A Police State of Mind: Don’t You Feel Safer?

The city is full of cops and empty of tourists. Presumably, after the Republican politicians leave, the tourists will return. The cops will never leave. There will be ever more of them as the months turn into years. Cops, private and public, are probably already the largest single occupational group in New York, outnumbering even lawyers, stockbrokers and advertising hucksters.

There can’t be less than a couple of hundred thousand cops, security guards and special agents, not a few of whom are so evidently out of physical condition that it’s preposterous to imagine them subduing a resisting adult without resort to a weapon. Overweight, undersized and out of shape (from the looks of them, at least), a hefty percentage of these guardians of public safety are not a force to be reckoned with if you’re a terrorist, although if you’re an ordinary person, you may find your protectors-many of whom are short on manners and brains-a nuisance at best and an expensive impediment at worst.

Whether they have made life in New York safer is a matter of conjecture. Every so often, a low-level functionary does recognize and capture a baddie. Assuming what we’ve been told is true-and that often turns out to be a false assumption-the Y2K plot to blow up LAX was frustrated by a civil-service foot soldier. Nevertheless, not one of them or all of them together, with their guns, their radios, their war rooms and their officiousness, could have saved the World Trade Center from destruction, which makes for poor odds that these untested and indifferently disciplined people will successfully protect us often enough when and if the Arabs hit us again.

Let’s hope that they’re more effective than they seem to be. But as we cower and wait, watching the terror-alert color levels flicker from code orange to code lime to code mango to code lemon, we might ask ourselves: What price security? Anthony Williams, the mayor of Washington, D.C., has been posing that question and having something close to a fit at what the closing of streets, the erection of barriers and the institution of checkpoints at traffic intersections are doing to the movement of people and commerce in his city. Walls are going up faster in the nation’s capital than they are in Israel.

Do these armies of cops make us safer, or do they merely make us feel safer? And if they only make us feel safer, what’s wrong with that? Especially since, in the murk of hysteria, misinformation, announcements, explanations, retractions, contradictions, amplifications, emendations, press conferences, silences, assurances and official utterances of defiance against malefactors, it’s difficult for anyone-the officials included-to make an accurate appraisal of the degree of real danger we may or may not be living in.

Evidently nobody knows how large the threat is or even what the threat may be. We don’t know if it comes by land, by sea, by air, whether it explodes, infects, poisons, radiates or chokes. The only established fact is that we are scared out of our wits and don’t know what to do about it, except to demand picture ID’s and make new rules-which may or may not fool terrorists, but which certainly baffle the non-terrorist. Why, will you please explain, is the public allowed halfway up the Statue of Liberty, but barred for “security reasons” from climbing up to the torch to have a look at the harbor from that vantage point? As the police are ceded increasing power, daily life is increasingly regulated by the incomprehensible, the contradictory and the arbitrary. All questions will be answered by a command to step to the left-and this is the last time you will be told to do so.

The spread of the police presence and police power is blamed on 9/11. We are repeatedly told by cabinet officials and TV noodleheads that 9/11 “changed everything.” Without a doubt, 9/11 did change some things, but the swelling ubiquity of the police antedates 9/11. Bill Clinton was putting 100,000 new cops on the streets of the nation before 9/11, and Presidents before him were pouring money into local, state and federal police organizations. The failures of home, school and community were met by cops in the corridors and magnetometers at the entrances years and years before 9/11. The F.B.I. was armed years before 9/11. (It will come as a surprise to younger people to learn that well into the 1960’s, F.B.I. agents didn’t carry firearms except when permission was given-and that rarely occurred.)

What may have changed everything was not 9/11, but drugs. You can date the explosion in police numbers and budgets from the wholesale introduction of drugs and drug-taking into all classes of American society. Right off the bat, I cannot name another government program which has cost as much and failed as grandly as the attempt to suppress drug use. After spending a couple hundred billion at a minimum over the past 30 years, we end up with drugs everywhere, including in your children’s schools, admit it or not, and gigantically enlarged police power in daily life.

The people who defend what was done in fighting the drug war will ask how much worse things would be without the police. Maybe they’re right, but it makes you think about the degree of safety we enjoy vis-à-vis terrorism if the cops are as successful at suppressing it as they have been at suppressing drugs.

However, the two are not the same. Our knowledge of the terrorists is so poor that we can’t say how many of them there may be, or how well organized they are, or anything else which would make it possible to accurately assess the degree of danger we are in. We are in a better position, however, to consider the damage done by ceding so much power to the police, whatever the protection they afford us.

First off, who are the police? They and the television dramas tell us that they’re heroes, first responders, and also separate and different from the rest of us. They carry responsibilities we ordinary ones cannot imagine; they live under stress we cannot begin to understand. They are special, they are set apart, and by their very nobility, you might say, they are aliens-persons from a society closed to us. As such, most of us have learned that what a police authority says, goes. Obey the cop and shut up, unless you are some kind of truculent, ACLU-type nut.

Once upon a time, we were brought up to believe that the police officer was our friend. Now we’re brought up to understand that he is our boss. Do as he tells you, because if you protest, you will immediately be handcuffed, stuck in a cage in the back of an automobile and taken off to a world of trouble and expense. The routine police procedures have the cumulative effect of teaching us docility. As we repeatedly hear of police maltreatment of self-evidently harmless 70-year-old grandmothers, cuffed and led off to be strip-searched, we learn to do exactly as instructed and not to make the mistake of asking questions. We are becoming a highly biddable people.

The way the various police forces and security agents dress and behave also makes us a more compliant people. We have long since learned, when on any kind of police or security line, that you make a joke at your own peril. We all have our own pet stories of people who wisecracked their way into the hoosegow. We are learning that when government agents are present, we must mind our words and try not to attract attention. Mind you, this is just daily life, not political protest. We have learned that the cop or the government agent is an enemy to the terrorist but also no friend to us. We know that our police are unpredictable and often unfriendly. The reason the memory of Rodney King doesn’t fade away is that, black person or white, the police have instilled the belief in most of us that but for the grace of God, there go I.

Increasingly, the police dress to intimidate. From relatively innocuous-looking sidearms, more of them are carrying what looks to this amateur like machine guns. These days, they frequently wear boots in preference to shoes. They show up in teams wearing black. They are frightening.

Apparently, when a person is accepted into one of our multitudes of police forces-who can count how many?-they are instructed never to say “please” or “thank you” again, never to smile and never, ever to explain a police order or a police procedure. Giving people badges and guns does not bring out the best in them-but how does it shape the rest of us, who are being taught to take orders without question? Are these the habits of mind, personality and behavior best suited to citizens of a democracy?

J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the F.B.I. from 1924 until his death in 1972 and the bugbear of civil libertarians, famously resisted the idea of a federal police force and did all in his power to prevent the F.B.I. from becoming one. To Hoover, law enforcement was primarily a local obligation in conformity with the federal idea, but in the generation since his death such considerations have been forgotten. Congress has made every misdemeanor, from spitting on the sidewalk to driving under the influence, a federal crime. Where once you had to be some kind of special criminal to bump into federal law enforcement, now local law enforcement has become subsidiary to a Washington-based national network of cops, police agents, security workers, government spies and federal investigators.

And aren’t we happier and humbler for it?