of Social Issues 26, no. 1 (1969).

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Table 1: The Ethos Of The Democratic Policing Of Demonstrations

  1. police are servants of the law not the private army of whomever happens to be in power
  2. the extension of law and policy to tactics that had once been ignored and unregulated
  3. the law must be viewed flexibly and a broad pragmatic view of the likely consequences of police action needs to be taken
  4. the primary goal of police in conventional crowd situations is to manage them to see that they do not get out of hand
  5. there is an emphasis on prevention rather than responding after the fact
  6. there should be a "co-production of order" involving a decentralized and delegated reliance on citizens to mobilize the law and to control themselves
  7. there is an emphasis on science and technology involving a)relatively dispassionate intelligence gathering and analysis and b) efforts to engineer physical and social environments.
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