The thin blue line

On 1 January, a local sheriff’s deputy was gunned down during a shootout at a local trailer park. The event is a tragedy in any case, but especially when one considers the fact that she left behind two young children.

As a tribute, a friend of mine posted the following explanation of “the thin blue line” on Facebook:

Blue represents the officer and the courage they find deep inside when faced with insurmountable odds.

Black background was designed as a constant reminder of our fallen brother and sister officers.

The Line, the line is what cops protect, the barrier between anarchy and a civilized society, between order and chaos, between respect for decency and lawlessness.

Together they symbolize the camaraderie law enforcement officers all share, a brotherhood like none other.

As with most such statements, and especially because of my own history in the military, I tend to agree with such sentiments. Yet, I could not help but wonder about one of the central premises of this particular one:

The Line, the line is what cops protect, the barrier between anarchy and a civilized society, between order and chaos, between respect for decency and lawlessness.

If that thought is true, it means that most of you reading this post will degenerate into wanton lawlessness in the absence of police to keep you in check. Yet, I suspect that many, if not most, people will see no problem with the idea that it is the police that keep them safe and protected, even from themselves.

I think that the idea that the police, in essence, protect us from our own animal selves is one of the things that helps debase our society. From my point of view, the law (which the police theoretically enforce) is a social contract that we all have agreed to because it is the best way to live, not a restraint to prevent us from doing what we would do without the law. To claim that it is only the police who stand between chaos and order is to claim that chaos is the normal state of affairs.

In my view, then, the police serve to enforce that social contract, but that enforcement only applies to those who break it. The police have no authority over anyone who follow the contract, nor should they, because the contract only exists at all because of those who follow it. Because of that latter fact, it is not the police who stand between order and chaos, but those who agree to abide by the contract.

I am not saying we do not need the police; indeed, their service is indispensable because there will always be some who refuse to obey the social contract that is the law. I am saying, however, that the police are not what makes us follow the law; most of us do that on our own.


4 thoughts on “The thin blue line

  1. It doesn’t take most people… if the police are removed the few bad ones can do a tremendous amount of damage because they are willing to be that way.

    • The bad ones could, yes, but they already do, don’t they? It’s far more likely, and most of human history speaks to this reality, that people will take or be asked to fill positions to keep the bad ones at bay if police institutions were to somehow disappear. That’s how societies created police in the first place, and it doesn’t take continued government institutions for that idea to continue. Certainly, given the society we have now, having institutionalized law enforcement makes sense, but that does not change the fact that the idea that we would have chaos without that institution is false.

    • I don’t disagree and didn’t disagree in my post. Rather, I disagree with the contention that it is only the presence of law enforcement that compels the majority to obey the law. The two issues–law less individuals vs general lawlessness–are not the same and should not be conflated.

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