America does not have a police state. Yet. East Germany had a police state. Syria has a police state. In police states, the government is afraid of the people. Our government is not all that afraid of us. Despite the liberal paranoia about militias and assault rifles, the training drills and TV shows where survivalists overrun the country, the people in charge don’t wake up every morning worrying about a revolution. If they did, then two people in your neighborhood would be informing on you weekly.
We don’t have militarized police forces, TSA agents and NSA eavesdropping because the government is afraid of us, but because the government’s policies have made life unlivable without them. The KGB wasn’t there to protect Russians from each other. Our police state is. And those parts of it that aren’t fly under the radar every time the Chicago death toll for the year appears on the evening news.
The police escalation that shows up on countless videos exists because the people demanded it. And the people demanded it because liberal social policies made entire cities unlivable. The militarized police forces out of cities like Los Angeles filtered down to the suburbs and the rural areas as the same policies and populations that made cities unlivable began spreading outward.
The police state, associated with the right, worked in tandem with the social policies of the left, to dull the pain of those policies. That “dulling” has become the new role of conservative politicians in America who manage the disaster instead of rolling it back. The left realized that without the police state, its policies faced a much broader level of rejection so it learned to tolerate the pigs and the man.
Urban areas were still a disaster, but relentless computerized policing reduced crime enough to make it appear that things had improved. The visible crime statistics however were only the symptoms of the problem. The left had been right about that. It was just wrong about the cause. It was the cause all along. Its social policies had created social problems that the police state managed.
Having armed goons patrol the streets made cities viable again. And that brought in the tax base which allowed the left to experiment with more of the same social policies. The Giulianis made it safe for the Bloombergs and then the De Blasios to come back. In the same way Bush’s war policies paved the way for the Obama years by dulling the pain of international terrorism.
The international manifestations of the police state dulled the impact of Islamic terrorism without addressing the cause. The cause was not, as the left and some libertarians believed, foreign policy, but immigration. The collision of populations and ideologies led to September 11 using the very planes that made international immigration so easy as weapons.
The War on Terror with its spectacle of targeted drone strikes slowed down the terrorists without addressing the real problem, dulling the pain so that no one would pay too much attention to the next planeload of Pakistanis, Syrians or Somalis showing up in America.
It’s tempting to connect the two, to assume that the social policies are there to enable the police state, but the people behind one or the other are two arms that can’t find each other. The class warriors can’t conceive that their enthusiasm for cultural breakdowns and economic depression somehow causes crime and the law and order types can’t grasp that all they’re doing is making it easier for the people responsible for the mess to make it worse. And even if they do; what other options are out there?
We’ve become very good at symptom management and at not thinking about the underlying problem. Our medical establishment turns out high tech symptom management medications that let you go on living your life and canoeing or mountain climbing in drug commercials and our law enforcement, security and military establishments are good at their own high tech symptom management whether it’s drones, surveillance or computerized tracking of all offenses in a given area.
The Republicans are aware that problems don’t really get solved, but they are unwilling to deal with the causes. The sad state of the mainstream right is that it believes in holding the line, in managing the symptoms, and when the line is pushed back, it has no answers and no solutions. The left has plenty of solutions, but they are the same solutions that cause the problems.
What we have is a problem of failed societies, both at home and abroad. Some of these societies encompass entire countries while others are limited to a city or a neighborhood. In these places the social contract has broken down. The only thing that keeps the people living in them from killing each other is the threat of naked force, the vendetta and the lynch mob and honor and shame.
The right tackles failed societies with 70 percent policing to 30 percent welfare while the left goes with a 70 percent welfare to 30 percent policing mix. There’s a fundamental difference in consequences with a 70 percent welfare mix being unlivable and a 70 percent policing mix being manageable so long as you don’t mind losing your civil liberties when you get caught up at the wrong time and place.
But the differences in philosophy are less profound. The right is forced to accept the necessity of the welfare state and the left has to accept the police state. Republicans have to hand out free stuff and Democrats have to drone. It’s the emphasis in priorities that makes Democrats different from Republicans. It’s the distinction that they make between ends and means that explains why they are so much alike until they get too close to having unchallenged power with no one to stop them.
The left tries to “save” the people of failed societies by taking care of them and tries to appease them by minimizing resistance. The more they are taken care of, the less they take care of themselves and the more entitled they become. The more they are appeased in response to violence, the more violent they become. Eventually this cycle hits a peak which requires police or military intervention. If the intervention is successful, the cycle is dampened, the right declares victory and the left agonizes. If it is not successful, then the left declares victory and mixes its existing policies together with some version of the police state. Either way the cycle continues and the problem resurfaces.
Since we can’t address the problem, we instead blindly address the symptoms. The TSA gropes everyone. The NSA listens in on everyone. The police treat everyone like a potential spree killer. Every school has to be locked down and put on zero tolerance. Every cop is following a script that leads to a taser at best and a bullet at worst. Everyone has a plan for killing everyone else.
That’s not the traditional police state. The cops aren’t the Superego, they’re the Id, doing the dirty work that no one wants to talk about so that we can go on pretending that everything is alright. While society pretends that everything is working, those with the guns know that nothing works and lose faith in the system and in society. The people we pay to protect us from failed societies take on some of the aspects of failed societies, looking into the abyss and seeing the abyss inside themselves.
If the cycle continues, then at some point our state of police may become a police state, but that’s not the likeliest option anymore. Police states work with people who generally behave themselves. They are good tools for dealing with the middle class. They’re not much good for people with no sense of consequences or concern for the future whose life is shaped by magical thinking.
In the United States, it’s not the populations that drift in and out of jail who find the police terrifying, but those who don’t. There is no police state for the former. The middle class citizen looks warily through the window of his home like the bars of a cage but when the cop car drives through a bad neighborhood, it’s the police officers inside who feel like they are in a cage. The police state is about control and our state of police exists to control the areas that are becoming uncontrollable.
The same problem exists internationally. American diplomats can bully the UK over the EU or intimidate Israel into releasing terrorists, but they can’t do much to Afghanistan, Pakistan or the Palestinian Authority. There’s only one thing you can do to people who don’t care about what happens next because they don’t think in terms of consequences and live for little else except conflict.
And so eventually the middle class people and the middle class countries get tired of policing bad neighborhoods and bad countries and retreat to their own little zones of security policed by increasingly ruthless tactics as the violence outside grows and the walls begin coming down. And then it’s Rome and the barbarians all over again.
The left can’t fix the social problems that, in some cases its welfare state helped cause. It certainly can’t fix those that predate its intervention. Its efforts are all the more hopeless because it attributes the cause to its usual suspects of capitalism and intolerance so that it never addresses the problems, instead it uses people from failed societies as ammo in a cultural war. The right’s tactics temporarily contain the worst of the violence, but not its expansion or its causes.
The very problem with a police state is its mechanical blindness, its fear of offending anyone or singling anyone out that it resolves with wholesale intimidation. Oppressing everyone to avoid oppressing anyone is the egalitarian ethos gone mad. Police states deal in random terror to intimidate everyone. Our state of police deals in random terror because that way everyone is equal.
But the problems that brought this state of police into being are not evenly distributed. And a solution whose distribution ignores the distribution of the problem cannot succeed. Our police state has been brought about by a collision of cultures. The police state and the welfare state attempt to manage that collision without acknowledging it.
The domestic police state would be far less necessary if we stopped importing the populations who are most likely to be in need of it and the same goes for the domestic welfare state. Internationally we can scrap the welfare state and concentrate our firepower on larger threats rather than chasing down every goat herder with an RPG in the name of stabilizing another failed society that will stabilize.
Daniel Greenfield’s article first appeared at his blog, Sultan Knish.