This article was originally published by Pro Libertate.
We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under… Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritanism; and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make Liberalism the prime bogey. — Veteran demon Screwtape, counseling apprentice devil Wormwood, in C.S. Lewis’ allegory “The Screwtape Letters” (letter XXV)
“The president of the United States should say to all children … here’s the rule, kids: When the cop tells you to go, you go,” declared Rudolph Giuliani. “You say, `Yes, sir; no sir. Yes, police officer; no, police officer. You don’t disrespect a police officer. He’s a symbol of authority.”
The besetting problem of our era, we are insistently told by police and their apologists, is not widespread abuse and other misconduct by law enforcement officers, but increasing “disrespect for authority” that is being abetted by “liberals” and those even more dreadful people called “libertarians.”
Giuliani’s comments were made during an interview with Fox News herd-poisoner Bill O’Reilly following the host’s recital of a familiar jeremiad.
“Young people [are] disrespecting authority,” O’Reilly complained, pandering to the prejudices of his superannuated and incurious audience by insisting that “young people in America, especially teenagers, have a defiance toward authority not seen since the Vietnam days.” So pronounced is this social affliction, according to O’Reilly’s diagnosis, that the entire population under the age of 25 should be written off as a “lost generation” — a proposal he made with blithe indifference to an audience roughly three times that age.
“If you were around in the late 1960s and early 1970s, you know that history is repeating itself,” pontificated O’Reilly. Young people subject to enslavement through conscription grew distrustful of government — understandably so, as any reasonable person would point out. O’Reilly, a stranger in the house of reason, laments that this healthy distrust “led to a breakdown of authority, and the rise of the ‘sex, drugs and rock-and-roll era.’”
O’Reilly’s personal legal history powerfully suggests that he is not a martyr to sexual self-restraint. For his part, Giuliani’s colorful carnal dissipations offer an interesting counterpoint to his stern public moralizing, the central theme of which is the unconditional duty for unqualified submission to “authority” as embodied by the political class and its armed emissaries.
“Freedom is about authority,” Giuliani explained in a 1994 speech. “Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do.”
In that formula — “freedom” through submission to state “authority” — we hear echoes of Mario Palmieri, the chief ideologist of Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist Party.
“According to Fascism, a true, a great spiritual life cannot take place unless the State has risen to a position of pre-eminence in the world of man,” wrote Palmieri in “The Philosophy of Fascism” (pg. 99). “The curtailment of liberty thus becomes justified at once, with this need of raising the State to its rightful position.”
The state’s “rightful position,” from this perspective, is one of ownership. As the property of the state, the individual is free to do only that which is permitted by those who act in its name. When a police officer, “a symbol of authority,” addresses a mundane, he does so from a position of ownership. This is what the term “authority” means.
People have authority over only that which legitimately belongs to them — beginning with their physical selves and the content of their thoughts, and extending to such things as the property they have acquired through legitimate commerce or inheritance and the performance of services that have been promised through freely negotiated and agreed contracts.
In his Second Treatise, John Locke pointed out that parents have authority within their home to care for and educate their children. However, children themselves — contrary to the Roman doctrine of patria potestas — are not the property of their parents. The duty of parents is to care for, protect and instruct children in sound morality as they learn to take ownership of their lives. Successful parenting instills in children an understanding of, and respect for, the Golden Rule, which requires reciprocal respect for property rights.
As Jeffrey Tucker of the Foundation for Economic Education recently pointed out, it is possible to have a police system that focuses entirely on the protection of property rights. Tucker likes to smoke, and he doesn’t like having the government tell him where and when he can indulge that habit. In fact, as a self-described anarchist, Tucker — a free market economic analyst — doesn’t like government at all, particularly law enforcement.
Yet when a police officer in Atlantic Station, Georgia, explained to Tucker that smoking was prohibited, Tucker readily complied — because Atlantic Station is, in effect, a privatized city. Tucker recognized that property rights include the ability to enforce rules that visitors must obey.
Police in Atlantic Station are employed by business owners and merchants and answer to them, rather than to a political clique. The rules of the enclave are strict, but not onerous. Rather than detaining people and filing charges for trivial misbehavior, police — acting as peace officers — encourage or, when necessary, compel them to leave. Tucker observed, “The right to … walk away makes all the difference.”
Similar arrangements existed within mining camps, wagon trains, cattle drives and other pre-political arrangements in the Mountain West before the arrival of government and what we’re expected to call “civilization.” People who cherish liberty understand that order exists where property rights are protected — and that the protection of property is too important to be left to the state. This is best accomplished through what conservatives often call “mediating institutions,” such as private associations and, most importantly, the family.
Ironically, people of O’Reilly’s cast of mind are entirely correct in lamenting the disintegration of the family and the increasingly barbarized condition of our culture. This is not because Americans are becoming impudently disdainful of “authority.” Worship of “authority” — meaning armed people given state authorization to kill — is ubiquitous in contemporary America, as is the contempt for property rights that characterizes every collectivist society in terminal decline. In keeping with Screwtape’s prescription, statists are seeking to fix the public mind on the vice of which we are least in danger.
The authoritarian formula peddled by fascists both ancient — Palmieri and his comrades — and contemporary — O’Reilly, Giuliani and their ilk — requires that parents indoctrinate children in the protocols of submission to the state and its agents. This has nothing whatsoever to do with the Golden Rule, either as a matter of public policy or as a restraint on the private behavior of those who urge authoritarian nostrums on the rest of us.
Public “authority,” O’Reilly and others of his persuasion instruct us, is a uniquely fragile thing, particularly when exercised by police officers. It appears to be a “clap for Tinkerbell” proposition: Unless we truly believe in the authority of the police, they cannot protect us.
Police have been “so demonized by zealots … that some of them have grown tentative,” O’Reilly insists, lamenting a development that is welcomed with grateful relief by people who have known the dubious blessing of unremitting police attention. “When the police see disrespect to them, they say, `I’m not going to bother anymore,’ in many cases,” continues O’Reilly, alluding to the much-circulated and entirely specious claim that we are witnessing a “spike” in violent crime as poor Officer Tinkerbell sulks in his patrol car out of petulant spite because people will no longer clap for him.
There is a sense in which O’Reilly is correct that Vietnam-era history is repeating itself: In the late 1960s and early 1970s, police unions, their media courtesans and authoritarian conservatives in Congress sounded the tocsin regarding a “war on police.” No such war occurred then, nor is one underway now. The rhetorical barrage by the “law and order” lobby was an overture to Richard Nixon’s decision to declare “war” on crime — which led to the first wave of outright police militarization.
“Is there a national conspiracy to kill policemen?” asked the Oct. 19, 1970 issue of U.S. News and World Report. “Congress dug into this question in early October. One witness after another told the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee that a pattern of attacks on police indicates a plot.”
Among those who offered testimony was Capt. Joel Honey of the Santa Barbara, California Sheriff’s Office. As summarized by U.S. News, Honey “told of confiscating pamphlets giving detailed instructions on manufacture and use of weapons to kill police. He said wires have been strung across California highways to decapitate motorcycle policemen.”
“Police officials keep saying it’s just the hazards of the job, but we should face it for what it is: a conspiracy to kill policemen,” insisted Carl Parsell, director of the Detroit Police Officers Association. Police union commissar Edward Kiernan insisted that shootings of police officers were “part of a cold, logical, hard-eyed revolutionary strategy.”
Fellow police union kingpin John J. Harrington agreed that nothing less than a revolution was underway.
“The thin line between civilization and the jungle — which is us [sic] policemen — is being shot to hell and something has to be done about it,” Harrington harangued the crowd at a Washington rally of “local” police. “It’s time the people of this country face up to it — there is a revolution taking place.” A significant part of that “revolution,” Harrington advised, was rock music, which he characterized as “a communist plot to destroy our youth.”
By the time Harrington addressed that October 1970 rally, he had been an ex-cop for four years. In 1966, Harrington “marked his 26th anniversary on the force by announcing his retirement to protest U.S. Supreme Court decisions ensuring the rights of individuals suspected of committing crimes,” observed his 1989 obituary in the Philadelphia Daily News.
“I’m fed up. I am disgusted,” exclaimed Harrington. “You can’t do police work anymore.”
Rather than operating within the restraints imposed by the Bill of Rights, Harrington suggested during the FOP’s 1971 national convention, police should be emancipated to act as death squads. “Unless the courts stop this permissiveness … then the feeling of policemen is, maybe we better resort to the old Mexican deguello – a shootout in which we take no prisoners,” Harrington told his exuberantly approving audience.
Significantly, the Spanish verb from which that word is derived — degollar — refers to throat-slitting. Viewed from a contemporary perspective, Harrington — one of the most prominent and widely respected police union officials — was saying that his troops were ready to behave much the same way that ISIS does today.
The previously mentioned Honey was likewise obsessed with fantasies of decapitation, albeit in his case carried out against the police. Like Harrington, Honey — whose sober testimony before the Senate subcommittee was dutifully reported in the press and remains part of the official record — yearned for a restoration of pre-modern means of asserting “authority.” This explains why he was photographed brandishing a Spanish-style broadsword and a spiked medieval mace as he commanded riot police and SWAT operators who dealt with a campus riot at the University of California-Santa Barbara a few months before his testimony in Washington.
Honey’s lurid clams of a conspiracy to murder police made national headlines. His subsequent firing for official misconduct didn’t receive as much attention.
Sgt. Edward Piceno, who along with his partner was suspended for 10 days for seizing and destroying a reporter’s camera during the riot, later testified that Honey had ordered deputies to “go out there and beat the living hell out of anybody that was away from the crowd, get in our cars and leave.”
Other officers testified that Honey’s unlawful orders included exhortations to commit arson and murder and instructions on how to cover up those crimes.
“Honey was accused of telling an officer at the riot that `if your people go into a building and kill all of them, have them set fire to the building, because that’s what they did in Watts,” summarized the Jan. 21, 1972 San Francisco Chronicle. Another officer recalled Honey’s suggestion that he “get some throwaway guns for your people so when you kill one of [the rioters] you can leave a throwaway gun” as evidence to “justify” the killing. He also told the officer to deploy his men “in teams of at least two, to corroborate an alibi if they killed anyone.” (That accusation, interestingly, was itself corroborated by multiple officers.)
Honey was fired in November 1971 for “illegally dropping tear gas on rioters from a helicopter … striking handcuffed prisoners … and telling a subordinate to frame a suspect.” It is possible that the deranged officer would have kept his job had his psychotic demeanor and palpable sadism not made him an operational liability. Police officers from other jurisdictions who had responded to a call for assistance made it clear they wouldn’t do so again if Honey were given on-scene command during future disturbances.
The role played by Honey and his subordinates during those riots was that of asserting “authority,” not protecting property. The only person who lost his life during the riots was 22-year-old UCSB economics major Kevin Moran, who had arrived on the scene “in response to an urgent plea from the student body president “for moderate and peaceful students to try and calm the angry mob,” recalled the April 5, 1996 Saratoga News.
Moran and his roommates rushed to Isla Vista, where they extinguished a fire at a fast food restaurant and then hurried to the local branch of Bank of America, which had been attacked by arsonists. As they battled the blaze, the police — indifferent to property destruction, but determined to assert dominance — closed in and began firing tear gas. One officer discharged his rifle, killing Moran as he performed, at considerable personal risk, the kind of service police supposedly provide.
The police initially insisted that Moran had been gunned down by a radical “sniper” concealed within the crowd. A ballistics test later confirmed that the bullet had been fired by a police officer. Since this act of homicide was consecrated by “authority,” it was ruled “justified” and the killer suffered no legal or professional consequences. After all, that officer was acting from a position of ownership, and an owner has a plenary right to destroy what belongs to him.