There is, somewhere in one of “Official Rules” books, a Law which states, “Any organization founded to unite a proliferation of splinter groups invariably becomes one more splinter group.” By the same token, any attempt to sum up everybody’s wide-ranging opinions on a particularly controversial subject invariably becomes yet another wide-ranging opinion. But whattheheck, I’m going to try anyway.
There seem to be two repeating themes in the Gates-gate discussion:
the police are entitled to be treated with respect or even deference, and are also entitled to use their power to enforce that right; anybody who mouths off to a cop deserves what s/he gets.
there is a persistent disparity in the way different racial groups are treated by the law enforcement system, which cannot be completely explained by the behavior of those groups and their members.
These two propositions are not mutually inconsistent. They could both be true. My sister Red appears to think that the former proposition is just plain dead wrong and is responsible (perhaps as part of a larger pattern of the male sense of entitlement and willingness to enforce it by the most direct means available) for a lot of serious violence between police and people of color. I haven’t talked to Jane about this yet, but, being something of a statistical wonk, she probably accepts the latter proposition without boggling, and would be willing to go along with the former just for the sake of everybody getting along.
Everybody getting along is, in fact, a laudable goal. When the major cause of death among the 16 – to – 35-year-old males of a particular group is homicide, mostly committed within that group (let’s leave the cops out of this for a moment), maybe the male sense of entitlement is a particular problem within that group. As Jane would say, this needs more thought.
But, on the perennial other hand, unlike such cultural subgroups, the police are not “them.” They are “us.” They are acting in our name, on our behalf, and on our money. We cannot dismiss their behavior as “men will be boys.” We cannot merely advise them to talk amongst themselves to come up with a better method for achieving their goals. Their goals, after all, are our goals. They are doing the job we have assigned them to. If that job gets innocent people killed, that blood is on our hands. We need to decide, as a society, whether we want the police to be able to protect the authority they wield in our name by arresting people, or worse, merely for transgressing social boundaries. Maybe we do. If so, the Constitution and the legal system we live by require that we put it in writing, and set written limits to the power we confer.
And, by the way, our mother always told us that “you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” We have recently discovered that flies—at least the ones that frequent the Wired residence—like vinegar. Haven’t tried them with honey yet, but this casts doubt on all the old verities. As Jane would say, this needs more thought.