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Uniformed Impunity: We’re Probably Closer to the Beginning than to the End
A few days back, two New York City police officers were indicted for fixing tickets for their friends, family members and political acquaintances. Sad to say, the criminal allegations were nothing particularly noteworthy.
What was shocking, at least to me, was something else: the large and boisterous group of police officers that showed up to “support” their comrades at their arraignment.
The purposes of the assembled officers seem to have been rather clear.
They wanted to a) demonstrate their outrage at the fact that their brothers in blue were being asked to answer to the law and b) make the judge and prosecutors think twice about treating them in the same way they would, say, treat a sixteen year old black kid pulled in for suspicion of robbery.
They were successful in this last regard. According to the New York Times, the police suspects were spared the humiliating “perp walk” that most other suspected wrongdoers usually go through.
So why am I getting worked up about his?
Because it means we have arrived a new, dangerous, and sadly predictable phase of the civil religion I have come to call the Cult of the Uniformed Hero: shameless and in-your-face demands for judicial impunity.
While CUH at this level of virulence may be fairly new in the US, it has a very long history in other in other countries, especially in the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking worlds. One of the more egregious sagas of this kind was played out in Spain during the first third of the 20th century.
In 1898, Spain lost its last remaining overseas colonies (Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines) when its armed forces were crushed in a matter of weeks by the US army and Navy. For a nation that had long-prided itself on it martial skills and its role as a “great” and “civilizing” power, it was a stinging defeat, one that led at least some members in the country’s political and cultural elites to question the country’s imperial vocation and competence of its highly bloated and corrupt officer corps.
But no sooner had these few forward-looking voices begun their call to accountability than the officers, working with the help of their many friends in the Madrid establishment, began circulate a new narrative of the recent events.
According to this version of things, Spain had not been crushed by the US because the officers were incompetent or because the country really no longer had any business running an overseas empire, but rather because the political class and the cultural liberals had sold them out.
Never mind that great majority of the political class had, in fact, bent over backwards to give them everything they wanted during the years leading to the disaster of ’98 and that most citizens had largely gone along with the country’s many colonial wars.
The key to this discursive maneuver was to place the Spanish Armed Forces in the role of victim before the society. Why?
Because once it is acquired, the mantle of victimhood tends to place its wearer above and beyond the normal discourse of ethics and morality in the culture, a place from which one can claim to transcend the narrow self-interestedness that supposedly looms so large in the lives of normal people and entities.
Over the next three decades, the post-98 officer corps sought to build its self-esteem by picking pointless fights with relatively helpless tribes in Morocco. While designed to serve as cheap, morale-building victories, the Spanish military’s record in these skirmishes prove to be less than scintillating. On numerous occasions the poorly equipped Moroccan rebels took the great Spanish “warriors” down to humiliating defeats.
But this record of mediocrity did not prevent the very same officer corps from presenting itself with ever-increasing regularity as the only thing that could save Spain’s very fractious civil society from its impending implosion.
According to the post-‘98 “discourse of the noble soldier” propagated by the officers their many enablers in powerful places in society, men in uniform were qualitatively different from other public figures. While politicians were dirty, corrupt and beholden to factional interests, the soldiers were clean, pure and clairvoyant, interested only in the “overall good of the nation”.
In 1923, General Primo de Rivera took control of the nation in order to protect it, as he made clear, from its from an impending decline into “feminine” weakness. “Enough of gentle rebellions that remedy nothing and damage the robust and virile discipline that we offer to Spain and to the King. This is a movement of men. He who does not view masculinity as his true nature, should wait things out in a corner as we prepare a great future for the Fatherland. Spaniards! Long-live Spain! Long-live the King!”
After 8 years of his (and his successor Berenguer’s) corrupt and incompetent governance, the Spanish people rose up and established a democratic Republic in 1931.
But after only five years into this experiment, General Francisco Franco, who had made his name by being a ruthless killer and torturer in the Moroccan “demonstration wars”, stepped fourth to “save” the country from the shameful “disorder” of parliamentary democracy.
What ensued was one of the bloodiest civil wars the world had ever seen to that point, followed by 36 long years of military dictatorship.
The American defeat in Vietnam was, if nothing else, an invitation to reflect upon the limits of power and about the enormous human and civilizational costs of imperial wars of choice.
But no sooner had we begun to engage in this process of introspection, than the military and its many enablers in the political class and the media provided us with a new discourse of military victimhood complete with, as Jerry Lemcke has convincingly shown, wholly apocryphal stories of troops being spit upon by fellow countrymen upon their return to what we now call (in a stunning homage to the German word Heimat beloved by many Nazis) “the homeland”.
These propagandists of militarism won the game for our hearts and minds in a laugher. If you ask my students about Vietnam, they can all tell you about the poor soldiers who were, they know, abused on their return home. But very few can tell you anything about the millions of people in Southeast Asia that the conflict incinerated, maimed, and displaced. Nor the many men in our midst who were never spit on, but have never spent a day in peace over the last four decades.
In short, the last thirty years have seen the creation of our very own Cult of the Uniformed Hero, a public discourse which puts social pressure on people to treat soldiers and the military uncritical admiration. “Though I have doubts about the mission, I support the troops. Don’t you?”
What had been largely limited to the military before September 11th, 2001, turned, after that date, into a generalized and wholly uncritical lionization of anyone wearing a government-issued uniform.
Firemen and cops were no longer regular people like you and me struggling to do their jobs, but “genuine heroes” on the “front line” in conditions that “neither you nor I could never imagine” (as if healing the sexually abused or working on a ward with violent and disturbed teenagers and a whole host of other very emotionally taxing jobs are also things we can and do easily imagine!).
Translation: cops and fireman inhabit a space that is “above and beyond” the rules governing the lives of normal citizens.
Imagine the effect of sending such messages to a group of people, that if the criminal lawyers I know and my friends of color are to believed, has always skirted the line between respectable social service and bullying criminality!
Well, we no longer need to use our imaginations.
We got our answer earlier this week in that courtroom in New York. After a decade of being treated with the bliss-ninny adulation we usually reserve for pro athletes and celebrities, as our saviors rather than our servants, the men and woman in blue aren’t about to be lowered to the category of “mere” citizens subject to the same laws as you and me.
And if and when the public demand to dismantle the empire reaches a crescendo, I don’t expect their brothers and sisters at the Pentagon to be any more amenable to the will of the people.
Either by intention or sloth, we have enabled the swaggering impunity of the uniformed class. Don’t expect them to give up this import “perk” lightly.