A number of recent news items point to a disturbing trend: the Prussianization of American culture. One of the peculiarities of the increasingly militarized culture of Prussia/Germany under Bismarck’s reich was that civilians became second-class citizens. It was common practice for citizens to step off the sidewalk and into the gutter to make way for anyone in uniform. We’re seeing the same tendency in the United States, as the respective rights of officials and ordinary citizens becomes increasingly a matter of status or caste rather than universal law.
For example, the state’s functionaries expect us to live under non-stop video surveillance. But they bristle (to say the least) when their own misbehavior is recorded by people like us who are supposed to be taking the orders and liking it. Although they meet with uneven success (at least on the occasions when someone actually has the nerve and resources to fight it out in the judicial system), the reflexive impulse of functionaries everywhere is to criminalize any recording of their actions. In one school system, students who recorded a teacher going ballistic and yanking a desk out from under a kid who refused to stand for the national anthem were suspended for ten days. In another, where students managed to capture a gym coach via cell phone camera stealing money out of lockers, the coach was eventually arrested. But the school administrators’ immeidate reaction was, not to apologize for the thieving coach, but to wring their hands over the violation of school policy involved in recording him.
Now consider that in Pennsylvania’s Lower Merion school district, school adminstrators were able to remotely activate webcams built into laptops issued to students and spy on them; one student was actually disciplined for “inappropriate behavior in his home”!
In another illustration of the “one law for the lion and one for the lamb” principle, RateMyCop.com, a sort of Angie’s List for local police, attracts a lot of ire from police forces around the country. You know, the same people who’re always reassuring us that “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear.” It’s been met with particular hostility and even official investigation by prosecutors in some local jurisdictions, like Tempe, Arizona, because it’s supposedly a violation of the cops’ privacy rights–even though no addresses, phone numbers, or other identifying information besides name and serial number is listed. After all, you know how seriously the folks in Arizona take personal privacy issues, right? Finally, a federal judge has ruled that RateMyCop is protected by the First Amendment, upholding a lawsuit by someone who was prosecuted in a Florida jurisdiction for posting comments to the site.
But while it’s an uphill battle to subject these alleged public servants to any kind of transparency, oddly enough it’s quite common for newspapers to print the names of people arrested by the local police. That’s arrested–not convicted of a crime. Apparently the privacy and safety of an ordinary citizen count for nothing.
Final example: a video of a drug raid in Missouri (courtesy of Radley Balko), in which the SWAT team terrorized a family, fired their weapons repeatedly in front of their screaming children, and killed the family pets–all over possession of a small amount of marijuana. The parents were charged with–wait for it–endangering their children.
This sort of thing is nothing new. If the law were consistently enforced, for example, it would be impossible to carry out sting operations. After all, it’s illegal for an ordinary citizen to solicit illegal acts from another citizen. If the law applied to everyone equally, it would be illegal for a cop to attempt to buy drugs or solicit a prostitute. Interestingly, when the first professional police forces were created (Robert Peel’s eponymous “bobbies”), they were understood simply to be salaried functionaries exercising the same posse comitatus rights possessed by the ordinary citizen. Some vestigial remnant of the concept is preserved in the almost nonexistent practice of citizen’s arrest. But that was then. We’ve had 150 years of Prussianization since then.
P.J. Proudhon wrote “What is Property?” to demonstrate that, among other things, “property is impossible.” In other words, the statist version of property–artificial property rights–was rendered absurd and untenable by its own internal contradictions.
By the same token, we may say that statist legality is impossible. It cannot be consistently enforced without destroying itself.