I have had the pleasure of working with some very talented, brave law enforcement officials who upheld civility with honor and dedication. I think police officers form a vital part of our social fabric.
But this whole counter-terrorism cop-march of the last five years is a march in the wrong direction.
Within a half-mile walk of my apartment, I am in, or can enter, the physical jurisdiction of the following police agencies: the Suffolk County Sheriff, the Boston Police, the Massachusetts State Police, the Federal Protective Service (Federal Reserve), the US Postal Police, the Amtrak Police, the Coast Guard and the MBTA Police. This, of course, leaves out all the other federal agencies with jurisdiction over various areas of federal law – the FBI, the Secret Service, the ATF, the DEA, and the US Marshals Service.
Post 9-11, there is a new attitude about the intersection of the State and individual liberty – it has hardly even been open for debate the last five years. Thankfully, the conversations are starting to occur. The typically pathetic argument from Joe America for the necessity of most of this is much the same as his argument for the charade that is airport security – that it gives him a sense of safety from “the terrorists.” The inconvenient truth is that most of that police power is doing nothing to make him actually safer.
The issue is that a huge majority of police work is tactical in nature and we continue to shuffle forward under the illusion that terrorism is a tactical problem – solvable if we just hire enough cops or buy enough guns. It is not, and I am fearful about the circumstances under which we will finally figure this out. The scary reality is that any organized terrorist organization can take out passenger aircraft, blow up mall food courts, or contaminate food and water supplies anytime they want, and all those guns aren’t going to do a thing to prevent it. Then, will we ask for yet more police and fewer liberties? Or will we realize that terrorism is a strategic and sociological problem that is much more complicated than buying guns and gates and yellng at me to take my shoes off?
For now, though, most Americans slumber along, accepting all these agencies and guns and their inevitable encroachments into individual liberty, mostly because it serves perversely to offset their own inner bogeymen. I’ve said before – because I believe we now live in a sociopolitical dysfunction of our own design – that Aldous Huxley was more of a prophet than Orwell. But when I watch our leaders trying so hard to keep us afraid so that they can advance their own agenda, I do see many signs of Orwell’s dystopia.
We absolutely need police officers (accountable to the people) to help us maintain civil order. But we don’t need massive overlapping police bureacracies that, in a real crisis, would hardly be able to get out of each others’ way, and who provide little in the way of public safety. Tactical police work will stop the low-threat idiot who tries to bring a fillet knife onto a jet or light a trashcan on fire at the train station – someone that, in the scheme of things, no sane person should be very afraid of. But it is not going to stop the sociopathic, brilliant, meticulously organized team of terrorists committed to wreak havoc upon our society. Fighting that kind of terrorism requires work of a much higher order (and I do realize there are some very good men and women trying to do that kind of work – but you are the exception rather than the rule.) More important, it requires that we demand of our leaders a wholesale change in how we, as a nation, behave in the world.