On The Worship of Authority


On Monday, January 13, two Fullerton, California police officers charged with the beating death of Kelly Thomas were acquitted, and the prosecutor announced his decision not to press charges against a third officer involved. Millions who had been following the story met the verdict with incredulity: How could anyone who watched that horrific video of Thomas pinned down and brutally beaten with fists and batons, begging for his life and calling out for his father, have possibly returned any verdict but guilty?

The answer lies in a famous psychological experiment — the Milgram Experiment — conducted in 1961. This experiment, conducted when the Nuremberg trials were still a recent memory, led subjects to believe they were torturing a fellow subject in the next room (who in fact was a confederate pretending to be a volunteer, and suffered no actual pain) with increasingly powerful electric shocks. Reassured by scientists in white coats that they would assume all responsibility, and urged to continue, subjects continued to (so far as they knew) inflict more and more painful shocks on their fellow subjects, even as the screams became louder and then went silent. In short, these people were willing to inflict pain on strangers who were begging for mercy, to the point of unconsciousness and possible death, based on the assurances of “responsible authority figures,” so long as the victim was framed as an outsider.

Developmental psychologists tell us that children are initially socialized to view political authority as an extension of their parents’ authority. The president is first viewed as a sort of Mommy or Daddy, with all Americans as the family. Gradually actors like Congress, the courts, and so forth enter the picture — at first understood as simply “helpers” to the President, and only later as constitutional checks to presidential authority. But the aura of parental authority persists, on a subliminal level, even then.

This continuing aura of authority stimulates a tendency to give political leaders the benefit of the doubt when they start wars (“they must be privy to information that we’re not”) and to view formal systems of authority as things that exist by popular consent in order to address common problems (“the government is just all of us”). Nowhere is this ingrained tendency more evident than in the view of police officers inculcated in small children. “The policeman is your friend.” “If you’re ever in trouble or need help, call a policeman.” “They must have been doing something wrong, or they wouldn’t have been arrested.”

But this is simply untrue. Perhaps in years past, police were mostly benign presences in neighborhoods or small towns where local residents had long known both each other and the officer on the beat (although even here things might not seem so benign to vagrants or members of racial minorities). But today a major portion of officers on metropolitan police forces of any size are people who self-selected police work based on authoritarian personalities and a desire to brutalize others; another portion are encultured into brutality after they join the force, and most of those who don’t fall into either of the first two categories learn to honor the blue code of silence when they witness brutality by others in their “band of brothers.”

What happened to Thomas is standard police operating procedure in most jurisdictions: Continue to brutalize someone who’s been rendered physically incapable of resistance — other than involuntary spasms from unbearable agony — while continuing to yell “Stop resisting! Stop resisting!” Local police forces are sordid empires of criminality based on planted evidence, entrapment, coerced testimony, “civil forfeiture” racketeering with stolen property and dogs trained to falsely alert on command. Thanks to the gravy train of federal military surplus hardware and military cross-training, police forces are militarized to the point that SWAT teams are used to serve routine search or arrest warrants — battering down doors, shooting pets, ransacking houses and terror families in the dead of night just like Soviet or Nazi-era secret police. Police forces increasingly view civilians as an occupied enemy population to be awed with random shows of force.

Until most people abandon their state-inculcated respect for uniformed authority, and their willingness to treat officially defined outsiders as the “other,” the Rodney King and Kelly Thomas verdicts — and uncounted such verdicts yet unnamed — will continue.

Kevin Carson is a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org) and holds the Center’s Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory.

Kevin Carson is a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org) and holds the Center’s Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory. He is a mutualist and individualist anarchist whose written work includes Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective, and The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto, all of which are freely available online. 

December 01, 2015
John Wight
From Iraq to Syria: Repeating a Debacle
Conn Hallinan
Portugal: the Left Takes Charge
Mike Whitney
Putin’s Revenge? The Fight for the Border
Sami Al-Arian
My Ordeal: One of America’s Many Political Trials Since 9/11
Steffen Böhm
Why the Paris Climate Talks Will Fail, Just Like All the Others
Gilbert Mercier
Will Turkey Be Kicked Out of NATO?
Bilal El-Amine
The Hard Truth About Daesh and How to Fight It
Pete Dolack
Solidarity Instead of Hierarchy as “Common Sense”
Dan Glazebrook
Rhodes Must Fall: Decolonizing Education
Colin Todhunter
Big Oil, TTIP and the Scramble for Europe
Eric Draitser
Terror in Mali: An Attack on China and Russia?
Linn Washington Jr.
Torture and Other Abuses Make Turkey as American as Apple Pie
Randy Shaw
Krugman is Wrong on Gentrification
Raouf Halaby
Time to Speak Out Against Censorship
Jesse Jackson
It’s Time for Answers in Laquan McDonald Case
Patrick Walker
Wake Up Zombie, Kick Up a Big Stink!
November 30, 2015
Henry Giroux
Trump’s Embrace of Totalitarianism is America’s Dirty Little Secret
Omur Sahin Keyif
An Assassination in Turkey: the Killing of Tahir Elci
Uri Avnery
There is No Such Thing as International Terrorism
Robert Fisk
70,000 Kalashnikovs: Cameron’s “Moderate” Rebels
Jamie Davidson
Distortion, Revisionism & the Liberal Media
Patrick Cockburn
Nasty Surprises: the Problem With Bombing ISIS
Robert Hunziker
The Looming Transnational Battlefield
Ahmed Gaya
Breaking the Climate Mold: Fighting for the Planet and Justice
Matt Peppe
Alan Gross’s Improbable Tales on 60 Minutes
Norman Pollack
Israel and ISIS: Needed, a Thorough Accounting
Colin Todhunter
India – Procession of the Dead: Shopping Malls and Shit
Roger Annis
Canada’s New Climate-Denying National Government
Binoy Kampmark
Straining the Republic: France’s State of Emergency
Bill Blunden
Glenn Greenwald Stands by the Official Narrative
Jack Rasmus
Japan’s 5th Recession in 7 Years
Karen Lee Wald
Inside the Colombia Peace Deal
Geoff Dutton
War in Our Time
Charles R. Larson
Twofers for Carly Fiorina
John Dear
An Eye for an Eye Makes the Whole World Blind
Weekend Edition
November 27-29, 2015
Andrew Levine
The Real Trouble With Bernie
Gary Leupp
Ben Carson, Joseph in Egypt, and the Attack on Rational Thought
John Whitbeck
Who’s Afraid of ISIS?
Michael Brenner
Europe’s Crisis: Terror, Refugees and Impotence
Ramzy Baroud
Forget ISIS: Humanity is at Stake
Pepe Escobar
Will Chess, Not Battleship, Be the Game of the Future in Eurasia?
Vijay Prashad
Showdown on the Syrian Border
Dave Lindorff
Gen. John Campbell, Commander in Afghanistan and Serial Liar
Colin Todhunter
Class, War and David Cameron
Jean Bricmont
The Ideology of Humanitarian Imperialism