James Leroy Wilson's blog

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Just Because They Can

Over a decade ago on Chicago radio I heard a story of a guy, white, mid-thirties, at a suburban July 4 park festival. Standing in line for food or something, he was approached by another man who told him to "take your f---ing hat off!"

This led to a quarrel, obviously, but I forgot the details. I think the fellow refused to take off his hat, and was eventually arrested for disturbing the peace, or refusing to obey a police officer. Anyway, he was hauled away, his child stranded at the park.

You see, our man was wearing his White Sox cap backwards, so as to protect his neck from sunburn. But this was apparently not allowed or at least discouraged in that town, as a gang in the area wore their hats like that. This is stupid and outrageous enough. Worse is that the second man was indeed an off duty, part-time cop in plain clothes, but he never identified himself nor explained the reason for his request until quite late in the game. And worse than that, he refused to leave well enough alone. It makes me think: this cop may then and now and forever will be "clean," avoiding the temptations to use his power to become a criminal himself. Who knows, maybe he's so clean he's the type who'd be a whistleblower if he ever had the opportunity. But he's still a bad cop and a bad guy. Strutting around barking orders because of the badge and because of the gun indicates a pretty serious character problem: this guy cares more about his own power and prestige than he does for the public good. Which, really, is worse: "dirty" cops who rule their turf like a fiefdom where they let a lot of things slide as long as order is kept and they get to pocket a little extra, or "clean" cops who enforce "It's The Law!" with the zealousness with which fundamentalist Moslems enforce Shari'a?

I wish I had a better recollection of the story, which was just talk-radio fodder during an uneventful summer day long ago. But the gist I gave above is accurate. What reminded me of it was a story from William Norman Grigg's teenage baseball-playing days (the full post includes links):
By the third or fourth inning, we began to decipher the riddle that was Preston's pitcher, only to discover that his strike zone had expanded – while our pitcher's had apparently contracted. It turned out that the umpire had sprung from the same ancestral pool as the pitcher and the Preston coach. Gee, what chance was there that this fact affected the umpire's objectivity? I'd say we could have rounded it up to, oh, about 100 percent.

We were already frustrated over having such a difficult time putting away a team we were expected to beat easily, and our coach started to ride the ump really hard. At this point a husky middle-aged guy, who was wearing sunglasses even though the stadium lights had come on, descended from the bleachers and thrust his pomaded head into our dugout. He reached into his pocket and produced credentials identifying himself as a Deputy Sheriff. In a voice liberally seasoned with condescension he told our coach to lay off the umpire or he would be arrested and booked for disturbing the peace, creating a public nuisance, or maybe even verbal assault.

The guy was serious. He was also armed.

Before this heroic paladin of public order decided to assert his supposed “authoritah,” we were involved in what is known as a “rhubarb” -- an unpleasant but familiar aspect of our nation's worthiest public undertaking, an amateur baseball game. At some point, if things had continued to escalate, the umpire would have warned our coach to shut up, or even thrown him out of the game. Our coach, though disgruntled, would have complied. Thanks to the intervention of Deputy Fife's mentally challenged cousin, however, we now had the makings of a potential riot.

The umpire, however inept or partial he might have been, exercised authority rooted in an implied private contract. Deputy Buttinski, on the other hand, deployed intimidation backed by the implicit threat of lethal violence, tangible evidence of which was provided by the firearm he carried while off-duty.

Had our coach told this little in-bred martinet to mind his own business, an arrest attempt would probably have resulted. At some point the gun would have been drawn, or other armed police would have materialized -- resulting in a really ugly standoff with a dugout full of angry, testosterone-fueled teenage boys. Our coach, however, kept his composure and urged us to do likewise. While some might conclude that order had been restored, the fact is that order had never broken down, or been imperiled, until Deputy Dawg decided to flash his costume jewelry and throw his less-than-sculpted weight around.

What elevates this experience above the petty, opportunistic abuses of power that typify government at every level is its utter pointlessness. It's as if the Deputy – who was probably the star of his own Jack Webb series in the theater of his otherwise uncluttered little mind – was thinking: “Hey, I have a badge and a gun; why not put them to use?”
[emphasis added]

How many hundreds or thousands of these injustices go on in America every day? And no, they're not just at the local level. Grigg continues:
Danny Coulson, founder of the FBI's paramilitary Hostage Rescue Team, expressed a similar sentiment in his memoir No Heroes. Once the team had been assembled, armed, and trained, its members became twitchy and frustrated when they didn't have a chance to display their wicked skillz. Since the HRT was designed as a counter-terrorism unit, most people would consider its inactivity to be a blessing, of course, but Coulson and his men began to chafe, eager for the chance to throw down with somebody.

Unfortunately, their big debut – after a few pre-season scrimmages – was the 1992 Ruby Ridge standoff, which was followed by the 1993 Branch Davidian massacre in Waco. A couple of rounds of needless bloodshed offer just the thing to cure bureaucratic ennui. And at least some of the people who brought us Waco treated the episode – which claimed the lives of scores of people, both federal agents and the Davidians unjustly targeted by them – as a sporting event. Witness the fact that the initial ATF raid was code-named “Showtime.”

Our invasions and wars are like that. No matter the excuse for intervening in the affairs of other countries, or the justification for killing foreigners, beneath it all is the undercurrent: "We have this huge, high-gadget military; it'd be a waste not to use it!"


  1. Excellent post.

    My only question: Did Grigg's team eventually win the game? It kind of left me hangin....

  2. It is interesting that google ads on your blog today are about training for careers in law enforcement.