Everyone becomes a little dictator. Rather, officials everywhere are full of their own power, and the rest of us are victims of these unruly potentates. Roger Goodell publicly brands Tom Brady a liar and a cheat, because he’s in a position to do so, and he wants to make an example of him. Unfriendly Ranger Rick trashes Scott Jurek’s small celebration atop Mount Katahdin with ticky tacky citations, because he doesn’t like him and doesn’t think he belongs on the Appalachian Trail.
Almost all of us recently have had encounters with officials lately that did not feel right. The official was arrogant, discourteous, unreasonable and even abusive. As a citizen you think, why am I paying this person to treat me this way? How aggressive can you get?
Power wielding, I-justified behavior can go far beyond the unpleasant encounters we can walk away from. As we’ve eseen in one case after another, armed policemen routinely kill unarmed black people. If you run away, they shoot you. If you approach with your arms outstretched, they shoot you then, too. If you drive away, they shoot you. If you stand in a neighborhood playground or talk on the phone in WalMart with a toy gun in your hand, they shoot you. If they have you in a choke hold and you tell them you can’t breathe, they finish the job and strangle you.
If they take you into custody, you’re still not safe. Then, all in sport young man, they will break your neck in the back of a police van. They will strip search you and rape you with a broken broom handle. With monotonous regularity they will lay out the reasons why they need to murder or mistreat you. A favorite: “I felt threatened.” The excuse rendered actually doesn’t matter that much, as the brotherhood will protect you whatever reason you write in the official report. When that’s the case, you might as well select some stock phrase from the brotherhood’s dictionary of self-exoneration.
We used to ascribe these cruelties to a few bad apples on the force. Former New York City policeman Frank Serpico warned that police corruption is systemic. If you didn’t go along to get along, you found yourself in big trouble. The brotherhood would turn agains you. That’s what happened to Serpico, who was shot in the face when his fellow police officer failed to back him up. Serpico spent the rest of his life to persuade people how bad it would be for all of us if we did not take notice and act. Now we can see what rampant police cruelty looks like on our computer or smartphone.
We don’t have national statistics to compare current frequency of police violence, in all categories, with frequency of police violence in previous decades. Yet signs of police militarization and attitudes of entitled superiority are everywhere. We’ve seen the cocky swagger, the patronizing tone of voice that changes to aggressive threats in an instant. “You can put out that cigarette now.” becomes “I’m going to light you up!” in a matter of seconds. Where did this behavior and the attitudes that spawn it come from?
Follow me for a minutes in this argument, as I have not fetched it from as far a distance as you might thing. Once government commits planned, organized cruelty against people it defines as its enemies, anything goes. Law enforcement becomes power enforcement, maintenance of order becomes imposition of control, and authority becomes a mere demonstration of force. You are left with coercion.
“Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” and in fact, moral anarchy ensues when government, keeper of the laws, acts lawlessly, recklessly, and without restraint. Beliefs beget behavior. If you believe you can do anything and get away with it, you act the way we have observed police act. In a moral world, might does not make right. Under moral anarchy, which occurs when government makes war on its own people, might does make right, especially for those who will shoot you if you do not do as they say.
Since government’s wartime torture regime became known to all, we have recognized that we must resist this power with every non-violent and outcome-oriented means we have at hand. The longer we wait, the more difficult the project, and the more doubtful the outcome in our lifetimes. No one gives up power voluntarily, but no one who wields power lawlessly has ever kept it indefinitely. We have to return to constitutional rule as soon as we can. Any legitimate constitution is superior to moral anarchy. The constitution we used to have, as it developed over 225 years, was superior to all of its predecessors.
We have an opportunity now to recreate our republic. An observer of our current situation asked, “Does the electorate have contempt for government, or does government have contempt for the electorate?” The commenter’s answer was, “Yes.” Contempt describes an attitude way beyond anger or frustration. It describes a deep alienation. When the alienation is mutual, as it is now, only force and moral anarchy prevail. They prevail until morally constrained freedom replaces force, and lawful, limited authority replaces anarchy.