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America’s Pious Embrace of the Police State

| November 1, 2015

us police state militarism

A protester in the wake of the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson last year. (Chris Wieland)

It’s in the nature of declining and insecure empires to turn to the use of force as a remedy to problems they have no hope or business solving. It’s a surrender that, to an intemperate public stoked for action, looks like boldness, at least in the short run. It only accelerates the decline. Sparta and Rome did it in the old world, Spain and Portugal did it in the New, Britain did it in India and Burma. History is never a lesson to jingoes: The United States is doing it all over the place.

pierre tristam column flaglerlive When legal and moral authority fail, we’re quick on the draw of diversions. We turn to guns. It’s what led us into Iraq, what’s mired us in Afghanistan and seduced us into Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and now back to Iraq. It’s what’s bankrupting us more than Medicare and Medicaid—which are at least intended to heal—even as we choose to close our eyes and ears to the empire’s suicide by turning this endless use of force into a celebration.  It’s become an end in itself.

No one cares about the $2 trillion and untold number of lives wasted in the Middle East. Some 63 percent of young Americans couldn’t place Iraq on a map. Intelligence, law enforcement and elected officials don’t know a Shiite from a Sunni. But we love these moments of silence for the troops at public meetings, we love those ceremonies at sports events or in classrooms of men and women coming back from the battlefields to surprise their loved ones. The realities of war are replaced by sentimental photo-ops and vague abstractions about valiant service over there somewhere. It doesn’t get better than that for the war machine, especially with unquestioning press and media who script the deception.

It’s not enough to respect and honor the military. It must be worshiped. And at all costs, keep those rituals divorced from the pointlessness of those involvements abroad. There’s no easier way for our leaders, Republicans or Democrats, to keep sucking the blood out of men and treasuries without having to account for either. “War,” as Chris Hedges put it in the title of his book at the beginning of this spiral in 2002, “is a force that gives us meaning.”

But not freedom. Those pieties have a price.

Despite 15 years of evidence to the contrary we keep buying the bromide that soldiers are fighting for our freedom in the Middle East, when in fact American freedom has been in retreat abroad and at home. Belligerent forces like the Taliban, ISIS and Iran have gained either influence or territory at the expense of American interests. At home, personal freedoms that were already in fast retreat because of the war on drugs and the expansion of police powers since the 1980s, have narrowed further since Bush’s wars, to little protest. Domestic spying is legal. Its illegal versions, as Edward Snowden keeps proving, is beyond the imaginable.

Even the nation’s press freedoms can’t be taken as seriously anymore: the United States ranks 49th in the world in Reporters Without Borders’ Index of Press Freedom, below Chile, El Salvador and Burkina Faso. As Reporters Without Borders writes, “at least 15 journalists were arbitrarily arrested during clashes between police and demonstrators protesting against black teenager Michael Brown’s fatal shooting by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.”

Which brings us home to the unspoken consequence of these wars. That divorce from the war theater is an illusion. The worship of force would not be possible if it weren’t greased at home in the everyday acceptance of force’s training ground. It’s not just the military we worship. It’s whatever represents power and force. In our everyday lives, that’s the police. (“O Uniform O Vanity,” as Faulkner writes in a more American echo of the Ecclesiastes line.)

We live in a nation where almost 1,000 people have been killed by police so far this year (though the government refuses to keep an accurate and transparent count), a fifth of them unarmed, and where for the past year we’ve been exposed to serial killings of black men at the hands of police in situation after situation that begs as many questions as outrage, even if more communities than not (Flagler among them, with one glaring exception) can boast of a less trigger-happy bearing. That doesn’t diminish the shocking frequency of the killings or a widespread refusal to see those killings as a national crisis.

Instead, we get apologists. There’s an FBI director who claims that putting more scrutiny on police encourages more violent crime by making police less aggressive, which is like suggesting that accountability makes for cowardly policing. We have cops who, cocked on infallibility, have turned the anthem of never apologizing for what they do into an us-versus-them battle cry, as if they were sworn to protect themselves at the expense of the very people they’re paid to serve. And we get strange men like ex-LAPD Detective and felon Mark Fuhrman describing the cop who brutalized a South Carolina high school student who wouldn’t put away her cell phone as “polite” and within the law.

The reverence for force is not an isolated phenomenon. It’s part of a society that is slowly shedding its civil status while embracing the not-always benign form of a police state. We’re well on the way. Americans have four times as much confidence in the military as they do the criminal justice system, and twice as much confidence in the police than in the Supreme Court. Law, in other words, is a lot less attractive than sheer force. Forget robes. Give us uniforms.

It’s no coincidence that the police have become like paramilitary organizations, armed to the teeth, supplied by the Pentagon, decked out in armored vehicles and war-theater weaponry. The methods of far-flung war theaters have trickled down to our streets. So has the enabling worship of force, and now claims from some of the highest law enforcement officials in the nation that questioning the use of force is tantamount to aiding and abetting the enemy.

I knew we were at war. I just never realized the war is taking place here at home, and that so many of us so-called civilians are the enemy.

Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. A version of this piece aired on WNZF. Follow him on Twitter @PierreTristam.

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35 Responses for “America’s Pious Embrace of the Police State”

  1. Veteran says:

    Police are very frustrated. They arrest a bad guy and most go free or get their wrist slapped. Bottom line, if you comply with officer you will be treated right.

  2. Logic says:

    Rattlesnake Logic….
    After the Boston bombing the news media spent days and weeks trying to determine why these men did what they did. They want to know what America did(!) to make these brothers so angry with us. They want to know why these men were not arrested before they did something so terrible. The media is in a tizzy about this new era of homegrown radicals and about why and how they can live among us and still hate us.
    A friend of mine from Texas explained it all to me: “Here in west Texas, I have rattlesnakes on my place, living among us. I have killed a rattlesnake on the front porch. I have killed a rattlesnake on the back porch. I have killed rattlesnakes in the barn, in the shop and on the driveway. In fact, I kill every rattlesnake I encounter.
    I kill rattlesnakes because I know a rattlesnake will bite me and inject me with poison. I don’t stop to wonder WHY a rattlesnake will bite me; I know it WILL bite me because it’s a rattlesnake and that’s what rattlesnakes do. I don’t try to reason with a rattlesnake or have a “meaningful dialogue” with it. I just kill it. I don’t try to get to know the rattlesnake better so I can find a way to live with the rattlesnakes and convince them not to bite me. I just kill them. I don’t quiz a rattlesnake to see if I can find out where the other snakes are, because (a) it won’t tell me and (b) I already know they live on my place. So, I just kill the rattlesnake and move on to the next one.
    I don’t look for ways I might be able to change the rattlesnake to a non-poisonous rat snake…I just kill it. Oh, and on occasion, I accidentally kill a rat snake because I thought it was a rattlesnake at the time. Also, I know for every rattlesnake I kill, two more are lurking out there in the brush. In my lifetime I will never be able to rid my place of rattlesnakes. Do I fear them? Not really. Do I respect what they can do to me and my family? Yes!! And because of that respect, I give them the fair justice they deserve….I kill them…

    As a country, we should start giving more thought to the fact that these jihadists’ are telling the world their goal is to kill Americans and destroy our way of life. They have just posted two graphic videos on the internet showing them beheading Americans. They are serious. They are exactly like rattlesnakes. It is high time for us to start acting accordingly!

  3. Geezer says:

    “Police are very frustrated. They arrest a bad guy and most go free or get their wrist slapped.”

    1% of Americans are behind bars, and the US has the largest prison population in the world.
    We have the most per-capita inmates – the US incarceration rate is nearly 3 – 1/2 times higher
    than Mexico – and there are more people imprisoned in the US than in China!
    Yet there’s a lot more Chinese people than Americans. Despite this we beat the Chinese at
    caging people! At least we’re leading China in something!
    As a consolation, you can always salute the flag that waves outside your tiny prison window.

    US Population: 313 million
    China population: 1.3 billion

    The police SHOULD be frustrated to have locked up so many fellow Americans.
    Is it because we’re so “free” that we commit more crimes – or maybe we’re criminally inclined?
    Maybe – if you’re an elected official!

    Maybe we should be tougher on crime and GROW the prison population some more.

  4. TBG says:

    ” Bottom line, if you comply with officer you will be treated right.”

    And if you don’t…That officer has the right to beat you and even shoot you to death because not obeying fast enough and to the offers satisfaction it will be construed as a threat to the officer. It happens almost daily in our country.

  5. Sandra Reynolds says:

    Back in the day, as a student, we would never question the authority of our teacher or any administrator, thus we did not need security patrolling the halls or pulling us out of our chairs. We didn’t tackle our teachers because they told us to put away our electronics, of which we had none. if we disrespected our teacher we sat in the hall or in the vice principal’s office. If our parents found out we mouthed off to our teacher we were in big trouble also at home. If we were pulled over by an officer we did not dare argue with him, refuse to show our license, or refuse to give him our name. Were we in a “police state” back then? I don’t think so. My question is what has happened in this country to cause so much animosity between us citizens and the police? Has it always been that bad and most of us just weren’t aware of it? Regarding our on going involvement in the Middle East, I’ll save my thoughts on that one for another day.

  6. Bullseye says:

    Good article Pierre, but watch how fast the denial kicks in.

  7. Jon Dopp says:

    Disappointed again Pierre.

  8. m&m says:

    Thank you ….GOOD article and very true. We have been backed into a corner and some day a civil war may break out. It seems the criminals have all the rights and those of us who try and do things right get looked down on and taken advantage of. This has become worst in the last 7 years since we were introduced to islum and our commander and chief.

  9. Obamaman says:

    Pierre, how can you say this in the age of Obama? Are you saying this country in the last 7 years has become a dictatorship with a police state? Are you anti Obama? Or racist for criticizing the administration?

  10. Biker says:

    This piece shows just how out of touch with reality you are. The FBI director had it right and the current administration cannot stand the truth especially not from one of there own party.

  11. Dave says:

    For all of those so against the police of any kind, the next time something unlawful occurs in your area or to you, please do not call the police. Give that a try and see how you like it.

  12. Fredrick says:

    Well in China instead going to jail they shoot you and send the bill for the bullet to the family. It does cut down in the cost of housing prisoners.

    Pierre why do you not include all the information in things you point out in your article? Do they not support your narrative? Such as a “teen” (insert 8th grade picture here) attacking and officer trying to take his gun. If you use these types of things to support your “cause” you should at least be honest about it.

  13. Samuel L. Bronkowitz says:

    Thanks to cell phone cameras and social media and the resistance that the fraternal order of police and police unions put forth when one of their officers is caught red handed doing something illegal or unethical, the public is finally starting to understand what the thin blue line and police culture is all about. This is a good thing, much like discovering that your parents are human and that Santa Claus doesn’t exist – you can address the realities of the situation or you can keep living in a state of denial. The weeping and wailing that you hear from the fop and unions isn’t there because of unfair treatment, it’s there because people are finally starting to realize that the smoke and mirrors put forth by law enforcement are just smoke and mirrors, behind which lay a culture that has enjoyed almost complete autonomy with no repercussions.

  14. Geezer says:

    As I read some of the more unfortunate commentary, I am reminded of a scripture:

    “Hear now this, O foolish people, and without understanding; which have eyes, and see not;
    which have ears, and hear not” –Jeremiah 5:21 (King James Bible)
    Building on that bible verse, Thomas Chalky wrote: “There are none so blind as those who will not see.
    The most deluded people are those who choose to ignore what they already know.”

  15. Sherry says:

    OK. . . The “blame President Obama for Everything” crowd needs to be reminded that our “civilian” law enforcement serves and officers are created and managed at the STATE and LOCAL level!

    Those pushing for unregulated gun rights have largely bolstered the “militarization” of our state and local policing forces because our brave law enforcement officers are forced to stay one step ahead of the “fire power” of those in our communities, in an effort to keep themselves safe!

  16. Jon Dopp says:

    @ PIerre-
    I did not intend to be condescending. If anything, I have always made every effort to explain how and why law enforcement does certain things in an attempt to make some aspects of our job more readily understood, both by you and by the public. Taking time to “explain myself” is hardly a trait of someone who is looking down upon anyone. I have tried to offer explanations to situations that are not being clearly understood. However, with many incidents, pending litigation or investigations prevent me from offering full insight into what transpired and why. So many see this as an attempt to cover something up. In reality, it’s out of necessity to allow the “system” to run its course.

    If you felt my comment was condescending, I do apologize. That wasn’t my intent. However, disappointment is the only word that fits after the many times I have gone out of my way to try to get you to understand the other side of the coin. Apparently, my words are falling on deaf ears.

    • Pierre Tristam says:

      Jon, the sides of this coin are not mutually exclusive. There is no such dichotomy, no us-versus-them–or rather, one of the problems in this crisis, reflected by the debate, is the digging of trenches that create an us-versus-them sort of mentality, with police agencies at the forefront of that narrative: I see a lot of denial behind a siege mentality that there is a problem, and a whole lot of apologies and claims of why there isn’t one. I also find it simplistic that you’d equate my exploration of broader issues in this piece as falling on deaf ears regarding your previous contributions. Again: this debate isn’t a zero-sum game where anything one of us says must inevitably mean that it negates what the other one says. We live in a society that functions on disagreement without undermining its cohesion. Otherwise we’d only need one supreme court judge, one congressman, one newspaper, one Dopp. We can both agree that we’re not heading there.

  17. MAtt says:

    Dave says “For all of those so against the police of any kind, the next time something unlawful occurs in your area or to you, please do not call the police. Give that a try and see how you like it.” Do you mean like the time about 1 year ago when my 11 yo sons bike was stolen from in front of Publix on Palm Coast Parkway. The same store gave the video of the theft to the Flagler County Sheriff. The thief was identified on camera by store employees. So the police had video proof of the theft a good image of the thief and people who could identify the thief. We never heard another word about the case after the police took over. Let me tell you Dave I didnt like the response from the police one bit.

  18. m&m says:

    Obamaman,you have a closed mind when during riots in Furgeson and Baltimor Obama said I don’t blame them, if I were there I’d be right in there with them.The mayor of Baltimor told the police to stand down and let the rioters have at it. NOW tell me if that does not send a clear message to criminals that’s it’s ok to riot, burn, steal, rape, murder etc. Our President said it’s OK….

  19. joe says:

    I wouldn’t kill the rsttlesnakes, they too are God’s living creatyes, I would relocate the rattlesnakes, especially considering they were probably there first

  20. Cause and Effect says:

    It seems to me that this piece jumps over itself to avoid the pink elephant. Cause and Effect! Never once is it considered that intelligent people made decisions to have (or not to have) all of the paramilitary bells and whistles that local and state police forces now have. How do you think they arrived at that those decisions? – because they simply wanted to waste tax payer money? because they still had a few bucks in the annual budget? because they wanted to “keep up with the Jones’s” in other areas? Not likely. In my opinion, what has brought this about is changes in the mentalities and culture of today. Changes in the way that criminals interact with law enforcement. Changes in criminal behavior and lack of respect for authority. Changes in the likelihood of forces being confronted with a mob or gang. You can’t for a second assume that the current administration is not to blame, on some level, when you have Obama etal opining on Ferguson, Baltimore, and Trayvon. Before the issues were investigated, and the truth came out, in everyone of these cases the narrative was to push any malfeasance onto the police…
    I could not imagine being an officer today. Eggshells everywhere you step. If you dare crack one eggshell, here comes the news media and politicians looking for a way to get more votes. Meanwhile, you woke up with one goal – do your job fairly and go home!

  21. David B says:

    The law enforcement agencies have lost so much respectability in this country. Many has been brought on by a lost of interpretation skills, understanding your citizens, and getting involved in the community. I never hear of a deputy sheriff volunteering his time to work with the youth groups, or going into class rooms and speaking to students. If the police want to change their reputation, they need to get out of there patrol cars, and start hanging out with the youth.

  22. joe says:

    Why would anyone kill rattlesnakes? Are they not also gods creatures? I would think most sensible caring humans would work hard at removing each rattlesnake without killing it

  23. Thin Blue Line says:

    A yearlong investigation by The Associated Press has found about 1,000 officers who lost their licenses in a six-year period for rape, sodomy and other sexual assaults; sex crimes that included possession of child pornography; or sexual misconduct such as propositioning citizens or having on-duty intercourse.

  24. Jon Dopp says:

    @ David B-
    Another clear instance of people seeing what they want to see. You don’t hear of deputies volunteering their time in the community?!?! Look at the Sheriff’s Office Explorer Program, Frank Celico Foundation, Special Olympics, Christmas with a Deputy; just a few programs off the top of my head. Our entire school resource division is based on interacting with the youth in classrooms and providing educational experiences between law enforcement and our youth.

    Even when things are being done right, they are being ignored. And yet, law enforcement is often accused of fostering the “us vs. them” mentality. When we read comments like Dave’s above, which we hear often in many forums, how does one come to any other conclusion than the fact that the good we do is ignored by so many? Law enforcement hasn’t lost the respect of the community due to changes in our behavior. We lost the respect of the community because the public at large stopped looking for the good and started focusing on the grand spectacle of violence…………there’s a reason negative stories “sell papers.” It’s because that’s what the public wants to read about.

    After September 11th, the public wanted it’s law enforcement agencies outfitted to protect them against acts of terrorism. They expected that we would defend them at home from these acts and respond to address them, should one occur. How quickly we forget. Now, just over a decade later, they ask why the police are “militarized.”

    We are so outfitted so that we can address the threats that face our communities in this ever changing world. Eventually, another tragedy will strike and people will wonder how and why “this could happen.” These tragedies happen due to ignorance and forgetfulness. Unfortunately, the public at large won’t appreciate law enforcement again until after it is too late and something terrible has happened. Such is the nature of human nature.

  25. Larry B. says:

    Larry here at the gun store in Bunnell. I had to slap myself when I read your
    Police State commentary. Why? Because you are not far from the truth. The danger of a Police State is a real one. That being said we should not put a label on all law enforcement people. Many police officers are on the side of the First and Second amendment. With out law and order complete lawlessness would follow. I believe the power brokers want this. Who are they? The 13 bankster family’s whom control all monetary policy. They control the military industrial complex for “Oil” more money and power! War is profitable. Should the second amendment fall the first amendment will follow. I will always defend your right to speak freely even though I may not always agree.

  26. Johnny Taxpayer says:

    I certainly don’t make it a habit of agreeing with the author, but in this case I find it difficult to fault him. “We have cops [..], cocked on infallibility,” there is no question that over the past 15-20 years Policing has shifted from a “Protect and Serve” to a “Us versus them” mentality. Where does the infallibility come from? I would suggest weaponry that rivals many elite militaries and a criminal justice system that rarely holds police accountable. One might wonder what would happen if we disarmed the police… I recently spent time in a European country where street cops are armed only with pepper spray, batons, handcuffs, and intellect. (They have armed backup that can be called in if necessary, but that necessity is extremely rare.) Would police officers approach the public here differently without infallibility of a gun and a tazer on their belt?

  27. Samuel L. Bronkowitz says:

    Hey Jon, in your opinion how many times should an officer volunteer for Christmas with a Deputy to make getting busted for child porn something the public should overlook? Is once OK, or should he sign up for Special Olympics work too?

  28. That sounds logical says:

    I have to agree with “Logic”…..You KILL a rattlesnake, you don’t move it to another safe area where someone else is likely to get bit…..Country needs more “LOGIC” then “Joe’s” !!!

  29. Jon Dopp says:

    Hey Sam-
    I’m going to try to choose my words very carefully here, because I haven’t concealed my identity and I know that I am actually responsible for what I am about to say:
    Because one, or even a handful, of police officers were charged or convicted of sex crimes now somehow means that all of us are sex offenders? You cast that net pretty wide buddy…….once again, you are guilty of the very thing that the police are accused of doing wrong. We are called racists, but then we are judged as a group based on the actions of few. Sounds like the pot calling the kettle black to me.

    My statement about the charitable work was a response to another poster’s claim that law enforcement doesn’t get involved in the community anymore .It wasn’t a blanket statement implying that cops are excused from bad behavior because they volunteer .It was a rebuttal to the claim that they didn’t get involved. Crunch some numbers on your sex offender claims and then compare that to school teachers and clergymen .I’m willing to bet there’s a higher offense rate among other professions that work closely with kids. But that wouldn’t fit your narrow minded agenda, so feel free to ignore those facts .

  30. Samuel L. Bronkowitz says:

    Good works don’t excuse bad acts Jon.

  31. Jon Dopp says:

    I couldn’t resist the urge to do your homework for you Mr. Bronkowitz. Assuming that the numbers posted earlier by “Thin Blue Line” are accurate, approximately 1,000 police officers have been arrested over the last 6 years for various sex offenses. Being that there are roughly 800,000 police officers in America (and that is likely a low end estimate), that means that over a 6 year period 00.125% of law enforcement officers fall into the category that you are discussing. Roughly 1/10 of 1%…………….might wanna narrow down your accusations just a bit.

  32. Samuel L. Bronkowitz says:

    In addition, I’d like to point out the following. Nowhere did I claim that that one officer convicted of possessing child porn means that all police are sex offenders. You chose to make that statement, and then claimed that I’m guilty of actions similar to what police are accused of doing. That classic argumentation fallacy is called setting up a straw man, and it’s a pretty common tactic used by people trying to redirect an argument away from the central point, which in this case is the fact that good acts do not excuse poor behavior. Neglecting the clergy, which almost never reports sexual abuse among priests to police and instead moves them into different parishes, positions in which they do not encounter minors, or defrocks them, when school teachers are reported for sexual abuse they’re almost always immediately suspended and the act is reported to the police.

    I don’t have clear statistics on how sexual crimes are handled by police when a police officer is involved, but there are some pretty clear stats involving domestic abuse. For example, police officers are 2-4 times as likely to commit domestic abuse, see:

    And before you claim that it’s biased, take a look at the footnotes for the original peer-reviewed journal sources. One interesting observation is the treatment that officers receive by other officers when being investigated, e.g. soft with almost no consequences at all, even when the domestic violence event was verified to have occurred. Just take a look to the north, at St. John’s county:

    A well-investigated and informative episode from the notoriously biased PBS.

    Likewise, your statement regarding police militarization is incorrect. 9/11 is something frequently brought up as justification for its continuation, see for example the ridiculous statements by the volusia sheriff recently regarding the loss of his toys. In reality, it was a reaction to race riots in the 50’s and 60’s and was later expanded by the military cooperation with civilian law enforcement agencies act of 1981. Unfortunately, things like SWAT teams are hard to justify if they aren’t used, so now common warrants are often served after the door has been kicked in.

    Jon, I don’t know you personally and I don’t wish you harm, and I’m sure that in most cases you do your job well and in an effective manner. You have to admit, however, that much of the negative perception that people have regarding the police are due to the actions of police and the consequences thereafter. It’s hard to have any faith in law enforcement when the punishment for egregious betrayals of public trust, when delivered, are more often internal than criminal.

  33. Eagle I's says:

    Now that social media and other sources are on to The Thin Blue lines MO the numbers crimes are being revealed at a rising and startling rate that’s why you and every other Benevolent Rep is pushing back so hard. The jig is up. The government doesn’t even require police departments to compile police shooting deaths into a national database so who really knows what the numbers are for unjustified shootings, rapes exhortation etc. I love good cops and most people do. Root out your bad apples and maybe public opinion will begin to change.

    Your called “above the law” not racists. Your taught, trained and directed to believe a normal citizen in a second can turn rabid and kill you without warning. You wouldn’t be telling the truth if you denied everyone is a potential suspect some more then others and that baggage goes with you on and off the clock. A law abiding citizen has no control over that. So for solace you look to your brotherhood as the equalizing insulator in soothing any wrong doing you may have participated in or insecurities you may have. Your supposed to be the professional not a scary kid with a gun.

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