Saturday, August 16, 2014

Reflections on Clive Bundy and Ferguson, Missouri

The news out of Ferguson, Missouri is bad all around.  On the one hand are riots that are immistakably unacceptable and must be suppressed.

On the other hand, we have some very disturbing images of the very embodiment of the militarization of the police that so many people have long been warning against.  We have images of police looking and acting like an occupying army in ways that have created shock and outrage broadly across the political spectrum.

Joining the comments section of the thoughtful social conservative, Rod Dreher, who has roundly condemned such militarization, the results have

been depressingly familiar.  It has not taken long for conversation to polarize politically.  (I am as much to blame as anyone else).  One subject that has been frequently raised, by both sides (myself included), is the comparison with the Cliven Bundy ranch standoff.  A frequent comment on the rights side of the discussion has been that right wingers, including Clive Bundy, have been concerned about the militarization of the police for a long time, to the point of buying up military gear to defend against it, and that liberals have responded with nothing but hostility and are coming in on the act only when black people are on the wrong side of the militarization.

I would disagree on several counts.  For one thing, the liberal/left (especially civil libertarians like the ACLU) have been protesting the militarization of the police for a long time.  (Particularly in the context of the War on Drugs, whose victims have very often tended to be black). For another, while we should applaud members of the libertarian wing of conservatism like Rand Paul or Reason magazine that have shared these concerns, I (and others) have serious misgivings whether the militarization of the regular police and overuse of SWAT teams and the like is the reason right wingers have been stocking up on arms and forming paramilitaries.  Somehow the tendency to stock arms and form paramilitaries seems to vary more with which party holds the White House than anything else. And a lot of such groups concerns have less to do with actual conduct by local police forces than imagined UN conspiracies and the New World Order and so forth.

But most significantly, I do not agree that there is anything inconsistent about both opposing the militarization of the police and the formation of private paramilitaries to counter them.  To oppose both simply means that one is opposed to a general militarization of society.  It means that safety and security will not be achieved by a universal civilian arms race.  It means:
[T]he general More Guns approach to social ills — is the absolute abandonment of civil society it represents. It gives up on the rule of law in favor of a Hobbesian “war of every man against every man” in which we no longer have genuine neighbors, only potential enemies. You may trust your neighbor for now — but you have high-powered recourse if he ever acts wrongly.
Whatever lack of open violence may be procured by this method is not peace or civil order, but rather a standoff, a Cold War maintained by the threat of mutually assured destruction. Moreover, the person who wishes to live this way, to maintain order at universal gunpoint, has an absolute trust in his own ability to use weapons wisely and well: he never for a moment asks whether he can be trusted with a gun. Of course he can!
I can also raise several other points about Clive Bundy in the light of recent events in Missouri.
  1. Bundy belonged to a group that believed the Federal Government had no law enforcement powers, but that enforcement should rest purely with the county sheriff.  There is no question that the BLM overreacted in a heavy-handed way in the first place that was largely responsible for the escalation and standoff.  But in theory, the real objection of the Patriot movement is not that the BLM was heavy-handed and overreacted, but that it was the federal government.  The possibility that local police or sheriffs might be equally heavy-handed and prone to overreaction is not one that occurred to Bundy and his crowd.  Recent events suggest that it should.
  2. Needless to say, Bundy's group never paused to consider whether private paramilitaries are necessarily lovers of liberty, or whether they are capable of abusing their power.  Of course private militias would never threaten liberty!  They are us, after all.  As I have argued many times before, all the dangers that go with militarization of police apply no less to militarization of civilian society as well.
  3. Rioting and looting are worse offenses than overgrazing federal land and failing to pay grazing fees.  But the Bundy standoff is a greater overall threat to the rule of law.  It is rather like the distinction some right wingers used to make between criminals and terrorists.  Criminals merely break laws.  They have no objection to law when applied to other people.  Terrorists oppose the whole system of law.  Well, I do not agree with the assumption that they should therefore be placed outside the protection of law, but there is a point here.  Rioting and looting are crimes that must be suppressed, and I favor prosecution of rioters and looters.  But in the end, riots will burn out and law will return.  What is alarming about the Clive Bundy standoff is that it sets the precedent that a private citizen who raises a large enough private army can be exempted from laws.
  4. And finally, what about race?  I will just say this.  Maybe if the people of Ferguson had taken out their military-style weapons, called up their private paramilitary and forced the police out of their neighborhood, the Patriot movement would have applauded.  Maybe I should give the Patriot movement the benefit of the doubt and assume that they would have applauded in such an instance.  But I would ask anyone who claim they would have applauded to give me the benefit of the doubt when I say that I would not have applauded in such a case.  I would have been alarmed.

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