Blue Lives Matter, But Not More Than Everyone Else
The emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement has resulted in some uncomfortable discussions concerning the appropriate use of force within America’s law enforcement agencies. These discussions have often centered around the historical relationship between said agencies and the ethnic minority neighborhoods they’re charged with policing.
On the one side, there is the conventional wisdom which says that law enforcement agencies, while flawed to some extent, are fundamentally accountable. They genuinely endeavor to protect and serve their communities in an ostensibly free and egalitarian manner. The dubious uses of force by police that have caused so much rancor and controversy are merely the unavoidable price we pay for the maintenance of social order – a form of civic collateral damage.
On the other side, there is the subversive narrative which paints these law enforcement agencies as alien forces of occupation arbitrarily enforcing the will of a distant political class. Their enforcement, which often comes in the form of capricious uses of deadly force, robbing communities of their dignity and peace of mind.
As libertarians and classical liberals, we are naturally predisposed to empathize with the latter narrative. The historical record is replete with examples of governments, and their agents, systematically oppressing individuals or groups of individuals who typically find themselves on the margins of society. These individuals typically only enjoying positions of political, social, and economic disenfranchisement. To the libertarian, it’s only natural to assume that American governmental forces would fall victim to this historical trend.
But does the theory match the reality? Are social justice activists and their libertarian fellow travelers driving from the proverbial backseat? After all, it’s easy to object to seemingly heavy-handed police tactics in the abstract, but it’s entirely another to put yourself in the position of an officer who subjects themselves to the vicissitudes of law enforcement each and every day.
Fortunately, as a former US Marine infantryman, I’m in a unique position to provide a practical, as opposed to theoretical, assessment of these kinds of tactics. Having deployed to the Sunni Triangle of Iraq in 2007 at the height of the “surge”, I have firsthand experience of what policing an extremely dangerous city is like.
Now some may respond by saying that a military occupying force is not analogous or comparable to civic police forces. This is wrong. Although there are significant differences, their nature does not preclude an instructive comparison between the two. The counterinsurgency operations that I was a party to involved many of the same activities that civil police forces engage in throughout America – crowd control, census operations, patrols, shows of force, civil security, etc. – as well as many of the same risks and complications. Make no mistake, by 2007, our occupation had taken on a very different complexion from a traditional military operation.
Indeed, to the extent that these differences existed, they only serve to bolster my position with regards to the propriety of domestic policing methods and techniques. The reason for this is simple. Those differences tend to justify looser rules of engagement for military forces insofar as said forces typically face more danger and uncertainty in the course of their duties. Yet this was not done. Quite the contrary, in fact. Our rules of engagement in an active war zone, where Al Qaeda snipers and suicide bombers were an ever present threat, were actually stricter than the rules of engagement that domestic police forces are typically subject to. Yes, you heard that right. The rules of engagement in Iraq during 2007, at the height of the surge, were more strict than the rules of engagement that police officers in cities like Chicago and St. Louis are governed by.
The main difference that can be observed between our respective rules of engagement pertain largely to the justified use of deadly force. Whereas my unit was required to positively identify not only a weapon but a hostile intent before using such force, police in America are often times justified in employing deadly force merely because they think or feel their life is in danger. They are not required to actually identity a weapon or an intent to do harm. So long as they reasonably suspect or believe that someone has a gun, they are usually justified in using deadly force. And the justice system almost always stands behind them, to say nothing of the civilian support networks that endlessly seek to rationalize and defend any and all uses of deadly force by police.
Generally, critics of police abuse are subjected to the familiar tropes about how police have a “split second” to make a “life and death” decision and that their main concern is “getting home to their family at night”. Indeed, nobody is denying that these are valid points to raise. I would never try to suggest that these moments are not fraught with potential danger and that police have a right to take reasonable steps to protect their own lives. Yet these points, in and of themselves, can never serve to justify the use of deadly force absent a positive identification. Nor can they remove the responsibility of police to take extreme care in protecting human life. Police lives matter, but they do not matter more than anyone else’s.
To see how reckless and unreasonable such rules of engagement are, we need only apply them to a different context and to observe the likely consequences. In Iraq, if I had shot everyone with a firearm, the results would have been, for lack of a better word, catastrophic. I would have shot several Iraqis every single day. Almost every second of every day, I came across at least a dozen Iraqis who were armed, at a minimum, with AK-47s. Yet I did not shoot a single one of them because none of them ever displayed what I could reasonably deem to be a hostile intent. And despite spending seven long months in this environment, an environment where shootings and bombings were almost a daily occurrence, not a single member of our company (about 200 Marines) died. Yes, there were injuries, some quite serious, but nobody died. This was all done in spite of our strict rules of engagement.
Some might respond by saying these strict rules of engagement subjected US Marines and other US military personnel to additional risks. Although one could certainly argue otherwise, I will nevertheless accept that premise in order to demonstrate its overarching irrelevancy. While the worry of additional risk may have been true to some extent, it was also true that the mission came before our safety. That isn’t to say our safety was not a concern, but it was not the primary consideration, nor should it have been. Service necessarily implies the possibility of sacrifice, perhaps even the ultimate one. The long and proud history of the US military evinces as much. Countless Americans from the American Revolution to the present day “war on terror” have put the mission above their own safety, often at the cost of their own lives. Although we can debate the propriety of those sacrifices as they exist within a larger political context, I doubt anyone will deny that the underlying principle of sacrifice as service is a valid one.
So the question becomes: If the US military is held to such standards, despite being subjected to far more danger, why can’t American police forces do the same? Are their lives more important than a US Marine’s? Is their mission any less important? Shouldn’t they, as paid volunteers and public servants, put the mission above their own safety if need be? For if the police do not exist to uphold the life, liberty, and property of the people first and foremost, what right do they have to exist at all?
Naturally, this issue tends to inflame emotions on both sides of the debate. Police officers and their families have every right to be concerned about officer safety, and the people they serve have just as much right to be concerned about their safety in the context of police interactions. This especially true when one considers the fact that police officers are paid volunteers who exist to serve the public interest. In other words, they chose this life and the duties that come along with it. If they cannot or will not accept the added responsibility that comes with special powers, then they are not fit to serve and should find a different profession. This is not meant as an insult, but a simple statement of fact. Not everyone is cut out to a be police officer and there is no shame in admitting that. I say this, not as a backseat driver, but as someone with direct experience in policing one of the most dangerous cities on the planet.