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.

Bruce Mastron is a journalist.