The sanctity of the rule of law and its equivalence to police


With all of the conversation about the protests in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray, conversation inevitably turns to how justly or unjustly the police handle themselves in not only intense situations but also in their day to day activities. To me and many others out there, the idea is fairly clear: laws that are unjust ought to be ignored; by extension, it is wrong for the police to enforce those unjust laws.

Unfortunately, many (perhaps a majority of) people do not like it when you criticize the police. The reaction is usually one of dismissal and anger. Trying to explain your position further—saying that what makes them bad is not the fact that they are police officers but instead their actions—goes nowhere. You’ve spat upon their golden calf and their mind is closed to you.

I think this reverence towards the police goes beyond the badge and the uniform since people don’t feel the same way about the badges and uniforms of private security guards. It’s what the badges represent that makes the difference. What they represent is the sacred idea is the so-called “rule of law.” How this manifests itself can happen in various ways, as people can view the rule of law being derived from Natural Law, the Constitution, or even just the sum of all the laws currently on the books. Regardless, the phrase “It’s the law” has developed a mystic meaning, so much so that many people will support it even if they don’t agree with it. And that makes sense to them because there are laws that are used to change the law.

Anyone who questions the rule of law is crazy to them. A typical response to a criticism would sound something like this:

What do you want, people running around arbitrarily deciding what laws they do and don’t like? Laws are what allow us to have a functioning society and they maintain order. How could you be against that?

There is no debate in their minds over this. As a result, since the police are the vehicle of the law, any criticism of the police is seen as an attack on the law and its sanctity. Even if all laws were good and just, that does not mean that the police would necessarily act with goodness and justice as well. This is where the problem lies: people equate a system of just laws with police officers acting justly. In reality, questioning and criticizing the police is not a dismissal of or an attack on the assumed just laws they are tasked to uphold.

This creates a circular logic loop: because the laws are just, the police are justified in enforcing the laws and because the police act justly, the laws they enforce are just. Trying to break this shell in people’s minds becomes extremely difficult but, considering that I once thought this way, is not impossible.

And now we are left with a question. How do we break the shells and show people how to acknowledge that their views on the rule of law are not correct?

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Much of the blind devotion to ‘the law’ is rooted in having personal stakes in maintaining the status quo. The most common pushback I get is from people that either have family or friends that hold government, law enforcement, or military jobs. It’s natural to feel like you are being personally attacked, even if the criticism is more generally directed at the brokenness of the system. (Coming from someone that works for one of the largest banks in the country, I can appreciate being at the center of criticism during the financial meltdown and bailout.) I think in the end,… Read more »