Civilization is imperiled. Demonic dark-skinned criminals exult in seizing property and security. Only a vanguard of brave uniformed officers can take them off the streets and restore order. It is 1835, and whites are finally confronting what Mark Twain will soon call "the satanic brotherhood of the Thugs."
Nearly two centuries later, those on the lookout for the thug find him everywhere. Toddling in a diaper in Omaha, Nebraska. Trudging along the sidewalk in a hoodie in the Orlando suburbs. Turning his music up outside a Jacksonville gas station. Peddling loosies in front of a shop on Staten. "Charging" a cop on Florissant, just down the Mighty Mississippi a piece from where Twain was born. Chanting on the street not far from a Ferguson school that today bears Twain's name.
People are sick and tired of thugs. Certain people better wake the hell up and stop supporting the thugs. 2 years 1 month before the head thug gets thrown out and hopefully a real POTUS gets elected.
Reacting that week to the St. Louis Rams' gesture of solidarity with Michael Brown, a black teen shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson, the St. Louis police assailed the football players for associating themselves with "the violent thugs burning down buildings." When President Obama called for a post-Ferguson summit in Washington, conservative red-meat packer Mike Huckabee attacked him for inviting "thugs and rioters and mob members" to the White House.
Back when Trayvon Martin's killer went free, a chain email circulated with a photograph falsely purporting to be Martin—a photograph of a posing tattooed black man, meant in this context to strike fear in the viewer. To be a thug. You can find the image today on Snopes.com:
It was accompanied by this text:
President Obama looked at the FIVE year old photo the media chose to show the Nation and said, "If I had a son...he would look like Trayvon..." So from that comment should I assume you did not bother to look for the facts in this shooting... or should I assume you want a son who is a 17 year old drug dealing, gold teethed, tattooed thug whose name on one of his Facebook profiles was "Wild Nigga" who 'finds" jewelry and burglary tools on the way to school?
In each of these cases, the presumption of the author is the same: We true, faithful Americans know what a thug looks like. We need not wring our hands over his fate. His life is forfeit.
How has a four-letter string become shorthand for such a forceful and fraught worldview, while still sliding easily into everyday usage, free of the stigma that's stripped other four-letter words—and slightly longer racial epithets—of their respectability? There isn't a simple answer, but there is a history. It begins in colonial India.
The "historical" thug—derived from the Indian thuggee—was most vividly presented to recent generations by Steven Spielberg's exotic assassin baddies in the 1984 "neo-Orientalist extravaganza" Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom:
In Hollywood's hands, Indian thuggishness is a dark mystical psychopathy brought on by magic spells and goblets of spiked blood. It kidnaps and enslaves children. It literally rips innocents' hearts out of their chests. And it can only be vanquished by a visiting Western adventurer with right morals and rough methods. A Spielbergian thug is a stock movie menace, functionally interchangeable with a Nazi SS-Hauptsturmführer or an animatronic great white shark.
The Indiana Jones thug descends from a shaky legend that coalesced in the early 1830s, as the British East India Company deepened its involvement in South Asia. This jewel of Britannia's empire offered wealth and glory to the officers who served there, particularly to officers who had a genius for minimizing disruptions to commerce.
Such was the fortune of Major-General Sir William Henry Sleeman, who in 1835 took over the company's fledgling "Thuggee Department." Officially known as the Thuggee and Dacoity Department, Sleeman's outfit had been established to tackle the problem of banditry on the lawless roads between India's major trading centers. This was not to be a simple police matter. Sleeman and his fellow officers insisted that they were actually combating a primordial criminal conspiracy. "Here was no body of amateur assassins, driven to crime by force of circumstance," Sleeman would later write of the thuggee. "All travellers were fish for their net."
The thuggee cult was, depending on the source, either an ancient god-fearing ritualistic coven of assassins or a motley association of opportunistic Muslims and Hindus united in little beyond their crafty thieving. First alluded to in a Frenchman's Indian travel diary published in 1687, these "cunningest" thieves used guile to gain their marks' confidence. Then they would "use a certain Slip with a running-noose, which they can cast with so much slight about a Mans Neck, when they are within reach of him, that they never fail; so that they strangle him in a trice." Later, when the Brits came, the brigands would be referred to as thugs, an Anglicized version of the Hindi word for "deceiver."
The crime in question was essentially a native matter; Sleeman and Twain would later point out that the thuggee never killed Westerners, only other Indians. And little evidence was ever gathered by the locals to support the notion of a vast criminal tradition. Yet the British were fascinated by the subject. Beyond the commercial consequences that widespread robbery might have on travel and trade, the idea of brown-on-brown crime motivated the Brits: By stemming the violence that the natives did to each other, they could demonstrate their superior morals and breeding, justifying their role as India's civilized interlocutors.
Driven by Sleeman's self-promotion, the thug legend grew quickly in the early Raj. The major-general began issuing blockbuster reports detailing "a numerous and highly organized fraternity operating in all parts of India" and demanding more resources to combat this evil. He captured a thug leader who claimed at trial to have killed 931 men. Another top thug led Sleeman to a mass grave of hundreds of bodies. All of this was chronicled in a British-run propaganda campaign in the Indian papers.
Sleeman and his associates made a mint back home spinning yarns about the thuggee to titillate and terrify Britons who had never seen the empire's frontier with their own eyes. One novelized account, 1839's Confessions of a Thug, became an acclaimed bestseller. Sleeman himself wrote several books and was memorialized in a book by his grandson titled Thug: Or, a Million Murders. A devotee of the emerging disciplines of phrenology and eugenics, he had his staff collect and send home "thug skulls" to assist in research in predicting ethnic criminal types.
The ensuing moral panic in Britain gave Sleeman the resources he wanted, and he gave his countrymen a satisfying conclusion to the campaign. "Adequate measures were then taken for the systematic suppression of the evil," a fawning biographer later wrote. "'Thuggee Sleeman' made it the main business of his life to hunt down the criminals and to extirpate their secret society."
Multiple thuggee courts were set up across the subcontinent; some 1,500 prisoners were tried for thug offenses, with 1,400 being executed or handed life sentences. A special prison and industrial academy were set up for thug informers and their families, guaranteeing them factory jobs. By the 1860s, the thuggee existed only in the nightmares of Victorian children and the dreams of London publishers.
When you pulled apart the British victory narrative about the thug, logical paradoxes abounded. The thug had existed forever, committing mass slaughter against India and plundering her wealth, but he wasn't identified as a societal problem until the advanced West had come to his turf; he was unknowable, inscrutable, mystical, frightening, but also predictable and easy for a good officer to exterminate; and as quickly as he appeared everywhere, he was driven to extinction.
His disappearance was spun as a concrete vindication of the rationality, goodness, and superiority of British rule over the Indians. As one British commentator put it in a home journal in 1841, succeeding in this policing role would expiate any sins his country's overseas police force had previously committed:
"To the vigilance of the British Government in India, has been due the first complete detection of Thuggee, in its real character of an organized and systematic fraternity; and, if under the same sway, this monstrous hybrid of superstition and cruelty is destined to be finally eradicated, a title will thus be earned to the gratitude of the natives of India, which will alone make the benefits of our later administration more than atone for the injustices and rapacity which marked our early acquisitions of Indian territory."
Had the thuggee really existed? Yes, probably on a smaller and less terrible scale than was suggested by the authorities. But the Raj nevertheless invented him anew, because it had to.
The thuggee legend grew in America thanks in large part to Mark Twain. In his 1897 travelogue Following the Equator, the satirist displayed an earnest obsession with the myths, reporting that he stayed awake into the mornings "to read about those strange people the Thugs." He spent many pages rehashing the accounts of Sleeman and the popular novels as if they were wire news reports.
"One of the chiefest wonders" of the thuggee, Twain wrote, "was the success with which it kept its secret. The English trader did business in India two hundred years and more before he ever heard of it; and yet it was assassinating its thousands all around him every year, the whole time." It never seems to have occurred to Twain that there might be an obvious reason no one had observed a criminal thug conspiracy in India before the colonial police got there.
By his trip's end, Twain saw thuggishness everywhere. Even though he conceded it was "a bloody terror" and "a desolating scourge," he found it useful as a humorous shorthand for the evils great and small that men would visit upon each other. Watching the baggage porters at a rail station, he observed:
[W]herever a white man's native servant appeared, that native seemed to have put aside his natural gentleness for the time and invested himself with the white man's privilege of making a way for himself by promptly shoving all intervening black things out of it. In these exhibitions of authority Satan was scandalous. He was probably a Thug in one of his former incarnations.
The joke was on all of us, Twain felt, because "we white people are merely modified Thugs." Surely each civilized man was just as capable of evil as the empire's now-extinct assassin cult.
"We have reached a little altitude where we may look down upon the Indian Thugs with a complacent shudder," he concluded, "and we may even hope for a day, many centuries hence, when our posterity will look down upon us in the same way."
In contrast to Twain's tourist, Sleeman and his grandson, James, had written of the thuggee in a voice later readers might recognize as Orwell/Hemingway chic, that peculiar mode of the imperial white man speaking with a principled nostalgic reverence for the idiosyncratic animal foe he vanquished—billfish, bull, elephant, Spanish fascist, South Asian highwayman, whatever.
But, James Sleeman warned, only he truly understood the thug. In A Million Murders, he cautioned American upstarts against using the epithet too loosely:
[Thug] is a term often wrongly applied, particularly in the United States, to bandits or hold-up men, who do not attempt either concealment of their intention or strangulation… no other class of criminal possesses the right to call itself by that name. Certainly not the modern type, for, contemptible and horrible as the Thugs unquestionably were, it is certain that they would be loud in their expression of horror at the deeds of these despicable ruffians in Western countries.
One could already spot this broadening application of "thug" to a particular class of lowlife, the kind for whom no one has admiration, in Twain's account. As America's power rose over the next hundred years, so would its sway over who was denoted by the increasingly nebulous criminal catch-all. Sleeman would have been aghast. The old Oriental thugs were made of better stuff.
A century after Sleeman's heyday, his objections about imprecise applications of "thug" had been defeated utterly by the term's popular usage. No longer consciously associated with an Indian society of assassins, the word attached itself to the myriad disorganized forces of lawlessness, violence, and chaos. "Thug" became part of everyday American vocabulary, rather than an exotic reference. It had lost its slyness.
In 1956, the sociologist Orrin Klapp conducted a study to determine Americans' familiarity with different "villain types," following his hunch that these archetypes played into "an informal control system of popular thought." The respondents had wildly varying opinions of various categories of bad people: bullies, authoritarians, rebels, troublemakers, even of "monsters" and "renegades." But they were almost universal in their condemnation of one highly visible, violent "outlaw" category. One synonym that kept coming up among respondents for this verboten class of individual was "thug," Klapp reported. "The group tends to unite against him," he wrote.
"Making villains is part of a societal reaction to certain kinds of deviance," Klapp concluded, adding that naming villains "has status-placing and defining functions, that is, to set him apart from normal people, idealize or exaggerate his character negatively, create a state of alarm, and call for strenuous role-playing to adequately deal with such a dangerous deviant."
Klapp considered, and ultimately rejected, the hypothesis that new media technology might lead to greater education, diminishing the power of these stereotypes. "There is little evidence that modern advances have reduced the total amount of vilification in society," he wrote; "indeed, mass communications seem to have created new opportunities in this direction."
Fear of the thug is a fear of the dark, literal and metaphorical. A pale colonizing soldier or constable—trained, armed, deputized to travel out of the warm confines of the civilization he serves—stares into the night of the frontier, whether in Hyderabad or the suburbs of St. Louis, and sees only shadow. Within the shadow, crimes and perils and swarthy locals all mix together. Perhaps they are all connected somehow, all serving the aims of the criminal, the subversive—whether as a street tough or a dealer or a user or simply a friend or relation who refuses to snitch. Perhaps this is bigger than we think. Perhaps the thug owns the night.
In the 1990s, there was something of a thug renaissance. The maligned and marginalized gay-rights movement had begun to reassert itself and claim queerness as a positive attribute, and many black men similarly responded to their demonization by finding solidarity in the old negative labels. Nobody typified or explained this celebration of "thug life" better than Tupac:
The aim was "to reclaim and transform the meaning of words in order to evade the surveillance of nonblack onlookers or to affirm self-worth," Wellesley College professor Michael Jeffries writes in his survey of hip-hop semiotics and politics, Thug Life. Just as nigga took on a new meaning, he writes, "rap acts since the mid-1990s have embraced the word thug as an unapologetic affirmation of their experiences as black men… insulted by mainstream America."
Self-styled hip-hop thugs were not universally welcomed within communities of color. The act of rejecting and shocking mainstream America by adopting its negative labels achieves its purpose. There are those, even in black communities, who say this shock is counterproductive and brings further scrutiny upon blacks—as well as greater violence, so-called "black on black" violence.
Brown University professor Tricia Rose acknowledges the value of what she calls "the ghetto-badman posture performance," but she also reminds readers that it is to some extent a commercially controlled driver of crime, violence and misogyny. "There is no way to claim that constant commercialized promotion of thug-inspired images won't negatively impact black youth, race relations, and society in general," she writes in The Hip Hop Wars.
Even so, ground conditions seemed favorable for the hip-hop thug. America in the mid-'90s felt very much like a country turning a corner in its social and cultural politics. Just a few years after Reagan and Willie Horton and welfare queens and "broken windows" and a spike in what Jeffries calls "the trope of the black predator," a Democrat was in the White House and blacks were winning greater representation in Congress. South Africa was finally acquiescing to pressure over apartheid, and Nelson Mandela—once derided by political elites as a black communist thug—was emerging as an admired statesman.
This liberalization extended to white-dominated mass-entertainment, too. Bone Thugs and Tupac and Ice Cube—who had already transitioned from the hard-ass lyrics of NWA to articulating for diverse audiences the greater challenges of law-abiding ghetto life in the movie Friday—gained a crossover following. More strikingly, straight action films sought a new racially and politically conscious core. The cowboy hero began to adopt a thug's pose. In Braveheart, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, or Bad Boys, the great enemies were representatives of larger power structures who got to define and destroy their society's alleged thugs: The English lord, the ruthless Teutonic international thief, the racist South African diplomat were opposed by marginal clans and violent heroes, rowdy individualists against effete occupiers.
The high-water mark came in Lethal Weapon II, a moral fable about the victory of honest American cops over apartheid-loving diplomats sleazing up Los Angeles. Joss Ackland's sneering South African consul, who makes gleeful sport of his racism and his freedom to define the thug in his home country, is outed by the end as a murderer and a smuggler of drug money—the exact attributes viewers would likely call thuggish. But the villain is dispatched, along with his "diplomatic immunity," by a single shot to the head from Danny Glover's old .357 Magnum police revolver. The inversion is complete: the armed black man, connected to a tradition of white movie hero-cops through his six-gun, becomes the anti-thug who dispatches the true enemy of progress, the literal colonizer.
Was it cheesy Hollywood shit? Reinforcing of old American tropes about law and order, albeit with a few new thug-related components? Sure. But for a Richard Donner action movie, it was fucking revolutionary. It was all downhill from there.
One could be forgiven in that moment for assuming that the id-impulses of mostly white, mostly male Americans were in decline. But a national id's resilience is impressive. By 1997, Tupac and Biggie were dead, but the National Rifle Association and the Republican Party were more alive than ever.
Rather than siding with the government as a check against street thuggery, paleoconservatives in this period managed to construct a new picture of government—and liberal trade unions and learning institutions—as working in concert with the street toughs to squeeze out traditional freedom-loving Americans. Just a few years after NRA figurehead Charlton Heston publicly read the lyrics of "Cop Killer" aloud as proof of Ice-T's thuggery, the NRA's real man in charge—Wayne LaPierre—indicated that his gun lobby had about as much in common with law enforcement as they did with rappers.
In 1995, LaPierre pushed back against reports that his group's rhetoric had emboldened right-wing anti-government militia types like Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. The NRA honcho responded that it was Bill Clinton who had radicalized America with gun laws that gave "jackbooted Government thugs more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property and even injure and kill us."
Such rhetoric had manifold and dramatic effects. It helped give a resurgent Republican Party a near-perpetual majority in Congress and in statehouses across the American South and West. It hardened a vociferous bloc of conservative white men attempting to hang onto their traditional cultural hegemony, and one of their cultural bludgeons was control of who the "thugs" were.
The resulting definition wasn't merely a racist shorthand, as many liberals now assert. Todd Boyd had made that argument in 2007. Slate's Jamelle Bouie and Richard Sherman, the NFL standout criticized as a thug for his haughty postgame tirades, both argued the same point more recently. The National Review's Charles C.W. Cooke, a white Briton, protested against Bouie's and Sherman's arguments—perhaps too much and too fast. There is the racial code, to be sure, but that's only the half—and the symptom—of what's really at play.
The thug today is everybody who threatens Inner America's way of life. This includes the racially stereotypical black criminal who is poised to invade Inner America's homes and cars. But it also extends to the government that invades their privacy; the unions that invade their economy; the learning institutions that invade their culture.
For upstanding 21st century social alarmists, identifying thugs is as distressingly easy as "Thuggee" Sleeman warned it would be: a readymade stigma to hang on anyone who is not mainstream, whose marginalization as a dark alien criminal serves the alarmist's aims, from South Asia to South Central to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
This contemporary anti-thug movement has achieved a funny ironic resonance: Few things today more closely resemble Sleeman's thuggee brotherhood than does a tea party rally, men's rights convention, gun show, or armed anti-government standoff. From militias to neoconfederates to 4channing libertarians, a cultural underground has emerged of armed anti-government ideologues dreaming of redemptive violence. Hence a reactionary conservative can proudly call for the shooting of college-age protesters and their "SEIU thug" allies in Wisconsin; Fox News can trumpet a poll that calls for "armed revolution" in America, even as it pearl-clutches over "thugs" getting invites to the White House, again and again and again; and armed citizens can dig in for a "defense" against the "thuggery" of federal and state peace officers.
Even if you take terrorists and criminals out of the picture, chaos is an ever-present danger to Americans today—especially when you factor in the undercurrent of social unrest that seethes beneath the surface of much of our society. How many times have we seen peaceful protests in this country degenerate into riots, looting, shootings, arsons and worse? How many times have we seen crowds turn into angry mobs after court decisions they didn't like, sports team defeats they felt were unfair, natural disasters that collapsed civil order — or just for the sheer hell of it?
Distrust of the police and state institutions; rejection of most mainstream politics; regimentation for violence and "prepping" for a post-state economy and culture with valuable stockpiled resources; a preoccupation with machismo and a glorification of destructive strength: They were all there.
And soon they were ratified in law, as states pressed to permit open or concealed carry of firearms among the citizenry. The right to self-defense soon extended outside the home (the "castle doctrine") to include anywhere a threat might be perceived, with no duty to retreat. Such "stand your ground" laws depended on how armed citizens, judges, and jurors determined whether a (probably dead) gunshot victim reasonably posed a threat to the shooter. But then, most Americans believe they know a thug when they see one.
The history of the thug since the Raj has been a precursor to the modern police procedural, in which civilization and reason can trap the criminal mind but never truly penetrate it. The thug's behavior may be observed and predicted. His weaknesses can be found and exploited. He can be explained. He can explain himself, describe his kills, his motives, his clan of brigands. But he is ultimately unknowable to us. Even at his most vulnerable and compassion-worthy, we must not extend him those most civilized virtues of our own Western culture, tenderness and mercy. Some part of him is not human, but another kind of animal. We don't have to talk with a dog to know he's mad and needs to be put down.
We continue to see them all around us. We continue to put them down. We continue to put down the protests that grow out of their deaths, to see these events as more proof of thuggishness all around. And we won't stop, because according to the hardening myth of the American thuggee, he never stops.
[Image by Jim Cooke, source image via Wikipedia]