Gods Among Mortals

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January 9, 2008

On September 14th of last year, Utah State Trooper John Gardner was caught on tape attacking motorist Jared Massey with a taser because Massey questioned why he was pulled over, refused to sign a speeding ticket, and generally failed to be sufficiently sniveling in the face of Gardner's authority. The footage ended up on Youtube (see it here), where it helped spark public interest in the case.

Thuggish behavior and brutalization of innocent people by America 's increasingly militarized police is, sadly, nothing new or shocking, and a seasoned libertarian should be surprised neither by Gardner 's behavior or the fact that he suffered no punishment for his actions. (Follow-up story on the case here.)

What I found most interesting are some of the comments on the incident, such as those found at the reader comments section of the Deseret Morning News. Many commenters, not surprisingly, had no problem with what Gardner did; he's a cop, after all, one of the state's anointed, and his victim was a mere peasant. While there were commenters who condemned Gardner 's behavior, they tended to be rather meek about it. They didn't think it was right to brutalize and torture an innocent man for failing to stroke Gardner's thuggish ego sufficiently, but they were usually careful to soften what they said by insisting that of course they support and admire the police, of course they believe that Gardner is just a rare bad apple, of course people should be respectful to cops because their job is so difficult and dangerous, and so on.

It occurred to me that this is not new; I see the same pattern whenever a police officer gets caught acting badly. I'm not so much bothered by the fact that the comments section of the article is filled with authoritarian savages and Internet tough guys going on about how police should be above question, and have every right to injure and torture anyone who irritates them. It's repulsive, but the fact that every state has its bootlickers is not a shocking new insight to me. I'm more bothered by the fact that, even among many of the people who don't have that mentality and criticize the way Gardner (or other bad cops) acted, there's a perceived need to preface their criticism this way, as if daring to disapprove of anything a police officer does, even an act of criminal violence, is something to embarrassed by or ashamed of, the sort of social gaffe or moral failing that needs to be apologized for.

If Mr. Massey had been senselessly brutalized by a commercial fisherman or logger (to name two jobs that are much more dangerous than police work), would anyone feel obliged to say how much they admire the majority of fishermen or loggers before daring to speak ill of one? Of course not. Everyone knows that fishing and logging are jobs performed by regular people like you and me, not demigods or ubermenschen. It is only when agents of the state are involved, and especially those agents most closely associated with the state's raw coercive power, that people feel the need to adopt this groveling attitude.

Part of the reason, no doubt, is the fact that the general public has an exaggerated picture of how dangerous police work actually is. It's more hazardous than the national average, but it's not even close to being the most dangerous job, and a cop's chance of dying in the line of duty is much smaller than the risks faced by fishermen, pilots, loggers, or steel workers, among other hazardous jobs. Law enforcement doesn't even make the top ten.

I don't think that's the whole story, however, or even the main reason. For one thing, people have some of the same deference to certain professions not widely thought of as dangerous, such as public school teachers; for another, people don't seem to have the same awe of many professions that are widely recognized as dangerous, such as construction work.

I believe the key to understanding this attitude lies in the fact that most people do not conceive of the state as a merely human institution. As many libertarian thinkers have noted, devotion to the state is often closer in character to the cult of a god, complete with sacred rites and symbols, than it is to a secular organization. This is blatantly obvious in the case of literal god-kings like the Pharaoh of ancient Egypt, and in the case of ideologies like Marxism and fascism, but it is present in less extreme forms of statism as well--in the idolatrous fixation on national power, national symbols, and the presidency of the Bush-era Right, or the loving, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good therapeutic welfare state envisioned by the Left. Indeed, it probably could not be otherwise. The state by its nature continually violates the moral norms that otherwise govern people, so it could not survive unless people believed, if only implicitly, that the state is more than human. People in ancient times thus thought rulers were literal gods; modern statists have abandoned the explicit theology but kept most of the substance.

When the state is looked at from this perspective, the attitude I have described earlier makes sense. Police are the most obvious and visible manifestations of the state's essence, the power to coerce and command. Thus, they are not merely people doing a socially useful job, like the rest of; they share the state's numinous character. This produces the need of many people to stress their reverence for the police as a whole before they dare criticize one of their number.

This suggests that the near-term prospects for the advancement of libertarianism are somewhat gloomy, because it means that even many of the people who are willing to criticize the state still buy into its theology; they not only consider the state a good thing, they believe in its superhuman character and the sacredness of its agents. This is certainly understandable, since it's very hard to reject the deep social assumptions you have been raised with and are surrounded by. It does, however, mean we have our work cut out for us, because we're going against an implicit doctrine thousands of years old. Many people may grumble about this or that aspect of the government from time to time, but they will not fully embrace the idea of freedom until the realization that the government is a merely mortal institution made of mortal men is driven home.

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John Markley's picture
Columns on STR: 13

John Markley is a freelance writer and newspaper reporter from Illinois .  He is the author of the political blog The Superfluous Man and has written for sites such as Lewrockwell.com, Antiwar.com, and The Libertarian Enterprise.  In his spare time, he also blogs about science fiction and video games.