After Ferguson

In the aftermath of the violence in Ferguson, Missouri, we have the beginnings of a long-overdue national discussion about the militarization of local police forces.

Even Rand Paul has weighed in on this issue in Time: “There is a legitimate role for the police to keep the peace, but there should be a difference between a police response and a military response.” He sees an undo influence of big government, all too eager to weaponise local police. But what is the fundamental difference between the police and the military?

Is it the nature of the weapons they should use? The underlying issues they are there to address? The level of violence they face?

All these are useful questions. But the key point is that whatever force the police use has to be legitimate in the eyes of the public they monitor and guard. Their power, ultimately, is authorized by those who are subject to it. Without that, they lack the essential, effective means they need to do their job. By contrast, the military engages in war with enemies, those who, by definition, do not accept their authority.

When people feel government is legitimate, they may question specific laws, may grumble and contest, but they have a voice in making them and they have redress when wrongly used. Legitimate force helps them feel more secure. To be sure, that doesn’t always work. We all have an anti-authoritarian streak. We enjoy getting away with infractions. But that’s the baseline, the tacit agreement we have with government.

Without legitimate authority, citizens would have to be persuaded in every case to obey the laws, to follow rules. In a legitimate state, they don’t usually stop to think if they will obey. Authoritarian rule, on the other hand, gives them no voice. They obey out of fear. And they fight back, given the chance, in riots, in anonymous acts of sabotage and non-compliance.

Rand rightly calls attention to the fact that the underlying problem in Ferguson is racism: “Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them.”

They riot, in other words, because they have no voice. They do not see the police as legitimate, so much as an occupying army.

But the really interesting point here is that the police seem to think similarly. That’s why they accumulated an arsenal of weapons supplied by the Pentagon, and acted fearfully and brutally. As a result, the imagery and the eye-witness accounts have borne an uncanny resemblance to scenes from Gaza and Aleppo.

I do not think that government is the problem, but government can only be as intelligent and thoughtful as we are. Those who act on its behalf need to more fully grasp the nature of the contract that is the essential basis for their power, not the machine guns and armored vehicles they can deploy to threaten and terrify.