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Cop Prop

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In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad wrote: “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an Unselfish belief in the idea — something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. . .”

In America we call that idea Law and Order. To keep the peace–that is, to stifle any dissent or revolt–we turn to our heroic crime-fighters. At home we call them cops. Abroad, we know them as “our troops.” Their struggles against terrorists and dope-dealing street scum are celebrated endlessly on the news, in fiction and film, video games and comic books. What these struggles generate in fact is nonstop misery, murder, and race war.

In the news and in our entertainment, criminals abound. Serial killers line the streets. No child is safe. Terrorists conspire in every mosque. Black people require armed intervention at every available opportunity. The United States incarcerates more people per capita than any nation on Earth and has to because there are just too many Bad Guys out there trying to destroy our way of life. In spite of most peoples’ antipathy toward policemen and a law that blatantly favors the powerful, our society rushes to invest armed authorities with greater and more far-reaching powers. To sell it to the people, you need to put out a whole lot of cop prop.

Many years ago I was part of that effort. I used to write historical mysteries. My novels were police procedurals that, while presenting more than a share of crooked cops, ultimately valorized policemen and the crooked criminal justice system they serve. My Bad Guys—like everyone else’s–are hell-bent on destroying “our city” for no particular reason. And because of this, the Good Guys must circumvent the rule of law at nearly every instance: routinely threatening, assaulting, and even killing anyone who impedes their investigation.

In the American dreamworld, our heroes are always the biggest victims, the ones with the greatest grievances. They also, paradoxically, wield the greatest amount of power. Crime-fighting Aryan gods and billionaire bats swoop through the sky meting out justice by protecting economic hierarchies, military hegemonies and preventing alien invasions. They commit violence with impunity, are smug in their self-righteousness, and systematically enforce a racial and economic hierarchy that itself is the greatest of crimes.

White supremacy has always played a part in our heroics, from Last of the Mohicans to Tarzan. But nowhere is it more obvious than in DW Griffith’s 1915 epic, The Birth of A Nation, which was not only the birth of the Hollywood adventure film but also of the superhero. It’s like watching Batman decoded: a rich slave-owner and Confederate officer, dejected by the South’s loss in the Civil War, dons a cape and mask to protect Southern womanhood from the predations of vile African-Americans and white carpetbaggers. Of course nowadays this kind of racism in crime fiction and comics has become passé. It’s only polite to be racist toward Muslims. But sleeping underneath the subtext is a centuries-enduring narrative of white supremacy, patrician self-pity, and vigilante violence. Every citizen is a potential bad guy with a gun who deserves violence as a first response.

Today cops have themselves essentially become lawless vigilantes. While they may be required to wear body cams on patrol, they simply switch them off when they’re committing homicide against a hapless black man. They shoot first, ask questions later. They feed the rapacious prison-industrial complex with generations of African-Americans. They set up secret torture chambers in Chicago, spy on Muslims, and target peaceful protesters. The only lives that seem to matter are white men who serve power because in the end they are there to protect civilization from never-ending threats. That’s why we have our sacred second amendment after all–to keep the slave-owners armed in case of insurrection. They used to call this “the white man’s burden.” Now it’s called “keeping our streets safe” or “defending the cause of freedom.”

I haven’t written about imaginary crimes for many, many years. It seemed like an indecent occupation in light of the Crime of the Century–the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. In the books I used to write–in the whole genre itself– law and order remains the biggest fiction. Cops patrol our internal colonies, ever-ready to act upon white society’s racist nightmares. In their wake, black men, women, and children die again and again. The only mystery worth writing about anymore is how we permit it to happen.

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