A Law Unto Themselves

Being by nature a bit of a communitarian, my civil libertarian muscles are often under-exercised. I’m still having trouble regarding Edward Snowden as my hero. But there is something about men in uniform with guns deciding they do not need supervision that scares even me. Charlie Pierce connects the dots between two recent examples of such insubordination, and its relationship with the principles of the Founders so often cited by Oath-Keeper types who appeal to Higher Laws:

Here’s something interesting about the Declaration of Independence, which we all revere because, you know, freedom. In the long bill of particulars on which the Continental Congress arraigned King George III — and there are 27 counts on that indictment — there’s only one mention of taxes. Rather, every one of the charges, especially the one quoted above, has to do with the illegitimate use by the king, and by his agents in the American colonies, of existing political institutions against the people themselves, either directly (by quartering troops, for example), or by rigging those institutions so they functioned for his benefit and not for the benefit of the people of the colonies. The men who signed the Declaration had long experience with what happens when the legal and political institutions of a state, and the people charged with their operation, suddenly consider themselves above the civil power they are supposed to serve — which, or so said Mr. Jefferson of Virginia, derives its just powers from the consent of the governed. That, they saw, was the true danger to their liberties posed by the government of the colonies at that time.

For the past two weeks, on two different fronts, we have been confronted with the unpleasant fact that there are people working in the institutions of our self-government who believe themselves not only beyond the control and sanctions of the civil power, but also beyond the control and sanctions of their direct superiors. We also have been confronted with the fact that there are too many people in our political elite who are encouraging this behavior for their own purposes, most of which are cheap and dangerous. In Washington, John Brennan, the head of the CIA, came right up to the edge of insubordination against the president who hired him in the wake of the Senate report on American torture. Meanwhile, in New York, in the aftermath of weeks of protests against the strangulation of Eric Garner by members of the New York Police Department, two patrolmen, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, were murdered in their squad car by a career criminal and apparent maniac named Ismaaiyl Brinsley. In response, and at the encouragement of television hucksters like Joe Scarborough, police union blowhards like Patrick Lynch, political zombies like George Pataki, and comical fascists like Rudolph Giuliani, the NYPD is acting in open rebellion against Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, and the civil power he represents over them. This is an incredibly perilous time for democracy at the most basic levels.

Just as it is obviously dangerous to allow people beyond the reach of democratic institutions to determine national security needs and the measures taken to address them, it should be obviously reckless to turn “law and order” into an idol that justifies defiance of the law and an anarchic disregard for lines of authority. That way lies Governments of National Salvation and all sorts of despotism in the name of Higher Purposes. It’s bad enough that there are so many Americans who presume their Second Amendment rights include a right of revolution if the government’s policies don’t suit them. It’s worse when you have to wonder if some of the Forces of Order are going to join them.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.