There has been a paranoid streak in American political life as long as there's been such a thing. Patrick Henry famously "smelled a rat" at the 1789 Constitutional Convention, fearing that rather than tinker with the Articles of Confederation as they'd been commissioned to do, the end result would be a far more powerful central government which would appropriate powers previously belonging to the states.
As the saying goes, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you: Patrick Henry's fears were spot on. Our Constitution did in fact create a much more powerful central government than had the Articles of Confederation; Henry vehemently opposed ratification of the Constitution and George Washington's Federalist policies.
The French Revolution, however, illustrated that there are times when you actually want some degree of central power; Mr. Henry changed his tune, and by his death was a staunch defender of the centralizing features of our Federal government. He wound up excoriating the anti-Federalism of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, saying that their stroppiness would lead to civil war - yet another well-justified fear of the prescient Governor Henry.
Today, we are surrounded by overweening government on all sides. Our Federal government intrudes into domains properly the prerogative of the states. Our states meddle in issues best handled by local towns or counties; and government at all levels increasingly dominates aspects of daily life where it has no business at all. Any one of us can be arrested at any time for violating one of the myriads of laws we've mostly never even heard of. Are we living in a police state?
More to the point, when do you know you're living in a police state? Yes, we regularly see reports of people harshly punished for petty offenses, but it's still quite rare. Every government will be oppressive sometimes; where does it cross the line?
|Uh... not really.|
The first response might be, that a police state rules by fiat of the powerful and not by law. Certainly there are plenty of examples of totalitarian states that work exactly this way: North Korea and Stalin's Russia operated according to the commands of the dictator, nothing more, nothing less. Modern Africa is stuffed with countries where there is nothing resembling the law; if you're a friend of the President-for-Life, you can get away with anything, and if not, you can suffer any sort of abuse at the hands of anyone who is. Obviously, the secret police of such a nation have no accountability to the people and are feared and dreaded by everyone save their masters.
An absence of the law is not a requirement of a police state. Nazi Germany was the ultimate police state, and yet the Nazis were absolute sticklers for the rule of law.
Hitler didn't seize power; he was legally elected and the legally elected legislature formally granted him his dictatorial powers by properly passing a law to that effect. Germany's Jews weren't randomly whisked off to Dachau; they were collected in a highly organized and bureaucratic fashion, in strictest accordance with various highly discriminatory laws all properly formatted and published just like any other law. Things got a little less orderly towards the end of the war, but that tends to happen in a country that's being utterly defeated and mashed flat by invading armies.
What made Nazism evil wasn't its violation of the laws of Germany; Nazism was the law of Germany, and most Nazi secret police followed their laws scrupulously including proper testimony and convictions in court before a judge. The laws broken by the Nazis, in the view of the victorious Allies and most of the world, was the higher moral law of the God of the Bible, "Thou shalt not murder" among other things.
Yes, the Nazi concentration camp guards were "just following orders," apparently lawful ones no less. The victorious allies argued that they should have known that those laws were immoral and thus invalid; the gas chambers were violations of what would now be called human rights, and which our Founders called "the laws of Nature and of Nature's God."
Of course, that logic works when most relevant nations and their peoples recognize the existence and authority of that particular God. It doesn't work well when you are dealing with nations that don't recognize a God at all, like Soviet Russia or Communist China. It doesn't work at all with nations whose god commands:
Prophet, make war on the unbelievers and the hypocrites and deal rigorously with them. Hell shall be their home.
- Surah 9:73
So let's confine ourselves to our country, America, and to our common well-understood American culture which, like it or not, is heavily based on Judeo-Christian traditions and moral philosophy. Are we a police state, and if not, what are we?
Stunningly, there actually are places in the United States where we are very close to a police state: our airports. The TSA has demonstrated every aspect, save two, of the worst abuses of any totalitarian secret police:
There are, however, as yet two highly relevant distinctions between the TSA and the Gestapo: the TSA is so far unarmed, and thus cannot simply gun you down where you stand. Also, while they can have you imprisoned, they can do so only briefly; everyone we've ever heard of who's tangled with them has either been promptly freed or received their day in court.
Of course, entering an airport is a somewhat voluntary act. A free people should not have to fear the freedom of transportation, but given that the TSA's mini-police-state can be successfully avoided at the cost of some inconvenience, clearly America as a whole is not a police state. At least not yet.
Without exception, every single government and police force is going to commit abuses; it's human nature. In a nation of 300 million people, there's no possible way to avoid the occasional innocent being shredded in a hail of gunfire any more than we can create a system where absolutely no innocent people wind up behind bars or executed.
You could argue that it's the intent that matters - in America, innocents usually wind up harmed despite the best efforts of the system, whereas in Nazi Germany, it was the express goal of the government to harm innocent Jews.
Where do you specify the level of authority? In the infamous Duke lacrosse rape case, District Attorney Mike Nifong - the official representation of lawful authority - clearly cared nothing for the facts or justice and the falsely-accused students must have felt that they were living in a police state.
As it happened, through sheer dogged persistence, the truth came out, the innocents were freed, and Nifong wound up behind bars instead though only for one day. He was, in the words of North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, a "rogue prosecutor" - he wasn't just another cog in an overtly unjust machine.
Nevertheless, the powers Nifong wielded are frightening in their scope - he withheld and destroyed evidence, lied to the media and others, and for many months got away with it unquestioned by any save the families of the accused. Clearly, our justice systems are not immune to misuse by an evil individual.
What of the police who arrested and imprisoned the lacrosse players? They certainly did nothing wrong: they exercised a lawful arrest warrant signed by a proper judge and delivered by the duly designated authority. Yet, entirely unintentionally, they were abetting an injustice.
Don't overlook the massive differences between the Duke story and any real police state: there was no torture or murder, they had their day in court, and justice somewhat prevailed. As an illustration of what can happen here and now, however, the Duke lacrosse rape case is relevant.
Once every now and then is one thing, but we read more and more often of such injustices. The pages of Scragged are filled with accounts of individuals receiving unjust sentences, being persecuted by officials who themselves admit that there's no real crime but "their hands are tied," and of a government entirely unresponsive to public protest no matter how great.
Are our policemen Nazis? Of course not. Are their bosses Nazis? Equally, of course not.
Yet it is equally clear that our government is becoming more and more accustomed to ignoring the protests of the public and to doing what it thinks best regardless.
Some of the time, that might actually be best, as in whisking captured foreign terrorists off to Guantanamo out of the reach of American courts and lawyers. Other times less so, as in the continued existence of the TSA. Either way, it's a very bad and dangerous habit for any government to get into.
It's an even worse habit for the people to get in the habit of deference to obviously illegitimate government decrees.
If the American people simply refused to tolerate the TSA's abuses, they would stop.
If the American people refused to acknowledge or obey the bans on light bulbs and flush toilets, as they generally refuse to obey speed limits, the power of intrusive government would be beaten back by popular force.
If the American people all, or mostly, took that attitude that "You can have my guns when you pry them from my cold, dead fingers," gun control advocates would be helpless.
They don't, and thus far, normal politics have availed us very little. There still is scope for normal politics, we hope. We haven't seen peaceful protesters gunned down in the streets as we do in true police states, nor even imprisoned for any great length of time.
And perhaps that's the greatest indicator of being in a police state: the police openly and freely assault those who peacefully protest their abuses, there is no redress from higher authorities, and the incidents become regularly repeated in a consistent way so we know they're not just a one-off.
Until that time comes, there's hope. Of course, once we've reached that point and we know where we are, it's probably too late even to personally escape.