Tuesday, January 06, 2015

does believing overseers are constantly under fire serve a productive function for society?


theatlantic |  Here's Radley Balko quantifying those "risks" police officers face:
Policing has been getting safer for 20 years. In terms of raw number of deaths, 2013 was the safest year for cops since World War II. If we look at the rate of deaths, 2013 was the safest year for police in well over a century .... You’re more likely to be murdered simply by living in about half of the largest cities in America than you are while working as a police officer.
Nearly half of those deaths are from automobile accidents. Balko is somewhat frustrated that despite the empirical facts around policing, nothing seems to penetrate the narrative of police living under constant threat. Why? Is it that most people are just basically ignorant of the information? Is it that most people just believe, uncritically, what police officers tell them?

Or is there something more? Forgive me. I have not yet fully worked this all out. But Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn describes the prisoners headed to the Soviet Gulag as waves flowing underground. These waves "provided sewage disposal for the life flowering on the surface." I understand this to mean that the gulag was not just mindless evil—was not just incomprehensible insanity—but served some sort of productive and knowable purpose.

Could it be that believing our police to be constantly under fire is not mysterious—that it serves some productive function, that society actually derives something from its peace officers engaged in forever war? And can we say that the function of the war here at home is not simply a response to violent crime (which has plunged) but to some other need? And knowing that identity is not simply defined by what we are, but what we are not, can it be that our police help give us identity, by branding one class of people as miscreants, outsiders, and thugs, and thus establishing some other class as upstanding, as citizens, as Americans? Does the feeling of being besieged serve some actual purpose?

I am not sure this is all correct. But if the direction is right, then it becomes possible to understand the NYPD's protest (and the toothless admonitions of the commissioner) not as mindless petulance, but as something systemic, as a natural outgrowth of our needs.