Don't Conflate a Choice With an Obligation


Allow me, if you will, to take a break from talking about Hillary’s email, Donald Trump, or anything relating to 2016 to discuss (yet again) our attitude toward the police. Specifically, I would like to respond to this opinion column that was carried in the Dallas Morning News last week, which was written by a man named Michael J. LaRosa, who seems from all accounts to be a nice, polite man trying his best to get through life with a minimum of hassle. The basic thesis of Mr. LaRosa’s piece is that your life will go easier if you don’t challenge the police, even when they are clearly acting outside their lawful authority, so we should all get on board with the program and everyone will be happier.

Look, I have no problem with anyone who takes this approach to interacting with the police. It definitely has its benefits, as the author of the piece points out. At this point of my life, interacting with the police is mainly a nuisance for the crimp it puts in my increasingly crowded schedule. Therefore, my goal is generally to get the interaction over with as soon as possible, which I have found is usually accomplished best by politeness (and sometimes “Am I under arrest? Can I go?”). Fine.

The key distinction that I think is lost on many people is that, for me (and for Mr. LaRosa) the decision to be polite to police – even when they are overstepping their legal authority – is a choice, not an obligation. I do it for an identifiable reason that is related to my life goals, and if the police step too far over the line, I know from past experience that I will make a different choice.

The danger that we face is that many people – especially on the conservative side of the aisle – go the extra step and assume (either overtly or through their subconscious biases) that being polite and obedient even to lawless cops is an obligation and that anyone who fails to do so deserves what they get. This dangerous attitude is inconsistent with both small government principles and the personal vigilance that is necessary to maintain a free society.

A world where it makes good sense for me to usually comply with police orders, and to be nice and polite to police – even when I don’t legally have to – is perfectly fine and sensical. A world where failure to do so subjects me to abuse at the hands of the police and a not insubstantial amount of public commentary says “Well, he had it coming,” is one where freedom cannot long meaningfully survive.

The difference between a free society and a totalitarian one, in a practical sense, is that a free society does not expect obeisance to agents of the state as the price of freedom. A free society says, “A cop who puts someone in jail for three days because she refused to put out her cigarette – which she had no legal obligation to do – should himself be put in jail for a longer period of time.” A totalitarian one says, “Obviously this is all tragic but what we need to learn from this situation is that everyone should listen to cops.”

If the Sandra Bland story tells us anything, it is that the badge carries potentially life-destroying power. I say, we as a society should not tolerate police who wield it in an arbitrary manner in order to vindicate personal slights or to achieve catharsis after a bad day at the office.

It troubles me that so many say instead, we should not tolerate private citizens who refuse to bow and scrape before it.

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