We’ve been told repeatedly that the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, and its discordant aftermath, is about the sad state of race relations in America.
Bill Cosby recently tried arguing that it is not about race, but about guns.
Über-liberal New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in the meantime, is screeching that the case highlights the urgent need to repeal wrongheaded “Stand Your Ground” laws that threaten to turn America once more into the Wild, Wild West.
Bloomberg, in a left-handed sort of way, may be nearest the truth in articulating what the Trayvon Martin case represents.
There was a time in America, before the Progressive Presidencies of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, when police were rare. The organized police departments we all know – with uniforms, paramilitary organization, lots of manpower – are something we Americans didn’t really start experimenting with until well after the Civil War. Initially, these were primarily a feature of large cities. It took decades for the trend of well-funded, well-equipped and well-manned police departments to appear throughout smaller communities and rural counties. Law enforcement agencies continued to grow steadily in both size and complexity throughout the 20th century. Early in the 21st century, with the 9/11 attacks, there was a Big Bang of growth as local, state and federal law enforcement beefed-up at an exponential rate.
Before any of this, people … pretty much looked out for themselves. There were sheriff’s posses and that sort of thing, assembled at need on an ad-hoc basis. And in the Old West, there were marshals here and there, and an army to respond to large-scale conflicts between settlers and Native Americans. But for the most part, people owned guns and protected themselves from criminal aggression. If you chose to rob banks, rustle cattle or break into homes there was a good chance an ordinary citizen would fill ya full o’ hot lead.
As police departments grew in size, scope and complexity, many – particularly those living in large cities – got used to not having to take responsibility for their own safety. At the same time, government got used to taking taxes from citizens, and using some fraction of these funds to hire cops. For a long while it was win-win: citizens were safe, and cops had jobs. No city has ever been completely crime-free; but for decades, the cop walking the beat kept the threat of criminal predation to a minimum.
Police departments, however, are government bureaucracies; and the imperative for any bureaucracy is to grow. With growth came “mission creep”. The cop on the beat evolved and differentiated into uniformed and plainclothes, traffic and undercover, detective and patrolman. There appeared DARE teachers and SWAT team members, homicide investigators and computer crimes specialists, and a host of other mutations. Rather than being content to find the bad guy, handcuff the bad guy, and throw the bad guy in jail, cops tried to become all things to all people: cops, in the purest sense, yes; but also social workers, pastors, teachers, guidance counselors, marriage counselors, et al. This was good for cops, because it created more roles for police and, therefore, more jobs.
Some citizens questioned such expansion, but many welcomed it. Police agencies became, in the minds of many, just another social safety net. For example, people of either gender have historically tended to shy away from relationships with abusive, substance-addled, or otherwise unsavory partners. Now, they can enter into ill-advised relationships believing that if things go bad, the police will be there to bail them out. If the relationship produces children, government checks pay for the upkeep of those children; and if the kids grow irascible, the police are just a phone call away, and can always be counted on to speed to their home and read little Johnny the riot act. In a hundred ways, in a thousand ways, the police have become the go-to guys if you make stupid life-decisions, and if you now find yourself reaping the consequences.
Actually, it’s worse even than that. We’re all familiar with news of highly dependent people calling 911 because they were shorted on their order of Chicken McNuggets, or other such trivialities. People who place such calls are thoroughly convinced these matters deserve immediate governmental intervention. They believe this because they have been led to believe this.
The original purpose of policing had been to protect society from criminals. But if there were no police, and I harm someone, my victim or their loved ones may well be vengeful – perhaps murderously so. With lots of cops around, I’ll only be arrested. Over decades, the police – which is to say, the armed wing of government – gradually slipped into the role not only of protecting society from criminals, but of protecting criminals from society – a fact not lost on contemporary crooks.
Recently we see embattled police departments failing in any number of ways, sometimes from mission creep and paperwork overload, but mostly from lack of funding. Police officers all across the country are facing either layoffs, or pay and benefit cuts. Hiring of new cops in many, many jurisdictions is on hold – and will be for the foreseeable future. The reason is, the country is broke … or nearly so. Police bureaucracies – always at the bottom of the governmental totem pole, along with other first responders – are among the first casualties of budget wars. They are the canary in the coal mine that portend – given the continuation of current trends – much greater failures in the ability of government to function.
Many people know police agencies in America are in trouble – either through gut instinct or through careful reading of the news. Many people realize they must take greater responsibility for their own safety. So people are buying guns and ammunition, the essential tools of self defense. And in places like Sanford, Florida, at least one man – George Zimmerman, whose own community was being inundated with burglaries and thefts – joined Neighborhood Watch and strapped on a 9mm.
It’s fair to say that law enforcement failed Zimmerman’s neighborhood: many burglaries occurred, and continued to occur, despite what was surely the best efforts of cops there. And whether you believe Martin was the victim and Zimmerman the aggressor, or vice versa, the police failed to protect the good guy from the bad guy, or even the bad guy from the good guy.
Things like rising sales of arms to private citizens, and the advent of Stand Your Ground laws, implies the failure of police agencies to effect public safety. People who feel safe do not arm themselves to the teeth, or press for stronger gun rights in record numbers. And if gun sales and CCW laws are a mere repudiation of government’s claim to protect its citizens, Zimmerman’s single gunshot is proof positive of the failure not only of police agencies, but of the larger government which bred them.
On April 19th, 1775, embattled colonial farmers fired the “shot heard ’round the world” that touched off the American Revolutionary War and heralded the creation of a new kind of government.
Someday, future historians may reflect similarly on Zimmerman’s single, infamous gunshot: a harbinger not necessarily of a new kind of government, but certainly of the disintegration of our Progressive, intrusive and generally ineffective existing government.