I have just watched the absolutely appalling video of police officers in Phoenix, Arizona belligerently and violently, with guns drawn, confronting a black family over a child’s doll allegedly stolen from a Dollar store. The police were completely out of control on the video, screaming at the family, using the “f***ing” word every other word even as children were crying, and at one point, one officer threatens to shoot the father who was simply trying to explain what happened. Nothing about this story is acceptable in any way. Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego has apologized for the incident, and the Phoenix Police Department has put the officers on desk duty during the investigation.
So a child walks out of a story with a cheap toy and the police go ballistic.
Meanwhile, in Washington, serious and flagrant repeated violations of the law by members of the current administration are merely “free speech” according to the president of the United States who takes an oath of office to uphold the Constitution and laws of the nation. He was excusing away White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway’s repeated and deliberate violations of the Hatch Act, despite the fact that the Office of Special Counsel issued a clear and unambiguous letter stating that her misconduct merited immediate firing. Other federal employees would be out immediately, but not the aide to a president who makes a mockery of the rule of law.
A baby stealing a Barbie runs the risk of police brutality, even death. But a president and his aides stealing the law out from under us seems to have almost no consequences.
Who will police the police? That is Plato’s timeless question, how a good society can ensure that those empowered to protect the people do not wind up brutalizing the people. In the American system of laws, we rely upon public officials to exercise prudence and good judgment in overseeing law enforcement. That responsibility does NOT give public officials the power to exempt themselves from law enforcement, nor to direct more punitive and harsh enforcement against some of the people while others are free to commit crimes with no consequences. Babies stealing Barbies are not a threat to anyone, but a president excusing away official crimes is a threat to the entire idea of Democracy.
No less an authority than John Adams, perhaps the greatest among the Founders, insisted on the idea that we are “a government of laws, not men,” meaning that no individual no matter how lofty can claim to be above the law. To claim otherwise is distinctly un-American and dangerous to our entire system of government.
The current administration has fostered a state of mind in some corners of this nation that encourage the kind of ruthless, lawless, authoritarian and racist misconduct displayed by the Phoenix police officers. At the same time, the president’s rhetoric and behaviors show astonishing disregard for the law and Constitutionally-mandated norms of behavior for his own actions and those who work with him. When the president encounters a law he does not like, he says it does not apply to him, or to his aides. Regrettably he has co-oped the attorney general of the United States as his Cromwell to carry out the systematic destruction of the law that normally applies to official conduct.
Kellyanne Conway’s persistent and obtuse violations of the Hatch Act are not protected speech, but rather, violations of the law, which she has also overtly and pointedly mocked as not applying to her, which is not true. Had she paid any attention at all to the Honor Code while she was at Trinity, she would know that the right thing to do now is to turn herself in, to admit her transgression and resign from office. This is not just a legal issue; as a matter of true justice, a White House aide cannot escape the kind of consequences that would fall heavily on a clerk or staff member in any other government office.
Just because that is unlikely to happen doesn’t mean that We the People should not insist on the right action. No less an authority than John Locke (whose ideas helped to shape the idea of Democracy) wrote of the “long train of abuses, prevarications and artifices” that lead people to foment a revolution “…to put the rule into such hands which may secure to them the end for which government was at first erected…” (Locke, On Civil Government)
Who will police the police? There is no Philosopher King (or Queen) on the horizon to save us right now. We can only save ourselves. It’s up to We the People to take action.
We have had far too many prevarications, abuses and artifices; it’s time for We the People to insist on a restoration of ethical and professional norms in the White House, the Justice Department and among all those entrusted with the laws of the land. We must protest; we must be insistent. And, when the time comes, we must VOTE!