William Norman Grigg
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Sometimes the truth is best told through fictional allegory, especially when a dash of comedy is used to make the parables more palatable. Witness, for example, the variation on the familiar “I’ll need your badge and gun” scene from the action farce The Naked Gun.
Countless police films present exactly the same scene, in which the forlorn hero, after being led by his zeal to commit some grave breach of protocol or some (apparent) lapse of judgment, is put on administrative leave and forced to surrender his insignia of office and his government-issued firearm.
The conventions of movie melodrama dictate that as he turns over his shield the disgraced police officer take generous pause to look pensively at the token of official authority, wordlessly conveying a deep sense of inconsolable loss. And the balance of the story consists of the cashiered officer working through back-channels and other unsanctioned avenues to vindicate himself and take down whatever criminal mastermind was responsible for his humiliation.
As I said, we’ve witnessed that scene in scores, perhaps hundreds, of cinematic and television variations. However, to my knowledge, only Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) of The Naked Gun has actually articulated the otherwise unspoken thoughts of the police officer forced to turn in his gun and badge.
“Just think,” a dejected Drebin comments to his anguished partner, “the next time I shoot someone, I could go to jail.”
A more pointed version of the same sentiment, delivered without a particle of comic irony, was expressed by both Tom “Turk” Cowan (Robert DeNiro) and his long-time partner David “Rooster” Fisk (Al Pacino) in Righteous Kill, a formulaic cop thriller released last year.
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“You don’t become a cop because you want to `Serve and protect’; you do it because you want respect,” explains Cowan. “Most people respect the badge. Everybody respects the gun.”
Fisk, who by all appearances plays Damon to Cowan’s Pythias, is even more direct: “The badge is nice, as long as it comes with a gun.”
Embedded in such scenes is the assumption that the state-issued badge is, quite literally, a shield: Not only does it symbolize a specific professional function, it also confers official permission to kill other human beings.
Those who receive this officially consecrated jewelry are thus elevated above the common mass of undifferentiated humanity, and few things are more poignantly painful than being relieved of that token of exalted status, and deprived of the sense of impunity it offers.
A recent essay describing some of the challenges experienced by female police officers briefly noted one social challenge faced by distaff members of the Killer Elite: “It can be very intimidating for the person who is dating a female cop who carries a badge and has a constitutional authority to take a life.” (Emphasis added.)
That “constitutional authority” thus makes the female police officer intrinsically different from members of her potential dating pool (which the author, in dutiful PC fashion, implicitly expands to include both sexes). The officer has it, and unless her would-be suitor is part of the same privileged caste, he or she does not.
But all of this begs the following question: Where, exactly, does the “constitutional authority to take a life” come from, if it doesn’t inhere in each individual, and the people at large? What mystical property of the state permits it to summon that “right” into existence, and by what principle of justice does the state confer it exclusively on its own armed enforcers?
If the people, both individually and in the aggregate, do not have the moral authority to take a life when necessary, how could they confer that authority on their servants in government? Or are we to understand that the powers of government are innate and unqualified, rather than derivative and contingent, as the Declaration of Independence asserts?
The answer to that question is made obvious in the behavior of our supposed protectors on those occasions when an otherwise inoffensive civilian asserts his right to be treated with the dignity and the deference due to a human being. With rare and priceless exceptions, theirs is hardly the conduct of servants.
Furthermore, the “constitutional authority to take a life” that is supposedly the unique possession of the state’s armed enforcers is not restricted to self-defense or the use of lethal violence to carry out the apprehension and punishment of criminals. It also encompasses the supposed right to kill innocent bystanders, victims of mistaken identity, or even those who merely prove to be inconvenient.
About ten years ago, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals brushed up against this notion when it ruled that FBI assassin Lon Horiuchi couldn’t be prosecuted for manslaughter in killing of Vicky Weaver during the 1992 federal siege of her family at Ruby Ridge, Idaho.
From the spurious concept of “supremacy clause immunity,” the court fashioned an even more fanciful principle called the “discretionary function exemption.” Under that standard, the only significant questions were these: Was Horiuchi acting under orders from his superiors, and was the kill-shot justified by “his subjective belief that his actions were necessary and proper”?
The former question essentially permits Horiuchi (and others in his position) the luxury of the notorious “Nuremberg Defense”; the latter question reverses centuries worth of common law wisdom by arguing that armed enforcers for the state are exceptions to the principle that “no man can be a judge in his own cause.”
On the basis of such assumptions, the court ruled that it would be impermissible for a federal law enforcement officer to face civil or criminal prosecution for official acts that would otherwise be criminal in nature – including, in this case, gunning down an unarmed mother while she was holding as small infant. (In sworn testimony Horiuchi admitted that he knew it was Vicky Weaver in his sights when he pulled the trigger.)
In a dissent seasoned liberally with incredulous outrage, Judge Alex Kozinski condemned the majority for creating what he called a “007 standard” – that is, a license to kill. By exempting Horiuchi from prosecution, wrote Kozinski, the Ninth Circuit Court was granting that lethal license “to all law enforcement agencies in our circuit – federal, state, and local.”
Just months later, the Ninth Court partially reversed that decision in order to permit Idaho (the plaintiff in the original case) to prosecute Horiuchi under state laws. Denise Woodbury, an assistant prosecutor from Boundary County, was prepared to prosecute the FBI sniper, but incoming county attorney Brett Benson had no appetite for taking on the case. So Horiuchi remained at large without prosecution, and the “007 standard” remains in force by default.
It is by no means incidental to this discussion that Horiuchi’s lethal services came in the course of federal sieges of socially isolated people (the “white separatist” Weaver family and the Branch Davidian community, a breakaway sect of the Adventist faith) arising from technical violations of federal firearms laws.
Randy Weaver was initially approached by an undercover agent for the criminal syndicate called the ATF. The federal snitch offered to pay Weaver a substantial sum to buy shotguns that had undergone “illegal” modifications specified by the snitch himself.
Once entrapped, Weaver was told the only way he could avoid prosecution was to act as a federal snitch within the neo-Nazi Aryan Nation, a sect with which he had a trivial and distant connection. To his immense credit, Weaver deflected this blackmail attempt – and the Feds punished his principled defiance by carrying out the murderous assault on his family.
The initial “Showtime” raid in Waco by the ATF was carried out on the pretext that Branch Davidian religious leader David Koresh, a federally licensed firearms dealer, was illegally converting semi-automatic rifles to full-autos. Told of the agency’s concerns by a Waco-area gun dealer, Koresh invited the ATF to inspect his inventory weeks prior to the raid. That offer was turned down in order to preserve the pretext for a PR-friendly raid on an eccentric but harmless religious community.
Several Davidians were shot during the ATF’s unnecessary (and, therefore, illegal) raid on February 28, 1993. Four ATF agents were killed by the Davidians in an act of entirely legal self-defense. Scores of people were later immolated by the FBI (and Special Forces operators) during the final siege on April 19.
Nobody in a position of authority has ever been punished in any way for the needless ATF raid or the avoidable deaths (including those of the four federal agents) that resulted. Four of the Davidian survivors, on the other hand, were convicted of voluntary manslaughter and the use of a firearm in committing a violent crime. The “crime” in question was defending their home and place of worship when it was besieged by an armed mob.
The Waco episode fleshes out the “constitutional authority to take a life” even further by adding this critical codicil: Those on the receiving end of criminal violence by the state’s armed agents have no right to defend themselves in kind. In other words, if someone invested with the “right” to take a life wrongly targets you, either as a result of error or of malice, you have a duty to die.
Another very important legal principle must be taken into account as well: Not only can the state’s enforcement agents more or less kill at their discretion, they also enjoy the privilege of deciding whether or not to come to the aid of a given individual citizen. A long string of legal precedents dictates that individual citizens have no legal or civic recourse against police who fail to protect or defend them when they are threatened by violent criminals. The duty of the police is to “society,” not to an individual finding himself in need of specific assistance.
What this means, of course, is that the state’s armed agents can kill you at their discretion, but have no responsibility to save you from the criminal violence of others.
All of this could be considered the inevitable outcome of alienating to the state the individual responsibility for self-defense against violent crime. Given the tendency of the state to aggrandize itself in any role assigned to it, and to pervert delegated authority into unaccountable power, why should we be surprised that the police are acquiring the customs and demeanor of a militarized killer elite?
In 1993, more than a decade and a half before Eric Holder would denigrate Americans as “A Nation of Cowards” because of our lack of enthusiasm for ethnic collectivism, constitutional attorney Jeffrey Snyder made much more appropriate use of that phrase as the title of an essay published in the late (and otherwise unlamented) neo-con quarterly, The Public Interest.
With the unflinching determination of a surgeon attacking a gangrenous limb, Snyder applies the scalpel of logic to the putrescent logic of “gun control” (or, as honest people prefer to call it, civilian disarmament).
Layer after layer of rotten pretense surrenders to his blade before Snyder uncovers the core of the issue:
“To own firearms is to affirm that freedom and liberty are not gifts from the state. It is to reserve final judgment about whether the state is encroaching on freedom and liberty, to stand ready to defend that freedom with more than mere words, and to stand outside the state’s totalitarian reach…. Laws disarming honest citizens proclaim that the government is the master, not the servant, of the people.”
In a phrase: The Second Amendment certifies that the state does not possess a monopoly on the use of force. Yet we have abdicated the role of self-defense to the same state that is now overtly taking on the characteristics of a brazen kleptocracy.
How on earth could rational people believe that the same state responsible for plundering us through taxation, stealing the value of our earnings and savings through inflation, and subsidizing Wall Street’s multi-trillion-dollar crime spree, will actually protect us from the violence of common criminals when our ongoing economic collapse begets widespread social turmoil?
One of the ironic blessings of a cataclysmic economic “correction” may be the widespread dismantling of state and local police departments – assuming, of course, that the vacuum can be filled with informal “citizen’s posses” and “home guards” composed of armed, responsible property owners.
As a homework assignment for those skeptical that such arrangements can work, at least in modest-sized communities, I recommend the wonderful book Tough Towns: True Tales from the Gritty Streets of the Old West, by Oklahoma attorney Robert Barr Smith.
The title is slightly misleading, since some of the best accounts of spontaneous law enforcement by the citizenry (such as the battles against bank robbers in Miller Creek, Oklahoma, Menomonie, Wisconsin, and especially the small black enclave of Boley, Oklahoma) occurred during the (last) Great Depression.
With wit and insight Smith describes eighteen small battles between vicious gangs of armed professional criminals and armed citizens determined to protect their property and their neighbors.
In each episode, the criminals come out a poor second, often leaving this world in agony as their bodies are perforated by gunfire coming from every direction. And in nearly all of these accounts, government law enforcement – usually represented by the local sheriff or a territorial marshal – plays a role best described as peripheral.
That’s how it once was when our country was relatively free. That’s how it could be, and should be, once again.
This article was posted: Wednesday, March 18, 2009 at 5:25 am