I live near St. Louis, MO, which as you probably know by now, is the metropolitan area where the city of Ferguson is located. My house is less than 25 miles away from Ferguson, which suddenly became the focus of the nation last month. The killing of Michael Brown by a police officer has set off both a figurative and literal firestorm in the city and the nation.
The entirety of the Ferguson situation become much larger than the initial incident. There are 3 main plots to this story. First, obviously, is the question whether the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer was murder or self-defense. That evolved into protests encompassing the larger issue of police brutality. When the protestors (or other people who were only interested in starting trouble) became violent and destructive, the perceived overreaction of the local police brought up questions about the militarization of local police forces and violations of free speech. The three issues are obviously interrelated, but they are also distinct. Each point deserves a thorough discussion.
I’m not going to say much about the killing of Michael Brown because there are so many unanswered questions. None of us know for sure what happened that day so it is impossible to make a conclusion. However, I know there is a lot of suspicion regarding the integrity of police departments so I completely understand the concerns people may have regarding the investigation itself.
I’m certainly no fan of police brutality. Those who choose to “serve and protect” must always remember the second part of that statement. I don’t believe that police should have any special protection if they violate people’s rights.
I will say that violence is wrong and I think all sides are united against violence, whether it is from police or rioters. Preventing violence is truly the core of all the issues surrounding the Ferguson situation, yet I think many people are missing a big common thread.
One thing became pretty evident over the first few nights of the protests and riots. The way the police handled the situation with military-style equipment pushed a lot of people’s buttons. Many claimed to be shocked and appalled at the sight of highly militarized police forces on suburban American streets. From the TV reports, especially the live ones, it certainly seemed like heavily armed police using tear gas and rubber bullets were going overboard attempting to clear people, including journalists, from the streets. Scenes like that set off a frenzy on social media with people decrying the brutality of police trampling people’s right to protest. Certainly I’m no fan of anybody’s rights being infringed upon. But what I found hypocritical was that many of the people who were criticizing this overreach of government are people who consistently advocate for government overreach in other ways.
You can’t have your cake and eat it too when it comes to big government! If you want more government control in one area, you must be willing to accept big government across the board, including more powerful police and more intrusion into your personal life. If you don’t like overly-powerful government agencies, you must be willing to shrink government entitlement programs and allow other people to live their lives as they see fit. Big government is two sides of the same coin. You can not honestly expect to have a government that is powerful and manipulative on one hand, yet unintrusive and peaceful on the other. Government only knows one way to get things done. When you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
Government, at its core, is the authorized use of violence. Note that I didn’t say “justified”. I said “authorized”. There is a big difference. Justified means that an action is morally sound. Authorized simply means an action was permitted or commissioned. I think a lot of people misunderstand the functioning of government. Governments, and the laws created by them, are not the shining ideal of virtue. Nor can we expect them to be. Simply because government takes an action doesn’t make that action justified, even if a law authorizes their conduct. Laws are made by imperfect people, especially considering those who make laws are very imperfect and possibly corrupt politicians. There are many examples in history of very bad laws if you need proof of this. These imperfect laws are then enforced by other imperfect people, some of who may be unethical themselves, and you can begin to see the recipe for disaster that too many laws brings us. The more laws we have increases the odds that there will be the authorized but unjustified use of violence.
Because government is violence incarnate, it should be an option of last resort. Ideally government should only be there to protect people’s rights when certain people will not cooperatively respect the rights of others. When we begin to ask government to do more than protect our natural rights, we open a Pandora’s box of unintended consequences. The more we ask of government, the more powerful it becomes. Ultimately, that power is concentrated into people with guns and armor.
I often tell people that all government actions are at gunpoint. A lot of people push back against this statement. They claim that they don’t have men with guns forcing them to comply with the laws or pay their taxes. However, this is not a metaphor. It is reality. All government laws, taxes, regulations, etc. are enforced by the threat of violence. Usually just the threat is enough. But if anyone choses to disobey a law or decides not to pay a tax, the threat would become real. It doesn’t matter if the law or tax is truly justified, breaking laws or not paying taxes will eventually result in men with guns taking you to jail or forcibly taking your property. Continue to resist and force will be used against the “perpetrator”, up to and including lethal force if deemed “justified” by those enforcing the laws. Perhaps those that didn’t believe me before saw what happened in Ferguson and have begun to understand.
This isn’t a partisan issue, either. Government has grown steadily since the beginning of the last century, but under the current and previous presidential administration, government at all levels have seen unprecedented increases in scope and corresponding overreach. It is probably easy to correlate the militarization of local police with the Bush administration’s war on terror. But government growth is government growth. Whether you supported the so-called “Patriot” Act and its liberty destroying actions, or whether you called for the government to force free people to purchase health insurance with Obama’s ironically named “Affordable” Care Act, the end result is the ultimately the same. If the militarization of police is now becoming visible due to the war on terror, how long will it take for the militarization of the IRS to be felt from Obamacare? Laws must be enforced, and the more power government has, the more powerful those enforcers will become. Whether it’s BLM agents with helicopters and armored vehicles killing cattle at the Bundy Ranch, state governments dictating who and who may not marry, or local police SWAT teams with body armor and tear gas terrorizing residents and journalists in Ferguson, these incidents have more in common than some people would care to admit. The common thread of big government weaves throughout.
Perhaps hypocrisy is too strong of a word for some people in this situation. They honestly don’t yet understand the correlation between the expansion of big government and violent government overreach. The scenes in Ferguson in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting should serve as a wake-up call for these people. Every time you want government to make a new law, think about what you saw in Ferguson. Every time you want government to raise taxes, recall those images from Ferguson. Every time you want more government, remember Ferguson – because ultimately that is exactly what you are asking for.