It’s A Police State, And It’s A Constitutional Republic

I ran across a very good article at Zero Hedge: In A Cop Culture, The Bill Of Rights Doesn’t Amount To Much. It’s worth taking a look at, especially if you are not familiar with the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights. I wont go into the LEO Bill of Rights here. It suffices to say that it is designed to grant extra rights, legal and administrative, to police officers. It’s why things like this happen.

Instead, I wanted to comment on a sentiment, not completely wrong, expressed in this statement from the Zero Hedge article:

Unfortunately, if you can be kicked, punched, tasered, shot, intimidated, harassed, stripped, searched, brutalized, terrorized, wrongfully arrested, and even killed by a police officer, and that officer is never held accountable for violating your rights and his oath of office to serve and protect, never forced to make amends, never told that what he did was wrong, and never made to change his modus operandi, then you don’t live in a constitutional republic.

You live in a police state.

  1. Yes, you live in a police state.
  2. You also live in a constitutional republic.

Unfortunately, terms like “democracy” and “constitutional republic” have been elevated to near-divine significance. Rarely do we use the terms solely to refer to a mode of state. They’ve also become an ideal, an end goal we strive toward as the epitome of all that is good and holy in the world. The meaning of these words, their emotional content and implication, has become divorced from definition and history. And this, unfortunately, also paints any state that labels itself “democratic” or “republican,” in the political and not political-party sense, with the same emotional weight.

A democracy is a tool for decision making. It is a form of technology. It can be implemented in a state, or a small group of individuals. However, it is neutral. There is nothing inherently good or bad about democracy. Most people don’t realize this: democracy has immediate implications of good. And thus we criticize some institutions as “anti-democratic,” because we view them badly, when in fact they are just bad democracies.

Democracies are capable, particularly when we’re talking about a political democracy in a state, of evil things. The classic example is the Athenian democracy, from where we’ve adopted both the term itself (demokratia) and the form of government. In fact, the Athenian democracy is often held to be the ideal, with an intense, participatory and direct democracy.

In reality, the Athenian democracy was a repressive institution. It’s sufficient to say that in this model democracy, slavery and the oppression of women were commonplace. (And this was true for the American constitutional republic, too.) But we could also look at specific examples – democracy in practice – where the Athenians made decisions to brutalize themselves and others. The execution of Socrates is a common example; the aftermath of the Mytilenian revolt is less well known, but could be called Socrates to the nth. In an act of pure democracy, the entire male population of Mytilene was sentenced to death.

(The following day the decision was reversed. And I imagine not a single Mytilenian male ever decried the “flip-flops” of politicians as long as they lived.)

But a parliamentary democracy/constitutional republic/whatever we’re calling our state today is different, you say. It has “checks and balances.” There’s a constitution (or maybe not – United Kingdom, looking at you) that hedges laws. Minorities have representatives; representatives prevent a “tyranny of the majority.”

In fact, this form of government was also invented and facilitated by oppression. We could do as we did with democracy in Athens – the republic in Rome – to show that the form of government by itself prevents nothing. If we wanted to be a bit more recent, consider this: every single Western democracy that exists today was created in an environment of endemic slavery.

This is important to understand, because there are implications to the effect that certain types of abuse are impossible merely because a state takes a certain form. Americans often respond to every abuse with “that’s not constitutional,” as if the constitution were a cross or a piece of garlic, and the supposed violation a vampire.

In practice, all that is written in legalese is relative. What was constitutional yesterday may be unconstitutional today. (Jim Crow, slavery, prohibitions on female voting, abortion, gay marriage.) Tomorrow, it may become constitutional yet again. It’s literally the role of the judicial branch to decide for you. And if you disagree, if you think it is not supposed to work that way, it changes nothing. That’s the way republics do work, in practice.

It’s not a bug, it’s a feature. This describes the application of the US Constitution, and the functioning of constitutional republics in general. When the police are abusive, it is legitimized when the legislative or judicial rubber-stamps the abuse.

In short, you don’t decide what is constitutional or not. A small group of the elite, judges, executives and representatives, do. And that’s the way that constitutional republics are designed to work.

As soon as we begin to look at it this way, constitutional republic doesn’t seem so hot. And it really comes down to who is in power and what decisions they make. If the decisions are perceived as good, overall, we tend to attribute that to the nature of the constitutional republic. In reality, those decisions could just as easily have been made in the opposite direction. And in most cases, they have. Which is why the most profound decisions in modern constitutional republics often involve ending a practice that was formerly the status quo (e.g. slavery) of that very same republic.

Indeed, all of this applies to a dictatorship. The outcome has less to do with the form of state, and more to do with the decisions made by those in power. Rule by a three-hundred-man oligarchy is no different from rule by a king, when the oligarchs and the king wield the same power and make the same decisions.

“But we choose our representatives,” you might object. The only response to this is yes, we choose our oppressors. When you’re on the business end of the whip, it doesn’t matter if you got to vote for your overseer or not.

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