| Wednesday October 22nd 2014

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Abusive Power and the Culture of Obedience


“But rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law,’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual.”Thomas Jefferson, 1819

Ask anyone who has lived under a repressive regime and they can tell you how it changes people. Dear public servant: Please stop helping meThere are the obvious things like the fear of the knock at the door in the middle of the night, the loss of control over even the most mundane aspects of one’s own life and people using the apparatus of the state to settle personal grudges. But beneath all of these are deeper changes to the the way people behave and the way they treat each other. There is the unwillingness to smile or speak to strangers, or even to open up too much to friends for fear of information getting into the wrong hands. There is the widespread breakdown of trust between people, and then there is just the petty meanness that becomes more and more the norm.

Americans may not be living in a gulag state yet, but each day it becomes harder and harder to argue that we do not have significant elements of a police state. Along with this increased authoritarianism come the deeper cultural changes that have every bit as real an impact on the quality of our lives. For the costs brought by the loss of freedom cannot be fully accounted for simply by pointing to incidents of abuse or tallying up the economic damage. The deterioration in the quality of our relationships to each other is also a cost.

It seems that every day brings new accounts of police assaults upon unarmed civilians. From the arrest and tasering of a student asking a question of John Kerry at a public forum, to the tasering of an eight-months-pregnant woman who refused to sign a traffic ticket, to the deaf man who didn’t hear police officers’ command to stop and was tasered — after the officers had shot and killed his dog.

Such incidents are becoming more and more commonplace, as are military-style no-knock raids on people’s homes in non-violent, non-threatening situations. Radley Balko documents this very well in his 2006 report “Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America.” At the time this report was published, approximately 40,000 of these kinds of raids were conducted each year, resulting in “. . . dozens of needless deaths and injuries, not only of drug offenders, but also of police officers, children, bystanders, and innocent suspects.”

These incidents for the most part have nothing to do with preserving law and order, certainly nothing to do with protecting or serving, and everything to do with maintaining authority. Not the authority of a just and reasonable law that protects people from things like murder, assault and theft, but simply the authority of those in charge to do what they want and to demand what they want, whether or not the law is just — or indeed whether they are even acting in accordance with the law. How anyone can find this compatible with a free society is beyond comprehension.

Yet what is most disturbing is how so many of us are so willing to take the side of the enforcers in these situations. A glance at the online comments on articles about these incidents reveals the all-too prevalent view that the victims of police assault should have just gone along with the officers and followed orders and that if they didn’t then they got what they deserved.

Here is a sampling of some comments on a video of a woman tasered at a routine traffic stop:

“I was a cop for about five years and that is the way it should be. You need to listen to what the officer tells you!”

“Once you are pulled over and given a direct order from a police officer, you are to obey. The lady made her situation worse by not listening. . .”

Perhaps most telling: “I’ve been tased before, that sh*t f***ing hurts like hell. Next time I going to listen.”

Here is one representative comment on a video of an obviously unarmed man being brutally tasered by police:

“they didnt (sic) do anything wrong, he got plenty of time to comply, he was resisting arrest and even when they got him on the ground he got back up again”

And here are some from a video of an inebriated woman who is clearly already under the control of a police officer, being tasered by another officer:

“WHEN POLICE GIVE YOU DIRECTIONS, COOPERATE and cops don’t have to put you under control.”

“If you fail to comply with verbal commands and and resist officers with or without violence, this is what happens. The suspect obviously didn’t want to go along with the program and was tased. It’s easy math: Stupid + resisting +(sic) Tased!! Class dismissed!”

If the commentators’ only point is that when confronted with a dangerous bully, it may not be smart to stick to your principles and point out that he has no right to do what he is doing — that it is better to go along with him and get out of the situation safely — then yes, they have a point. But the real question should be: Why have we institutionalized dangerous bullies in our society in the first place?

But of course that is not their only point. These commentators are essentially saying that obedience to the law, and to law enforcers, may be demanded at any price. There is no sense of proportionality — the idea that even if a person is resisting a just law, perhaps the nature of the offense is not so serious as to justify inflicting bodily harm. In fact, there seems to be an absence of any idea that law-enforcement officers even need to justify their actions.

These people question neither the law being enforced, nor the methods used to enforce the law. More disturbingly though, many seem quite comfortable defending the right of law-enforcement officers to get their way even when they are not upholding the law.

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