FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

On The Worship of Authority

by KEVIN CARSON

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. 

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

August 31, 2016
NEVE GORDON - NICOLA PERUGINI
Human Shields as Preemptive Legal Defense for Killing Civilians
Jim Kavanagh
Turkey Invades Syria, America Spins The Bottle
Dave Lindorff
Ukraine and the Dumbed-Down New York Times Columnist
Pepe Escobar
Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, a Woman of Honor, Confronts Senate of Scoundrels
Jeff Mackler
Playing the Lesser Evil Game to the Hilt
Steve Horn
Dakota Access Pipeline Tribal Liaison Formerly Worked For Agency Issuing Permit
Patrick Cockburn
Has Turkey Overplayed Its Hand in Syria?
John Chuckman
Why Hillary is the Perfect Person to Secure Obama’s Legacy
Manuel E. Yepe
The New Cold War Between the US and China
Stephen Cooper
Ending California’s Machinery of Death
Stacy Keltner - Ashley McFarland
Women, Party Politics, and the Power of the Naked Body
Hiroyuki Hamada - Ikuko Isa
A Letter from Takae, Okinawa
Aidan O'Brien
How Did Syria and the Rest Do in the Olympics?
David Swanson
Arms Dealing Is Subject of Hollywood Comedy
Jesse Jackson
The Politics of Bigotry: Trump and the Black Voter
August 30, 2016
Russell Mokhiber
Matt Funiciello and the Giant Sucking Sound Coming Off Lake Champlain
Mike Whitney
Three Cheers for Kaepernick: Is Sitting During the National Anthem an Acceptable Form of Protest?
Alice Bach
Sorrow and Grace in Palestine
Sam Husseini
Why We Should All Remain Seated: the Anti-Muslim Origins of “The Star-Spangled Banner”
Richard Moser
Transformative Movement Culture and the Inside/Outside Strategy: Do We Want to Win the Argument or Build the Movement?
Nozomi Hayase
Pathology, Incorporated: the Facade of American Democracy
David Swanson
Fredric Jameson’s War Machine
Jan Oberg
How Did the West Survive a Much Stronger Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact?
Linda Gunter
The Racism of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima Bombings
Dmitry Kovalevich
In Ukraine: Independence From the People
Omar Kassem
Turkey Breaks Out in Jarablus as Fear and Loathing Grip Europe
George Wuerthner
A Birthday Gift to the National Parks: the Maine Woods National Monument
Logan Glitterbomb
Indigenous Property Rights and the Dakota Access Pipeline
National Lawyers Guild
Solidarity with Standing Rock Sioux Tribe against Dakota Access Pipeline
Paul Messersmith-Glavin
100 in Anarchist Years
August 29, 2016
Eric Draitser
Hillary and the Clinton Foundation: Exemplars of America’s Political Rot
Patrick Timmons
Dildos on Campus, Gun in the Library: the New York Times and the Texas Gun War
Jack Rasmus
Bernie Sanders ‘OR’ Revolution: a Statement or a Question?
Richard Moser
Strategic Choreography and Inside/Outside Organizers
Nigel Clarke
President Obama’s “Now Watch This Drive” Moment
Robert Fisk
Iraq’s Willing Executioners
Wahid Azal
The Banality of Evil and the Ivory Tower Masterminds of the 1953 Coup d’Etat in Iran
Farzana Versey
Romancing the Activist
Frances Madeson
Meet the Geronimos: Apache Leader’s Descendants Talk About Living With the Legacy
Nauman Sadiq
The War on Terror and the Carter Doctrine
Lawrence Wittner
Does the Democratic Party Have a Progressive Platform–and Does It Matter?
Marjorie Cohn
Death to the Death Penalty in California
Winslow Myers
Asking the Right Questions
Rivera Sun
The Sane Candidate: Which Representatives Will End the Endless Wars?
Linn Washington Jr.
Philadelphia District Attorney Hammered for Hypocrisy
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail