I, Dubious

I respect law enforcement officials tremendously. They often get short shrift for doing what no one else will do–bringing dangerous bad guys/gals to justice. Over the last several years, though, I have watched a troubling transformation. Today police officers look and act more like military personnel than cops. It is not pretty and I have grave doubts that it is necessary.

Occasionally, this results in some questionable actions on the part of police. In Stockton, CA, a SWAT team raided the home of one Kenneth Wright. Some reports first indicated that Wright’s wife was behind on her student loans. The Department of Education, which conducts these kinds of raids (who knew?), claims that the raid was part of a financial aid fraud investigation.

Now, let’s be clear on one thing. If authorities had legitimate reasons to think the Wrights were a danger (Ms. Wright was not there) and the warrant was properly issued, there might be a justification for dragging Wright and his three kids out of the house at 6AM and locking them in a hot police car for six hours. Since Wright has no criminal record and the kids were clearly not a danger, this sounds suspicious.

The larger issue is what happens when a powerful group of quasi-military people start exerting influence in a society. When his uncle Caligula was murdered, Claudius of Ancient Rome was made Emperor by the Praetorian Guard. The BBC version of the story portrays the leader of the Guard as “advising” Claudius not to disband the group, as having 3000 highly-trained soldiers wandering about Rome with nothing to do would be a bad idea.

It will be interesting to see how the Wright case plays out, not so much because of its particulars, but because of the increasing power, including firepower, of police officers nationwide. Are we in danger of having our leaders appointed by the police? Not yet, though I do wonder about something.

What happens when our leaders screw things up so badly that our normal routines are disrupted horribly? Already we see the Left willing to use force to rectify every alleged violation of the natural environment and every imagined economic injustice. The Right holds a Bible in one hand and no small number would like to have a club in the other. When things get really bad, will we, like early 20th century Germans, look to a leader who can “take charge?” Will we convince ourselves that terrorists are such a threat that we should submit ourselves to every bodily insult and violation of the sanctity of our homes? Will we fall back on the oldest excuse for tyranny in the book–that peace is preferable to freedom? Perhaps this passage from Robert Graves’ sequel to I, Claudius is instructive:

Near the end of Claudius the God, Graves introduces another concept: when a formerly free nation has lived under a dictatorship for too long, it is incapable of returning to free rule. This is highlighted by Claudius’s failed attempts to revive the Republic; by the attempts of various characters to ‘restore’ the Republic but with themselves as the true rulers; and by Claudius noting that ‘by dulling the blade of tyranny, I reconciled Rome to the monarchy’ – i.e., in his attempts to rule autocratically but along more Republican lines, he has only made the Roman people more complacent about living under a dictatorship.

About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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