Why Are We (In the U.S.A.) Headed toward a Police State?
Some time ago here I suggested that the U.S., a society that promotes itself as the “land of the free,” is headed gradually but discernably toward becoming a police state. All one has to do to discern the validity of this concern is pay attention to the news. Some police, prosecutors and judges, to say nothing of federal agencies, seem able to act outside the spirit of the law, if not the letter of the law, with impunity. This lawlessness appears in the justice system, here and there, all the way from the top down and the bottom up. From federal torture of suspected terrorists down to police confiscation of property on suspicion, from prosecutors hiding exonerating evidence to federal surveillance of citizens without warrants…America is in danger of losing its precious freedoms.
I will not go into many specific cases here; I will, for the most part, assume ethically-minded readers concerned to preserve individual freedoms guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution and based on human rights agree with my concern. In my considered opinion, anyone who does not agree is simply not paying attention. I agree with the slogan “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Unfortunately, too many people in America are not outraged because they are paying attention to only one thing—fear of terrorism and of crime.
In January, 2014 a Cleveland, Ohio policeman shot a 12 year old boy in a public park because he held (or had on his person) what turned out essentially to be an air gun—a toy anyone can buy for under $20. I saw the video; there was no discernable warning. The police car, responding to an observer’s 911 call that included the statement that the gun might not be real, pulled up close to the boy. A policeman jumped from the car and immediately, within two seconds, shot the boy who died the next day. He did not crouch behind the car and tell the boy to “Drop it!” or anything like that. The boy was, of course, black. This is part of a pattern unfolding in cities across America.
Last year in Waco, Texas a new reporter was video recording a police action downtown. She was standing in a public space without in any way interfering with the police action. She was not in any danger or endangering anyone. A policeman confiscated her cell phone saying “We’re not doing that.” He had no warrant or probable cause for the confiscation. Eventually the cell phone was returned. This is another pattern unfolding across America—police confiscating equipment video recording their actions without warrant or legitimate cause. Now a bill before the Texas state legislature would (if passed into law) make it a felony to video record police activities even in public spaces. (Similar laws have been struck down by courts in other places, but that isn’t stopping a legislator from proposing it.)
More than one former prosecutor in Texas has been accused, with evidence, of hiding possibly exonerating evidence in court cases. One who hid such evidence spent one day in jail even though his misconduct contributed to an innocent man spending 25years in prison. The Innocence Project is now investigating the possibility that a prosecutor hid possibly exonerating evidence in a trial that led to a probably innocent man being executed. The post-mortem exoneration of Todd Willingham has been a long, drawn-out affair going to the top of Texas state government. The government is extremely reluctant to issue a finding that he was executed even though innocent, but many experts have testified that the evidence used against him was “junk science.”
Isolated incidents are one thing; a pattern of misconduct is something else. I certainly do not indict all police, prosecutors or federal law enforcement agents for the misconduct of a few. My concern is with a culture that seems to protect the few.
There will always be a few bad apples in any barrel. The problem is not the barrel (America’s justice system) but the lack of strong, stringent accountability for the few of the few bad apples.
Why is this happening? Why are U.S. citizens not more outraged about the pattern of misconduct on the part of the few? Why do they seem to get away with their misconduct?
I point the finger at our apathetic citizenry. Why are they apathetic about misconduct on the part of law enforcement? I suspect the reason is fear of criminals and terrorists.
I suspect this trend, this pattern, began in the wake of “9/11”—the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. (and the failed plan of attack on another public building in D.C.). I remember reading a letter to the editor in (I think it was) U.S.A. Today from a woman in Dubuque, Iowa. She stated openly to law enforcement that she wanted them to open and read all her mail; she was offering police carte blanche to violate her civil rights. Of course, what she meant was, “Do this with everyone.” She, and many others I heard and read, were suddenly more than willing to surrender their constitutional rights and allow a police state—to protect America from further terrorist attacks.
I remember reading that fearful woman’s letter and thinking to myself “That would be worse than suffering more terrorist attacks!” (I didn’t dare say that publicly, however, in the fear-based hysteria that followed “9/11.”) Television, both news and entertainment, is obsessed with crime. Many shows (and movies) seem to celebrate police violating suspects’ rights. Many applaud that depicted behavior. The vast majority of such television programs (and similar movies) are pro-police even when the police are acting outside the law—so long as they are well-intentioned (viz., intending to protect the public from criminal elements in society).
A few years ago a major television network introduced a new kind of “law and order” series that would show exonerations of wrongly accused defendants and convicted persons. It lasted less than one season. People just weren’t interested in that subject.
I believe fear of terrorism and of crime has driven much of the U.S. population to be apathetic about police and prosecutorial misconduct (and federal surveillance of citizens).
Soon after Hitler became Chancellor and head of state of Germany (upon the death of President Hindenburg) someone set fire to the German Bundestag building—the seat of government. Hitler blamed it on enemies of the state whereas many historians believe the fire may have been set by members of the Nazi party to create the social condition for Hitler’s subsequent seizing of total power.
People who have studied the rise of the Nazi Party and Hitler in the early 1930s know that Hitler’s total rise to power was made possible by the social unrest and chaos of the 1920s in Germany. Good people, driven by fear of communists and “criminal elements” and Jews (who were widely blamed by anti-semites for Germany’s defeat in World War 1) voted for Hitler and then said nothing when he grabbed total power and Germany became a police state. Like the fearful woman in Dubuque, Iowa (and millions of other Americans) they were simply looking for safety and security from the government. They did not foresee the possible consequence of giving law enforcement leaders carte blanche. If they did, they considered it worth the risk. The question that plagues me is “Would I have done anything different had I been a citizen of Germany in 1933?”
Some will no doubt accuse me of “playing the Hitler card,” but that’s not such a bad thing when it applies. No country in the world, including the U.S.A., is immune to what happened in Germany (and has happened elsewhere) in a severe enough crisis. The irony is that we celebrate the slogan “Give me liberty or give me death!” while saying the opposite in our apathy about suspensions of liberty by law enforcement.
What is happening across the country would not be happening if the victims of police shootings of unarmed young men were white, middle class and not stigmatized in the media as potential criminals just because of their age, race and clothes. And what is happening would not be happening as much if every police department and unit of the justice system cracked down harshly on the few bad apples among them.
But the real reason we are sliding toward a police state is that many, perhaps most, Americans are less worried about that than they are about terrorism and urban crime. I suspect it would only take one or two more terrorist attacks on our own soil to catapult America into a full fledge police state. I believe we are already halfway there.
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