Thursday, October 8, 2009

Sobriety Checkpoints on the Road to Totalitarianism

Sobriety Checkpoints on the Road to Totalitarianism
by Matthew J Bell

One of the hallmarks of totalitarianism is the attempt, by the ruling class, to regulate the lives of the population. Moreover, a primary concern amongst the ruling class is the instillation of obedience in the citizenry - obedience to the ruling class. Furthermore, one facet (although certainly not the only the only one) of this "obedience instillation" process is the utilization of the police forces.

Now, I must preface my further remarks with the following emphatic statement: I am NOT "anti-police" in some unqualified sense nor am I of the opinion that the majority of workaday patrol-persons and "beat cops" have nepharious intentions. I have no doubt but that, aside from the few "bad apples" that plague every bunch, the majority of police officers are just ordinary folks with an extraordinarily dangerous job. But, the fact that I harbor no ill will toward our officers - and I do NOT harbor any ill will - cannot prevent me from criticizing policies and procedures according to the dictates of my conscience.

And, in that vein, I must confess that I perceive that a number of police policies and procedures are, despite the stipulated good intentions of most police officers, contributing to a formation of a species of totalitarianism here in the United States by effectively coercing and instilling obedience in the population. And I remind my readers that "the population" is none other than the "We the People" whose country this is supposed to be.

Amongst the tactics apparently used to instill obedience is the tactic of the creation of fear in the population. It is perhaps unfair to suggest that this particular tactic is a "police tactic" per se, as the media, NTSB, NHTSA, etc., arguably play much more significant roles in this regard. I include reference to this tactic, as this tactic is relevant to the present discussion. However, I will leave aside the problem of determining whether it should rightly be called a "police tactic."

A pertinent example the fear-instillation tactic could be the instillation of the fear of drunk drivers. Drunk drivers are presented as "putting us all at risk" - even though the statistical probability of any one of us, individually, encountering such a driver is quite low, and the probability of being killed by a drunk driver is even lower.

Note well, however, that merely acknowledging the low probabilities does NOT in any way diminish the trauma of drunk driving accidents that do occur. But, that trauma alone is not clearly enough to justify the police intrusion of "checkpoints" that disturb hundreds of drivers, approximately 97% of which turn out to be law-abiding.

(For the 97& statistic see the NTSB press release at the following URL, which release related that the percentage of drivers at roadside "surveys" who were discovered to be "legally intoxicated" was 2.2%. 100% - 2.2% = 97.8%.

(In a similar way, the fact that the statistical likelihood of dying by a lightning strike is also extremely low does not make being hit by lightning a pleasant experience for those unfortunate enough to be hit. But, the horror of being hit by lightning does not seem to have prompted the legislatures to direct police to ticket people for being outside during electrical storms - even though, if police did so, they would surely save SOMEBODY'S life.)

Another totalitarian obedience-inducing tactic is the deliberate application (and repetition) of suggestive language. While I am not competent to chronicle the progression, over some interval traversing the not-too-distant past, Americans have gone - in these sorts of contentious, "civil rights" contexts - from calling persons with both guns and (legitimate) badges "police" or "peace officers" to calling them "authorities". I suggest, though have not the space presently to argue, that the word "police" did not serve to instill the proper submissiveness in contentious contexts.

One will likely read that "Authorities in [such-and-such city] are organizing a checkpoint". Who is organizing a checkpoint? "Authorities" are organizing it. Presumably, we are to understand that this means the police departments with the permission of the city councils, etc. But, the value of the word "authorities" seems to be, in part, that the validity of the checkpoints is more readily accepted. After all, if the "authorities" set up the checkpoints, who is some John Q. Citizen to object? (Note, again, that the use of the suggestive word "authority" does not eliminate recalcitrance, it just arguably minimizes it as well as allowing the recalcitrant to be labeled "disobedient" or, in some contexts, "subversive.")

Every properly educated citizen knows that you don't refuse to "comply" with (obey an) an "authority"! "Authority," after all, is a term of power.

Yet another tactic used to instill obedience is lifted directly from the pages of Skinnerian behaviorism. (Although here, I am afraid, I must again qualify my comment. For this is tactic is not really a separate tactic from those already identified. It is, perhaps, better to say that this point looks at the checkpoint tactic in general.) The existence of such a thing as a "checkpoint" seems to be a case study in operant conditioning. It is difficult for me, not being a behavioral psychologist, to tell whether the checkpoint is best viewed as a positive punishment or a negative punishment - perhaps it is a little of both. But, it seems clear that a primary goal for the checkpoint-technique is psychological: namely, to "increas[e] ... risk perception" - a phrase occasionally employed by the NHTSA (see, e.g.,

But the phrase "increas[e] ... risk perception" has a double meaning. For the "unimpaired", the checkpoints increase the perception that the risk from drunk drivers is so high that drastic and intrusive measures are needful - and this in spite of the low statistical probability that a given motorist will encounter a drunk driver, as mentioned above. For the "impaired" driver - that 2.2% of motorists - the presence of checkpoints increases the perception that it is well nigh impossible to escape the long arm of the law.

There are other tactics as well, of course. But, presently, I do not want to try the a reader's patience further by multiplying examples.

Let me end, then, by reiterating and restating my opening comments. I believe that the police are engaging in practices that contribute to the formation, in America, of a totalitarian system of interference and control. But, I am NOT imputing malevolence to the majority of workaday cops, nor am I suggesting that most police would even consciously recognize (let alone endorse) what I perceive to be their role in employing the sorts of authoritarian tactics that I enumerate above. (I do not blame workaday cops any more than I would blame workaday teachers if I perceived that teachers had inappropriate roles thrust upon them - e.g., as babysitters) I believe that police are victims of the injustices engendered by totalitarian polices and procedures, just as much as non-police. And, to a large extent, workaday cops are "just carrying out orders" - somewhat like bank tellers are forced to charge exorbitant fees and exact oppressive interest charges. I do not hate them personally, even if the system that they serve is odious and despicable.

I do hope that more people - including (or even especially) officers - would take a few steps back and perhaps look at police policies and procedures with new lenses, situating these policies and procedures in the larger context of a country with a declining economy, that is in the midst of prosecuting two imperialistic foreign wars, and that has allowed severe reductions in hard won civil liberties dating back, not just to the 1960s, but to the Magna Carta.

Perhaps, in this context, the best starting point is this: pondering the old adage ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?', that is ‘Who will guard the guards?' Having set up police as unquestionable and irresistible "authorities" what sorts of checkpoints and other intrusions will we have to submit to next?

"The Price of Liberty is Eternal Vigilance." ~ Attributed to Thomas Jefferson.

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