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Jonathan Zimmerman: The Gates cop, in perspective

[Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. His most recent book is "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.]

Should police Sgt. James Crowley have arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. on July 16, after Crowley responded to a 911 report of a possible break-in at Gates' Cambridge, Mass., house? And to what degree was the arrest related to the fact that Gates is black and Crowley is white?

I don't know the answers to these questions, and neither do you. But here's what I do know: We're lucky that we can ask them, lucky that possible police misbehavior demands an official response, lucky that the alleged outrage isn't worse. And if you think otherwise, take a look at how police behave in many other parts of the world.

According to Transparency International, which surveyed 73,000 people in 69 countries for its 2009 Global Corruption Barometer, 24% of respondents reported paying bribes to police in the last year. And people around the globe routinely identify the police force as the most corrupt institution in their societies, ahead of the judiciary, tax collection agencies and everything else.

Even worse, police officers frequently abuse or murder civilians with impunity. The 2009 country-by-country report by Amnesty International is a virtual dictionary of brutality by police, who assault citizens with truncheons (Armenia), electric shocks (Bahrain), cigarette burns (Mauritania), sexual assaults (Pakistan) and suspension by the wris ts or ankles (Yemen).

And then there's Togo, which I happened to be visiting when the Gates controversy exploded. According to Amnesty International, human rights activists and other Togolese detainees are routinely beaten by the police.

So I was on my best behavior as I crossed into Togo from Ghana with my teenage daughter and her friend. A policeman fumbled with our passports, seemingly uncertain about how and where to stamp them. Then he finally issued our visas and announced the fee: 15,000 African francs (about $30) each.

"Whom should I pay?" I asked him in French.

"Oh, you can pay me directly," he smiled.

So I did. There was no receipt, of course, so no one would ever know. And I knew better than to ask for one.

On our return to Ghana, a few days later, a border policewoman asked me if I would buy her a drink. I'm married and I wear a wedding ring, and I had two adolescent girls in tow, so it's pretty unlikely that she was flirting with me. Instead, she was probably soliciting a bribe.

I had heard stories of people who offer money in such situations, get arrested for the same and then have to pay a bigger bribe to get out. So I pretended that she was flirting with me. "Sorry, but I'm married," I protested, mock-horror style, flashing her a grin. She waved us on with a scowl.

Ghana is still basking from President Obama's brief visit earlier this month, when he correctly praised the country for it s strong democratic institutions and its efforts to reduce corruption. But it also has a long way to go. In the Transparency International survey, 42% of Ghanaian respondents said that they or a household member had paid a bribe in the last year.

When asked to rank their public officials on a scale of 1 to 5, meanwhile, with 1 being "not at all corrupt" and 5 "extremely corrupt," Ghanaians gave their officials an average score of 4.2. That's hardly a ringing endorsement. Instead, it's a reminder of how much malfeasance still infects most governments across Africa -- and around the world.

Our own system isn't perfect, that's for sure. Miscarriages of justice -- including police corruption and brutality -- happen every day. And no reasonable person will deny that some police officers unfairly target racial minorities, especially minority males.

That's what makes the arrest of Gates so emotionally charged, from our point of view. From an international perspective, though, it's a tempest in a teapot. Nobody got shot or assaulted. No money changed hands. And whatever indignities Gates might have incurred, they pale next to the abuse that so many people in other nations receive at the hands of their own police.

Ironically, Gates had just returned from a trip to China, which has one of the most ghastly records of police brutality on the planet.

According to Amnesty International, the Chinese police routinely torture people for criticizing their government or simply for practicing thei r religion; common targets include Tibetans, Uighurs, Christians and Falun Gong practitioners. The police in China get to do whatever they want, and woe to the innocent civilian who has the courage to criticize them. That too is a luxury that we too often take for granted.

So let's investigate Gates' arrest thoroughly, of course, especially the question of whether it was racially motivated. Ditto for any and all charges of bigotry in law enforcement, which loses credibility and legitimacy every time an American is treated unfairly on account of race.

But let's not exaggerate either, lest we forget the far greater injustices all over the planet. In a world in which police routinely abuse civilians or extort bribes from them, we're pretty darned fortunate to be debating the arrest of Gates. And let's not forget that either.