America’s Cult of the Police

I was reminded once again recently of America’s cultish worship of all things authoritarian following the slayings of police in Dallas and Baton Rouge. Many, in the rush to condemn the killings, took advantage of the situation to equate the tragic police deaths with the modern-day lynchings that spurred Black Lives Matter. Or even worse, some used the violence to try to undermine that movement’s legitimacy.

While hardly the worst example, I found the efforts of Stephen Colbert to weaken the criticism of Bill Maher particularly craven, given Colbert’s supposed reputation for bravery.

It didn’t used to be this way. From the first whispers about freedom from Britain, America’s DNA has included a healthy distrust of government authority. It is a distrust enshrined in our constitution with its checks and balances and, specifically regarding police, in the Third and Fourth Amendments.

I was reminded of this birthright when trying to avoid the TV coverage of the recent political conventions. I can’t afford cable and so made do with free (broadcast) TV and reruns of Perry Mason. What struck me most about those black-and-white shows that ran in the 1950s and 1960s was the way District Attorney Hamilton Burger and his chief cop, Lt. Arthur Tragg, treated Perry and his crew. It was usually with contempt and in some instances not only unethical but even downright illegal, as in one episode when Tragg openly tried to frame Perry for perjury. And while both sides were cordial when interacting, when they were alone together, Perry, Paul and Della often viewed their opponents with disgust. The prosecutor and his cops, due to incompetence, misconduct or both, were rarely shown as heroes deserving our unquestioning support. Such skepticism is also repeatedly on display in America’s crime noir literature, from Dashiell Hammett on. Dirty cops are a staple, and they’re not often portrayed sympathetically. So, so different from today’s cop shows, where the authorities are almost always shone in a reverential and do-no-wrong light. And even when cops cross the lines, as in beatings or doctoring evidence, it’s usually because either they were provoked by the chance that the bad guy might “get off” (as in getting a fair trial) or due to an imminent threat, usually some type of terrorism.

Almost never is the dirty cop punished, but often rewarded.

I suspect this worship of anybody with a badge really got going during the first Iraq War when we effectively enshrined a guilt complex over how we supposedly treated the Vietnam War vets — including the creation of mythology about people spitting on the returning troops.

I call them myths because that’s what they were, not one single claim has ever been verified despite significant research.

And it went into overdrive after 9/11 as Americans rushed to sacrifice their legacy of individual freedom by supporting the Patriot Act, mass surveillance, all types of torture and clear violations of international law.

We turned into bullies, and like all bullies, cowards.

We love to wave the flag but are too scared to defend the rights that flag represents.

We used to be much braver.

Even during World War II, the biggest threat to our existence, these doubts about the people running the show were all too evident. Artist Bill Mauldin’s Willie and Joe, for example, often bemoaned the end result of the bright idea of some genius up the chain of command.

Suffice it to say that one of the patron saints of the right wing, Gen. George Patton, threatened to have Stars and Stripes banned from his troops as long they carried
Mauldin’s so-very-American creations.

And as comforting as it is to think that this wariness of those in authority is a uniquely American trait, it seems pretty universal.

If you’ve ever read the original Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle — as opposed to the endless subsequent treatments — you’re familiar with Inspector Lestrade, the
inept representative of Scotland Yard.

And then, of course, there’s Inspector Clouseau, Lestrade’s modern and French counterpart.

It seems pretty clear that challenging cops is a universal characteristic of anyone living in a free society where authority takes itself too seriously.

And when police accept that such questioning is a legitimate part of their job, they will earn a real respect, not some phony emotion manipulated by SVU, CSI or any
other cheap alphabet-crime drama.

Yet it’s not as if disdain for government has disappeared from America. The NRA and the Tea Party are only two more recent examples.

But apparently that’s something reserved for whites.

When it comes to the police, America refuses to accept even the slightest criticism, no matter how valid.

Questioning the cops, with Black Lives Matter as a prime example, can get you arrested, beaten up or worse.

Sadly, given the race of those targeted, that is also an American institution.

But no matter who is doing the challenging, we need to reassert out national heritage and stop worshiping the badge.

Good cops shouldn’t mind being held accountable.

That’s what used to make America great.

More articles by:

Bruce Mastron is a journalist.

Weekend Edition
April 03, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Omar Shaban
Gaza’s New Conflict: COVID-19
Rob Urie
Work, Crisis and Pandemic
John Whitlow
Slumlord Capitalism v. Global Pandemic
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Strange Things Happening Every Day
Jonathan Cook
The Bigger Picture is Hiding Behind a Virus
Paul Street
Silver Linings Amidst the Capitalist Coronavirus Crisis
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Control of Nature
Louis Proyect
COVID-19 and the “Just-in-Time” Supply Chain: Why Hospitals Ran Out of Ventilators and Grocery Stores Ran Out of Toilet Paper
Kathleen Wallace
The Highly Contagious Idea
Kenneth Good
The Apartheid Wars: Non-Accountability and Freedom for Perpetrators.
Andrew Levine
Democracy in America: Sorry, But You Can’t Get There from Here.
Ramzy Baroud
Tunisia Leads the Way: New Report Exposes Israel’s False Democracy
David Rosen
Coronavirus and the State-of-Emergency Pandemic
Matthew Stevenson
Will Trump Cancel the Election? Will the Democrats Dump Joe?
Ron Jacobs
Seattle—Anti-Capitalist Hotbed
Michael T. Klare
Avenger Planet: Is the COVID-19 Pandemic Mother Nature’s Response to Human Transgression?
Jack Rasmus
COVID-19 and the Forgotten Working Class
Werner Lange
The Madness of More Nukes and Less Rights in Pandemic Times
J.P. Linstroth
Why a Race is Not a Virus and a Virus is Not a Race
John Feffer
We Need a Coronavirus Truce
Thomas S. Harrington
“New Corona Cases”: the Ultimate Floating Signifier
Victor Grossman
Corona and What Then?
Katie Fite
Permanent Pandemic on Public Lands: Welfare Sheep Ranchers and Their Enablers Hold the West’s Bighorns Hostage
Patrick Bond
Covid-19 Attacks the Down-and-Out in Ultra-Unequal South Africa
Eve Ottenberg
Capitalism vs. Humanity
Nicky Reid
Fear and Loathing in Coronaville Volume 2: Panic On the Streets of Tehran
Jonas Ecke
Would Dying for the Economy Help Anybody?
Jeff Mackler
Capitalism is the Virus!
Andrew Moss
Incarceration, Detention, and Covid-19
Farzana Versey
Prayers, Piffle and Privation in the Time of Pandemic
Will Solomon
In the New Dystopia
Dean Baker
The Relative Generosity of the Economic Rescue Package: Boeing vs. Public Broadcasting
Dr. Leo Lopez, III
We Need a Lot More Transparency From the CDC
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Reflections on a Glass of Homemade Cider
Rashid Nuri
Homegrown Crisis Response: Who Grows Your Food?
Mark Luskus
Worst Case Scenario: Healthcare Workers Need Masks, ASAP
Volker Franke
The Virus That May Bring us Together
Mitchell Zimmerman
A Q & A on the GOP’s Call for Elder Sacrifice
Olfat al-Kurd
COVID-19 Could Be Catastrophic for Us: Notes From Gaza
Eileen Appelbaum - Roesmary Batt
Hospital Bailouts Begin…for Those Owned by Private Equity Firms
Nabri Ginwa
Jill Richardson
Efficiency vs. Resilience
Lee Ballinger
Eddie Van Halen and the Future of Humanity
David Yearsley
Beset by Bach
Robert Koehler
Developing a Vaccine Against War