As a thought experiment, I will sometimes ask people what their first impression is when they see a police car (here, in Ontario, an O.P.P. vehicle). Almost invariably, the answer is ‘fear’. I find this curious, that we fear those who are deputed by the State to ‘protect and serve’, as indeed they should, for they are our employees, who should stand in harm’s way when harm comes our way.
I think this fear has two principal causes: The hyper-militarization of the police, and the growing extent of law to cover more and more of our daily lives.
Consider the first: I would have no real problem with the police dressing and acting like Robocop if indeed a significant segment of the population were wreaking harm and havoc, and had to stopped by brute force, with the real danger of immediate and violent death, as we may witness daily in northern Iraq.
Most of us here in Canada have little cause for such militarized police protection; we are blessed to live rather tranquil lives (outside of certain urban locales, like Jane and Finch in TO). The murder rate in Canada, and the rate of violent crime in general, is lower than almost anywhere else in the world, with the exception perhaps of a few geriatric European socialist states like Denmark and Sweden. Most of us, however, generally law-abiding citizens that we are, just want to get on with our daily lives, yet find ourselves living in a state of almost perpetual tension whenever a cop car drives by. The police, in general, spend most of their time policing about 2% of the population, and the rest of it policing ‘us’, their employers.
The second problem, the growing extent of law to cover more and more of our daily actions, exacerbates the first. Thomas Aquinas asks whether the law of the State should forbid all vices; when I ask my students this question, many respond with an ‘of course!’, not realizing that ‘vice’ implies any deviation from the moral law. The State, of course, cannot possibly forbid every single ‘sin’, for the obvious reason that such a task would be impossible or at least far outreach the proper sphere of the State. Imagine a law against ‘lustful thoughts’ (although we may be getting close with some extreme sexual harassment lawsuits). What of cussing? (Although even here we have censorship laws in public broadcasting). Or of smoking in public? This problem is even worse in the U.S., where the government department responsible for collecting student tuition debt apparently has its own S.W.A.T. team. And don’t forget, that student debt is the only kind not open to being forgiven by declaring bankruptcy. They will find you.
The difficulty with the any law of the State is that the whole power of the State stands behind them (which include the capacity and right to inflict harmful and ultimately lethal punishment). Some things we do not want enforced by men (and, alas, now women) with 9mm semiautomatic SIG Sauer P226 handguns and bulletproof vests (just for starters; their arsenal includes far more than this). Robocop should be reserved for situations that require, well, robocop.
One may recall the scene from the eponymous 1987 film, wherein the cyborg police officer (who looks a lot like a modern cop in riot gear, but with a bit more ‘artificial’ intelligence) fires upon a perpetrator breaking public smoking laws. In the movie, it’s due to a flaw in the hierarchical nature of his circuitry in distinguishing ‘real’ crime from indiscretions.
In modern policing, the problem is more complex, as there are real humans involved, with their own conscience, fears and insecurities. But a big part of the difficulty lies with the fact that all laws must, in the end, be equally enforced, for to ignore one law is to ignore them all. Back to Thomas: He answers his own question on the extent of law by stating that public law should only forbid those things which truly harm other people, without which society could not function, such as ‘murder and theft and the like’. Otherwise, if the people are kept under too strict control by a multitude of minute laws, they will burst forth into even greater evils, either in secret, fostering a black market and hoping not to get caught, or eventually in public, citing rebellion and, ultimately, revolution.
Ponder my previous entry on underage and public drinking laws which, like the more draconian Prohibition earlier this century, simply drove drinking underground, and made everyone a criminal. Now, if you are like most of us and drive a vehicle, you are basically always breaking the law. How many of us actually drive 100 km/h on the 401, or 80 on the secondary highways? Try setting your cruise control at those speeds, and feel the angry wind, and gestures, of all the cars blowing past you. Someone I know was recently stopped here in the sleepy small town where I live for not stopping for a full three seconds at a stop sign. Do we really want Robocop enforcing children’s bicycle helmet laws? (to say nothing of the coming adult helmet laws, already in force out east)
As one police officer in the U.S. put in during an apparently illegal and reckless military-style bust of a hairstyling salon, for some unidentified violation, when confronted by one of the owners with the question ‘what did we do?’, he replied ‘It’s a big book, m’am, and we can always find something to put you in jail’. The miseducated officer unwittingly summed up the problem.
By putting the law back into its proper perspective, the actions of the police will, hopefully, follow, for they are deputed, one presumes, to uphold the law. Growth in the extent of law, has led to a metastization of policing in this country (and, indeed, throughout the world), as we pay their (our?) expensive military-grade equipment, along with the ever-increasing and unsupportable salaries, perks and early pensions. If this uncontrolled growth is not halted, Robocop may well show up one day at your door, demanding you put out that cigarillo. Who knows? As Saint Thomas more or less warns, he may one day find there’s a Clint Eastwood behind that cigar, ready to live free or die.
Or to use an analogy from Marvel comics, society itself may become like Bruce Banner pushed too far, turning into some raging green monster.
But, then again, perhaps that is just what they are preparing for.
October 13, 2014