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Abusive Power and the Culture of Obedience



Bretigne Shaffer
Campaign for Liberty
May 7, 2009

"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. There 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.

When Ron Paul staffer Steve Bierfeldt was detained at the St. Louis Airport because he wouldn't answer TSA officers' questions about the money he was carrying until they could tell him that he was legally required to do so, many of the commentators on YouTube supported his actions. But many did not:

"jezz just answer a few baisc (sic) questions and get on the damm plane.. stop acting 12. (sic)"

"...you don't have to answer the questions... but you don't have to fly on a plane air travel IS NOT A RIGHT."

"...I don't mind them asking questions for someone who has $4700 on their person. Clearly that's a little suspicious."

The view here is essentially that we have no rights, that all law is right and must be obeyed, and further -- and more disturbing -- that even if there is no law behind an officer's command, it must still be obeyed. The position is simply this: Might makes right, and those who protest or resist deserve to have might inflicted upon them.

I am no pollster, and I cannot say with any authority how representative these views are of the public at large. However it is my experience that they are not uncommon and may even be the majority view.

Somewhere along the way (I'm guessing that "somewhere" was a government-run school), a large number of Americans learned to equate "law and order" with "obedience to authority." They no longer see the role of law enforcers as serving the people, but believe that it is our role to serve them. We have become so accustomed to a high level of intrusiveness in our lives that we have no trouble accepting pat downs and body searches as a requirement to travel from one place to another, for example. Far from claiming a right to "freedom of movement" most of us seem to believe that any kind of movement is a privilege and that we may travel only at the pleasure of our rulers.

We live in a world where it is a federal offense for an ordinary citizen to assault a postal employee, but where government employees wearing badges are free to assault private citizens upon little or no provocation, to break into their homes unannounced and armed to the teeth, to administer potentially deadly force when such people do not demonstrate sufficient obedience or display a "bad attitude." In the rare event that such people are prosecuted for their actions, they are usually let off with a slap on the wrist -- while those (like Cory Maye) who defend themselves from such attacks face long prison sentences or even the death penalty.

When it gets this bad, it becomes less about whether we are living in a free society than whether we are living in a civilized one. For the end result of this police state business and the culture of obedience that it breeds is a breakdown of civilized behavior between people who share a city, a neighborhood, or a country. We are becoming a nation of prisoners and prison guards -- a nation where increasingly, people are treated as something sub-human. Ordinary people are becoming accustomed to being treated like criminals, and from what the online chatter tells us, they are liking it -- and resenting those who don't.

So what can those of us who know better do? It is one thing to combat police abuse, the illegitimate laws that give them the power to abuse, and a system that protects them from genuine accountability. That's hard enough. But how do you combat an entire culture that increasingly seems to think this is the way things should be?

I don't have a solution, but I do know that there are a few basic things we need to do if we are to avoid being steamrolled by the culture of the police state. At a bare minimum, we need to do the following:

First, call out abusive and uncivilized behavior by authorities where we see it. Call them on it whenever possible and call it what it is. Refuse to be treated like a criminal if you aren't one. What Steve Bierfeldt did at the St. Louis Airport was exactly right. He was civil and polite, but refused to be bullied into complying with agents' demands until they told him the legal justification for what they were asking.

Second, we need to refuse to go along with others being treated like criminals if they aren't. Even if we cannot always prevent this treatment, we can at the very least let the perpetrators know that we do not approve. This may not sound like much, but it does make an impression, however small. And not to do it is essentially to say that we don't mind living under tyranny, that we will go along with seeing our friends and neighbors treated as less than human, and that we won't resist when it happens to us.

Above all, we must not become these people. We must remain civil and civilized as we refuse to participate in the transformation of our country into a police state. Because in refusing to be accomplices to tyranny that is really what we are standing up for. Not only liberty and peace, but something that is intimately intertwined with both: civilized society itself.


Bretigne Shaffer (www.bretigne.com) is a writer and filmmaker. Her weekly Internet TV show "On the Banks" can be seen at www.breakthematrix.com, channel 2 every Friday at 12:00 Pacific Time.

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