These two statements, I assert, can be simultaneously true:
- I want to live in a secure society.
- I want to live in a free society.
And most of the time, for most of us (cough, cough, middle-class white Americans), these two statements rest comfortably together in our heads as our view of “the real America.” I feel free to leave my house today and go shop wherever I want, especially since I have been immunized against Covid. Even if there is theoretically a small risk of harm, I perceive that risk as being so low that it no longer impedes my day.
Recent race/police-related events in Minneapolis, however, have exposed many of us to the fragility of those two statements living together as simultaneous realities. Political events, and especially the circumstances leading up to the trial over George Floyd’s death at the hands of police, demonstrate quite clearly that when that secure majority believes that their social dominance is threatened, far too many are eager to throw out the “free society” part of the deal. As a result, a different “far too many” citizens of this country already live in a non-secure police state.
I have long observed that in a civilized secure society, as opposed to a police state, the police and other arbiters of justice normally act, by unwritten social contract alone, with much less open expression of authority than they could legally express. That cop could dress in riot gear daily and intentionally intimidate me, but that would be “police state” behavior. My own interactions with the police have always been a smiling wave, or at worse a polite query as to whether I knew how fast I was going. In all my years I have never had a police officer act aggressively toward me. Welcome to my world.
On the other hand, I have equally “normal” friends with darker skin pigmentation who have experienced evenings lying prone on the street while their cars have been searched, pulled over for minor traffic infractions that I have committed with impunity. If you have not yet recognized that this is common police practice in many communities, you are not yet ready to leave your comfortable bubble.
Crashing my own “free society” assumption bubble
The January 6, 2021, mobbing of the Capitol at the behest of Donald Trump, and the overt support for overturning the 2020 election by the large majority of Republican legislators, has trashed whatever respect I had left for party-loyalist Republicans. It has become clear to me that the illusion I had held my entire life, that we live in a constitutional “small-d” democracy, was a lie. Our politicians have “allowed” this expression by widespread plebiscite only as long as rich white conservative men have really held the strings to power in the end.
An obsession with the changing demographics of the American populace (which I believe is statistically overblown) has moved the Republican Party to expend the bulk of its legislative efforts this year in restricting the right to vote, and even the right to publicly protest, for millions of Americans. Voting has long been more difficult for many demographic sub-groups in America (again, not mine; I have never had to wait in a long line to vote), but instead of making voting easier, we are seeing multiple efforts to ensure that a “permanent ruling minority” entrenches itself, immune from plebiscite or protest, in much of the country.
Living the comfortable life in an autocracy
Here is another realization: Life in a police state can feel very “safe” – IF you are in the ruling demographic, and IF you subscribe to the quasi-official religion, and IF you just keep your head down and don’t complain about the government. If you live in an apartment or condo complex in my part of Florida, it will almost certainly be gated, even if, as in my prior community, this is more “security theater” for the emotional comfort of residents than it is any major deterrent.
The evidence of the American shift to autocracy is everywhere. The local police have become increasingly militarized, as have formerly low-key federal law enforcement teams such as customs and border control, now known as ICE. The belligerent rhetoric for using aggressive police power against peaceful citizens was a regular feature of the Trump administration and is still welcomed by his millions of followers. The courts have taken on a pronounced rightward shift, even to the recent cruel ruling of the Supreme Court to formalize the lifetime incarceration of juvenile offenders. Ironically, the opinion was written by a justice who could have borne a life-long record for public intoxication or sexual assault from the days of his youth, but for his privileged position in society.
The symbols of aggressive authoritarianism are also more out in the open. In my former Iowa county, one family’s open display of Confederate flags on their property had nothing to do with “heritage” (you remember those brave “fightin’ Reb Iowa boys, don’t you?), rather it conveys a very public expression of “F*** You” to neighbors in an otherwise peaceful, welcoming, and (for Iowa) diverse community. I would contend that the rise of “open carry” gun laws and practice convey the same intimidating symbol. The clowns who would insist on an open-carry march in my community’s annual Independence Day parade were the very men that reasonable people would find the most prone to do something dangerous, or more likely stupid, with their deadly weapons. I felt neither free nor secure with these guys around.
A lawyer and magistrate in that same Iowa town was famous for saying that “We are all guilty, just not necessarily of the offense for which we are being charged.” Although meant as a joke or theological commentary (I think), the selective criminalization of traffic laws is additional evidence of a slow creep to authoritarianism.
For many of us (and you know who I am talking about), traffic violations are simple civil violations. We take a couple of “points” on our driving record, politely delivered, and if our offenses are not frequent, we escape any legal or moral judgement from the community. The myriad of traffic laws have long been a pretext, however, for stops and vehicle searches, and in the most recent Minnesota case, the “mistaken” murder of a young Black man, stopped for expired license tags, or maybe a hanging air freshener (does it matter?).
If your local police force looks and acts like a military force, your city and police leadership has failed in its basic duty to the free citizens of America. If your Representative in Congress voted to overturn an election certified by every state and dozens of lawsuits, you have an authoritarian would-be fascist representing you. It is that simple. Or maybe that is what you really want.
The complementarity of freedom and security
- I want to live in a secure society.
- I want to live in a free society.
Physicists use the term complementarity to define a reality where two “laws” appear to contradict one another, such as defining matter as made up of particles or waves. Complementarity lies all over issues of morality and legality because we use multiple “languages,” evolved over thousands of human years and civilizations, to express our deepest desires for ourselves, our children, and our societies. Security is precious. So is freedom. We need them both.