The now famous video of the Los Angeles police beating did not, for me, evoke the formulaic outrage that the media intended. Instead, strangely, it brought back a flood of memories from my misspent youth, a year of which was passed as a reporter on the “police beat” of a daily newspaper in a medium-sized city. Every day I was in and around the station house, the courts, and scenes of crime and disaster (which, among other things, has made me a better historian than if I had spent the same time in a library).
In those days it was not a foregone conclusion that when there was a difference of opinion between a law officer and a felon, a reporter would always side with the felon. I had other advantages as well: I was the son of a fire captain who had more than once been subjected to sniper fire by “civil rights” activists while trying to keep neighbors’ houses from burning down. For these and other reasons, my liberal education had not taken and my sympathies were generally with the cops, humanly flawed as they often were.
One day off duty I saw an incident that crystallized a lifelong determination to always give the police the benefit of the doubt. I was on my way from lunch, walking across the main square of Charlotte, literally the busiest spot in the Carolinas, and thronged with the noon crowd. A young man was coming down the sidewalk toward me. He was white, about 19, clean-cut, and neatly dressed. Without warning, he began striking people in the face with his fist as he passed them.
The only authority in sight was a short, overweight policeman, well into middle age. He ran puffing down the block and grappled with the youth, trying to restrain him. The officer soon saw he was getting the worst of it. He gave the young man a tap with his nightstick—a quite gentle tap under the circumstances. That did not do the trick and was followed by a second.
Imagine the reaction of the passersby who came upon the scene only at the end. They saw a nice-looking young man lying on the sidewalk with blood flowing from his head, an unprepossessing policeman hovering over him with a club. I noted the oohs and ahs issuing from three very well-dressed women, of the incorrigible upper-middle-class do-gooder type, who had just come up. It was clear where their sympathies lay.
For the policeman, it was a no-win. Suppose he had not subdued the aggressor? The same women would have been screaming at the failure of protection. For all I know he was chewed out the next day by the chief, who was much more interested in fitting in at the country club than in the welfare of his men. Lesson: our reactions are often aesthetic and self-indulgent when they ought to be rational and ethical. Spoiled Americans want to rule the world and live in prosperity and safety, but we get in a dudgeon when reminded of the ugly details.
President Bush is a cultural type of exactly the same cut as the three women, who were undoubtedly the wives of transplanted Northern corporation executives, eager to believe the worst of a red-neck Southern cop. The President avowed that what he saw of the Rodney King tape “sickened” him. I seem to recall a campaign clip of the President shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with the Boston police. But maybe that was only a campaign position, like being against taxes and affirmative action.
As far as I know, no one pointed out that this fastidious TV viewer had recently given orders by which 100,000 Iraqis were incinerated or otherwise had their lives terminated. Many of them doubtless were very decent human beings by comparison with Rodney King. They seem in most cases merely to have been trying to get away, arid not contemplating a felony.
Aside from his irrepressible New England priggishness, which causes him to refer all public issues back to his private emotions, Bush is not that different from the rest of us. He is a victim of the moral obtuseness of what Richard Weaver called “the spoiled child mentality” and of the strange mental disconnections that afflict people whose idea of the world is formed by publicity and television. Of course, the President’s military minions, unlike the police, did not have the media taping the more unseemly aspects of their mission, which was kept neat and upbeat for the viewers back home.
It is axiomatic that we can never—never—trust the media to tell the truth about these things. They will always make the police look as bad and the criminals as good as possible, suppressing essential facts and contexts to serve their agenda. There are still a few of us around who remember accurately the day of the Kennedy assassination. For the first few hours, Cronkite (“the most trusted man in America”) was on the air reporting that the President had been shot by right-wing extremists in Dallas. The media have no basis for judging the merits or proportions of an issue except a liberal Pavlovian response. One of the givens of their world is that a criminal who is a member of a minority group is always unjustly treated and excusable.
The media people, far from being the paragons of wisdom and fairness that they portray themselves, are of quite mediocre intelligence and dubious ethics. They are selected by the same criteria used to choose actors for toilet paper commercials. Politicians, as despicable as they are, eventually must answer to rivals, voters, and prosecutors. The television news celebrities can lie endlessly without any responsibility, except to the few unknown old plutocrats who employ them, a system of irresponsible monopoly we call freedom of the press.
My time on the police beat coincided with the arrival of the Warren Court’s edicts expanding the rights of defendants. The impact was palpable—demoralization of the cops, debasement of trials into the dishonest pursuit of technicalities over justice, and increased crime on the streets. There was a cause-and-effect relationship as clear and demonstrable as anything in the social sphere can be. Suddenly the cops no longer had the discretion to carry out the most essential part of their job—stopping the criminals before their crimes.
Of course, there were and always had been police abuses, but they were not so widespread and major as to require the Supreme Court to tie the hands of the officers of the law. The restrictions were purely and simply the result of ideology and sentimentality—the feeling that crime could be cured by bribing and coddling the criminal. We now know beyond doubt what the fruits of that are, yet we are doomed to live with the institutionalized idiocy.
Surely the LAPD does not appear to best advantage in that tape, and where correction and punishment are called for, they should come—after careful proceeding and not in an atmosphere of political hysteria, and for discipline, not vengeance. But we should give the officers at least as much benefit of doubt and technicalities as federal judges and the ACLU bestow on the most heinous offenders. We do not know and can hardly imagine what those policemen may have gone through in the minutes—not to mention the hours, days, and months—before that videocam was pointed at them; nor what were all the experiences and dynamics that played into that incident.
The beleaguered policemen must subdue increasingly violent and numerous lawbreakers, protect the public and themselves, and be constitutional lawyers, all in the same instant. It is not too surprising that they will fall down on the job or even succumb to a little paranoia now and then, especially in the face of an uncomprehending and unappreciative public. All we asked of Schwarzkopf was to whip a greatly outnumbered enemy, with an unlimited purse and no real scrutiny. Thousands of policemen are asked every day to do things much more difficult.
We cannot let the politicians and mediacrats use a few instances of police excess to divert us from the real issue, as they would like. The real issue is an ever-escalating war against humanity by criminals who operate in America today on a scale and with a freedom unprecedented in human history. In the final analysis, we can survive well enough with a Rodney King roughed up now and then, though it ought to be discouraged. But what remains of Western civilization in this country cannot survive a half hour without officers of the law willing to risk life and limb on the front line of a war far more vital to our welfare than Mr. Bush’s late glorious expedition amongst the Infidel. First things first.