Debra Ciraolo, who lives in Greenwich Village and works as an interpreter for the deaf in the city’s schools, courts and hospitals, is $5 million richer for an experience she could have done without. She was awarded the money by a Federal court when she sued the City after her fellow municipal employees, to wit the New York Police Department, had arrested her on a misdemeanor charge, taken her to jail and strip-searched her. “I felt as if I was taken to the lowest human emotion that anyone could possibly experience,” she is quoted as saying.
The New York Times reports that the City settled with four Fordham students by paying them $25,000 each after they had been arrested for doubling up to go through a subway turnstile, and then had been taken off and strip-searched. All together, the newspaper says, more than 60,000 others, degraded and embarrassed in the same way, may sue via a giant class action suit.
This species of sadism is justified in terms of “security,” an odious all-purpose word which is used to justify inconveniencing and humiliating people. Security. The use of the plastic handcuffs is promiscuously universal. Though they cut into the flesh if drawn too tight, they are used to bind the wrists of everyone detained by police everywhere in the United States, whether the prisoner is a 9-year-old or a nonagenarian.
No judgment, no discretion is used. Anyone apprehended under any circumstances is punished by being forced to submit to the little hurtful and demeaning procedure. You might think that the cops, who use profiling for selecting whom to stop and frisk, might also use profiling when, to take an extreme case, arresting a nonviolent mother picketing a school. No, she gets the same treatment as Hannibal Lecter. Security.
Cops ought to be able to do their jobs so that only lawbreakers are aware of their presence. This is an occupation that should be in the background except when trouble’s afoot, but, increasingly, cops are in the foreground when there is no trouble. They are becoming a pushy, arbitrary, irritating, officious and often impolite presence in a growing number of places and situations in which they ought to be invisible or absent. The New York City police have recently been given little cards telling them how to behave politely, but it will take more than a square of cardboard to have them mend their ways so that we don’t get that little anxiety jolt whenever we see a blue-clad figure.
Currently there are more than 738,000 local, state and Federal cops of one kind or another. That works out to about one cop, one man or woman with a badge and gun, for every 24 people in the United States. For Bill Clinton and the Republicans, that’s not enough. They want more cops. Is there a public school system in the country that has a teacher-pupil ratio of 1 to 24? What kind of absurdity is it that we have more cops per person than teachers per child? What is this nuttiness?
This enumeration doesn’t count the armies of quasi-cops or private cops barring the way to public buildings, airports, private buildings, patrolling certain city districts and so forth. In a recent one-day, shuttle-down, shuttle-back trip to Washington, D.C., I had to pass through metal detectors 11 times, I had to turn my computer on twice for rent-a-cops and once I had to make out a form in which I had to write down the machine’s make and serial number.
Now, after the Colorado school murders, the move is on to put police in the corridors of every high school and perhaps every middle school as well. Since Bill Clinton has taken to the idea of school uniforms, why not put the children in orange jumpsuits, thereby melding his law enforcement prejudices with his pedagogical superstitions? One would have thought that, instead of hiring new police ad infinitum, the money might be better spent on teachers and counselors who could make going to school less of an industrial through-put process of masses of undifferentiated little human beings and something more closely resembling the fabled teacher Mark Hopkins on one end of the log and his pupil on the other.
Bill Clinton, Al Gore and their Republican friends do not say how many cops are enough cops. The basis for demanding more police is the evocation of fear, though the danger is remote and unspecified. Every time you look up they’re asking for 100,000 more. What do they want? One cop for every 20 people? You can see why some of our fellow citizens would allow you and me to carry concealed weapons. The idea has a certain antic appeal if the only alternative is yet more police.
As crime rates have dropped in communities everywhere, in no small degree because of better use and shrewder deployment of the police we already have, the arguments for more cops makes less sense. Or they would make less sense if another reason for recruiting more police had not been concocted. That reason is terrorism.
The word itself is frightening, and made all the more so because it’s so nonspecific. Whispers or shouts of terrorism come in upon community and nation like bad air. It’s everywhere and nowhere, you imagine that you can see it but you can’t quite. The next unspeakable atrocity, we are told, is being hatched like a lizard egg under a rock in an arid valley, location never exactly given, west of the Tigris River or in a cave halfway up the Himalayas. Any inexplicable and horrific occurrence is chalked up to terrorism, but always in such terms you can’t check it out, you can’t verify what you’re told, you can’t get a hard-line understanding of who’s who and who’s doing what. Every scraggly-bearded sect, nationality, religion or group with an unusual hairdo that seems strange or looks repulsive is said to be forming schemes to commit terrorist acts. The generalized sense of menace is heated by politicians who are always dropping little remarks about “the threat of terrorism” and vague talk of anthrax, poison gas, bubonic plague and atomic bombs in thimbles.
Facts being as rare as rumor is plentiful in the terrorist business, you can’t judge to what extent law enforcement authorities blow up fear of terrorism to get a corresponding blow-up of their budgets. It was just several weeks ago that the story broke about the F.B.I. suppressing a definitive technical report by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms concluding that the explosion of Trans World Airlines Flight 800 off Long Island was the result of an internal malfunction of the airplane. The F.B.I. insisted it was terrorists who did it.
Despite social historians repeating that acts of terrorists are no more frequent now than they were 100 years ago, public officials will not leave off the language of fright. The fight is made the more chilling because politicians and police bureaucrats made it their practice to spin these airy yarns about networks of conspiracy stretching the world over. Yet if you glance at the list of terrorist acts in this decade, the only one that fits the international network theory is the World Trade Center bombing. The rest, from Oklahoma City, through the abortion assassinations, to Columbine High School, have more of the look of a Unabomber. Most of these dreadful acts are the work of homicidal nut cases, psycho-mutants who, for all the vaunted police intelligence work, no one had a case file on.
Some things are difficult if not impossible to defend against, or, if you can defend against them, the price is too high. The cost and inconvenience of putting up a lightning rod is reasonable, even though the probabilities of your house being hit are very low. The cost of putting a cop at the doors of every school is, in terms of money, atmosphere and pedagogical side effects, too high, especially given the fact that lightning hits buildings far more often than high school students mow down their classmates with semiautomatic weapons. Gun control is a better response.
Seldom have a people enjoyed the security we have in our daily lives, and never has it been more disbelieved, at least by the voices that dominate public space.
What does it say of us that in a time of what should be profound peace, a time of lessening crime and violence and great prosperity, the police are such a large presence? What needs the attention is the 1.7 million men and women in our jails, prisons and penitentiaries. How does a land so rich, so powerful, so bountifully endowed, explain this shocking figure? With all our blessings this is not, in a public sense, a happy time of charm, kindness, smiles, generosity, laughs and a touch of the light fantastic. It should be.
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