Thin Blue Line Against Anarchy
Celebrating 2020 Police Week during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Posted May 13, 2020
It has commonly held that society in a condition of anarchy—that is, without law or authority—would be in complete chaos. Disorder would rule, the innocent would be unprotected from predators, the strongest and rich would have everything and the weak and poor nothing, morality would disappear, and “anything goes.”
Although a cynical viewpoint, the implication is that if human beings were left to their own devices, they would be deprived of something and revert to some animal state where the only thing that mattered was their personal satisfaction. On the other hand, the police in a society, under government authority, provide the checks and balances through enforcement of laws, thus creating order or restoring order. People are safe, the planes fly on time, and balance is restored. Personal gain and self-satisfaction through animal instincts are tempered by agents of justice who stand between law and lawlessness. A thread holds a disorderly society together. It is commonly held, then, that without the police, anarchy would prevail and society would tear itself down with a new one rising from its ashes.
What Is the "Social Contract"?
The social contract (or social contractarianism) founded by Enlightenment-era philosophers Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), John Locke (1632-1704), and Jean-Jacque Rousseau (1712-1788) is perhaps the most influential catalyst for both creating and understanding the division between citizens of a democracy as well as those governments and the police. Born out of moral and political philosophy it states that in exchange for safety and security a society must relinquish some of its civil liberties. It provides legitimacy to the state to use its authority to “keep people in check.” In doing so, our expectations are to be secure and protected from crime and criminality while living out our Constitutional right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The caveat to the social contract, in any sense, are two basic principles: Authority must be respected and rights must be respected. Without a common respect toward state authority or a common respect toward civil liberties and individual rights, is a society or culture ever to share a common bond in a democracy and Republic? It is in this respect that the social contract has been largely criticized because a conscious society understands its influence to dismiss the misuse of lawful authority or give too much authority to the deviant, all the while camouflaging the ways people are separated into classes illustrated best through Marxist philosophy with the bourgeoisie (ruling class) and proletariat (working class).
Thin Blue Line Police
The “thin blue line” as depicted over the last several years through social media, license plates, bumper stickers, clothes, and other outlets is a newer term. It has always been an implicit understanding among cops as a band of brothers and sisters who stand between law and lawlessness, order and chaos, and good vs. evil. They exist as a thread that holds our society together—often at the price of their lives. Civilians, supporters, advocates, and police benevolent groups have taken that understanding and expression of duty and helped to translate a police officer’s paradoxical circumstances.
In a society that says “We need law and order, just don’t pull me over,” the phrase is simply a picture. Depicted as a thin, horizontal blue line against a black background, the image has been used to illustrate several major points. It’s blue because it represents the men and women in law enforcement, whose uniforms were traditionally blue. It’s thin because there are fewer officers than there are members of society to protect and serve.
There are roughly 800,000 sworn law enforcement officers for 320 million people in the United States. It’s also thin because they are strong yet weary, confronted with intolerable conditions, exasperated and depressed by a society that is moving away from what is right and wrong. They are not allowed to be apathetic and put their heads in the sand. They decide to act in support of their oath of office and to uphold the Constitution, but, moreover, for the love of their communities and for each other.
Policing in a Democracy
Some are often confused regarding the reasons for the existence of the police, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Are they protectors or enforcers? Are they servants of social and mind control? What laws do they enforce? Is that even "legal"? The police are actively characterized as protecting people to maintain safety and order. They protect life and property and are also called upon to perform every conceivable kind of service. “To Protect and Serve” is often cliché and what the public sees on police vehicles is not as simple as what it appears to be.
The police are the vehicle by which the limits and permissibility of social tolerance are tested. They face glaring challenges in a multicultural and multi-faceted political economy where they are an anomaly in a free society. The police limit individual freedom by applying coercive force to change behavior. If morality is derived from an individual’s own goodwill and sense of identity, then they can recognize another’s right and wrong by their own sense of them. If one tries to exert domination over another, they have overstepped the truth and entered into a false relationship.
Their nature and existence, then, seem un-American because the system of government which sends them out to the front lines values individual freedom. This clash of conflicting viewpoints places law enforcement in an uncomfortable middle not only between law and lawlessness on the streets, but between its own government and its administrators.
Policing "Turning Points"
Our society is perhaps at a turning point in history and the thin blue line as a band of warriors are needed more than ever in a new era and time. It has been said that the night is darkest just before the dawn and so our police stand, not as oppressors, but as hope during the toughest of times. William Straus and Neil Howe (1997) discussed the cycles of social development and revolutions which historically repeat themselves, but run parallel with where police are at today.
They exist as historical “turns” such as the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy eras (1943-1963) when there was a new civic order with a weakening of individualism and a strengthening of social, political, and religious institutions. In a second turn (1963-1983) in which a strong awakening occurred, the civic order was attacked and there was a passionate upheaval historically seen as what was called the “turbulent 60s.” During the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton eras (1983-2003), yet another turn occurred as individualism was strengthened, a cultural war unraveled, and existing institutions became weak, leading to new values from a decaying civic order. The fourth turn during the G.W. Bush, Obama, and Trump eras (2000-2020) has been an upheaval of the entire system which creates a new civic order thus leading to another “first” turning.
As turning points have always been understood from various historical contexts, what will the future hold? Will this new turning point and time in history lead to glory or ruin? Civil disobedience through violence typically occurs around the climax of disorder. It highlights vulnerabilities where problems are unraveling and gaps are neglected instead of being handled immediately and efficiently. People will ask, “Where is my money”? “Who is my boss”? “Who are you to tell me what to do”? How does the government work”? “Will I have a job”? “Will I be able to keep my job”? “Will I be able to take care of the people I love”? Anger at mistakes, neglect, and indifference grows social unrest and anarchy. At present, we have a fiscal crisis, racial tension, domestic and global terrorism, and political divisiveness. Electronic and social media serve as mechanisms of manipulation and instruments to form public opinion.
Because the police are the most visible agents of the government they are being targeted by the public at a scope and level never seen before. Death by gunfire as a result of coordinated efforts to “take out” the police are weekly headlines. When civilization is free to prey upon each other, the police become an easy target. Consider it, to the anarchist, as the business model of “removing the middle man.” It’s similar to a game without referees to stop the fight. As a result of the social unrest, the government hyper-militarizes their police with body cams, audio devices, vehicles, equipment, and military-grade weaponry often confusing the once firmly established and agreed-upon mission, role, and scope of the police as servants of the public.
A vicious cycle is currently underway as the thin blue line takes on a nation intent on destroying itself. The police must protect themselves and others yet are tethered to unwinnable strategies by their own government and the public they serve. Is it the police who agitate a distraught public or are they merely puppets whose strings are pulled from above?
The media has successfully coordinated hate and smear campaigns which go viral on social media outlets and television through quick-cuts and soundbites. Others are out actively “cop baiting” and recording traffic stops or other police calls for service and intervening with arguments about violations of their Constitutional rights.
Militant groups and social movements such as Black Lives Matter (BLM), and national tragedies such as the Trayvon Martin case, and events in Ferguson, MO, and Baltimore, MD have led to calls for federal intervention to soften the core of what used to be the police. Will it be better? Will it be worse?
In a soon-to-be "post COVID-19 era," intentions must be clarified for the police and public regarding the Constitution, the social contract, and civic order. Cops want to help, but they also want to go home. The consequences, through changes in laws and policies, are yet unknown, but it is certain that our thin blue line is now stretched too thin. How much thinner can it go?
Copyright © 2020 by Brian A. Kinnaird
Das, D., Verma, A. 2003. Police Mission: Challenges and Responses. Scarecrow Press.
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Straus, W. Howe, N. 1998. The Fourth Turning. An American Prophecy. Broadway Books.
Von Hoffman, N. 2010. Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky. Nation Books.
Whitehead, J. 2013. A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State. SelectBooks. New York.