Since the passage of the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act, over 5 billion dollars in equipment has changed hands from the US armed forces to local police departments. This gear includes everything from assault vehicles, anti-aircraft guns, and armored vehicles to underwear, cooking utensils, and office supplies. Initially, the program was intended to give local departments the resources needed to combat narco-traffickers in border states, but after 9/11 the program was escalated in order to fend off potential terrorist threats. As a result, in the past twenty years or so, America’s police officers have gone from Andy Griffith to RoboCop.
Why such excessive force? Are the police simply bullies and thugs who want to harm people? Some say hastily yes, but I think the issue is more complicated than that. Rather, police departments are under the influence of a powerful ideology, one which rationalizes over-the-top escalation of force and labels innocent civilians as malicious evildoers.
In a highly influential essay from 1964, the Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter detailed an ideology that he called the “paranoid style” in American politics. This ideology is characterized by “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” Hofstadter labeled the contemporary movement supporting Barry Goldwater’s candidacy for U.S. president as exemplary of the paranoid style, but he notes that paranoid movements have existed all throughout American history. The paranoid style can be located
“in the anti-Masonic movement, the nativist and anti-Catholic movement, in certain spokesmen of abolitionism who regarded the United States as being in the grip of a slaveholders’ conspiracy, in many alarmists about the Mormons, in some Greenback and Populist writers who constructed a great conspiracy of international bankers, in the exposure of a munitions makers’ conspiracy of World War I, in the popular left-wing press, in the contemporary American right wing, and on both sides of the race controversy today, among White Citizens’ Councils and Black Muslims.”And today, I argue, the police departments of America are firmly in the clutches of the demon that is the paranoid style.
One key component of the paranoid ideology is that its adherents invent straw-man enemies, threats both domestic and foreign, and then unconsciously emulate the characteristics of these made-up bogeymen. For example, the KKK’s anti-Catholicism led Klansmen unknowingly to emulate Catholic clergy by donning priestly vestments and developing elaborate rituals reminiscent of the Catholic mass. The John Birch Society, paranoid about Communist plots and cells, “emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through 'front' groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy.”
The modern American police are strikingly similar. After 9/11, American law enforcement has taken paranoia to new heights, arming themselves to the teeth against an enemy that does not exist. This is not to say that the threat posed from narco-traffickers and Islamist terrorists is made up, but such groups do not (and would not) attack the U.S. with armored battalions or fighter aircraft. Due to imagining that such fantastical scenarios are plausible, police do everything they can to stave off these fake threats, and in so doing they start looking more and more like the imaginary foe -- an enemy force set out to destroy American liberty.
How can the police be cured of this pathological way of thinking and acting? The best thing to do would be to publicize police behavior so that it can be scrutinized by ordinary, non-paranoid citizens. Of course, many police cars are outfitted with dashboard cameras, but such cameras conveniently and suspiciously “malfunction” when police are accused of wrongdoing. Moreover, beatings and other forms of police brutality are often committed out of the scope of the dashcams. What really needs to happen, then, is to outfit every cop in America with a camera on his or her chest or glasses, which streams live video to servers maintained by an independent third party. We then would have to hope that cops won’t then turn their 50-caliber machine guns on the servers.