The surest way to create a repressive regime is to exempt its armed guards from responsibility for their actions.
That should seem obvious, even to those who have the job of maintaining public order in civil – and occasionally uncivil – society. A police state by definition is a place where people in uniform can act with impunity and are beyond reproach, where guilt is assumed in even the most innocent. No one wants to live there. We know from the lessons of history that absolute and arbitrary authority is a them-against-us exercise in human degradation.
So it comes as a shock, if not a complete surprise, that police-union leaders are using the killing of two New York City officers by a mentally unstable man as an excuse to shout down the intensifying public debate about overly aggressive law enforcement.
Patrick Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association in New York, descended to creepy depths of absurdity when he went on the attack against protest groups and Mayor Bill de Blasio with a malevolence distressing in a man whose day job is to preserve the peace.
"There's blood on many hands from those who incited violence under the guise of protest to try to tear down what police officers do every day," he said, in the wake of the shootings by a deranged man who made threats on social media after the police-related deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. "That blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall, in the office of the Mayor."
Mr. Lynch's irrational response was echoed by Toronto Police Association president Mike McCormack who has previously been critical of the city's Police Services Board civilian chair Alok Mukherjee over his Facebook post about the number of Americans killed by police. In a column written for the Toronto Sun, Mr. McCormack condemned "irresponsible anti-police rhetoric." The "resulting hatred," he wrote, "has most certainly played a role in the senseless killing of these two officers."
No one benefits from these tone-deaf displays of self-interested opportunism – especially not the rank-and-file officers whose safety union spokesmen purport to defend. Police officers deserve respect, but respect is a two-way street: Like all public servants, police must earn it through their actions, not demand it as part of the job description. Confrontations will only escalate if police insist on raising the tension level by starting all conversations from a position of animosity.
The protection of society at large means more than cosseting the hurt feelings of union officials who can't tolerate justified criticism of militaristic shoot-first tactics and a disproportionate use of force in low-level encounters with the public. When preserving order is equated with creating a climate of fear and intimidation, our security is endangered, not enhanced.
Dissent is here to stay – so learn to deal with it.