Back in 2000, I was a young military wife living in Tempe, Arizona. My husband had been assigned to an ROTC position on the ASU campus, which meant I got to take classes tuition-free at the university. (Cushy life, but somebody’s got to live it.) I used to meet my husband on campus frequently. He’d be in uniform, of course. Every so often, I noticed looks of scorn focused our way. Once or twice someone gave him the finger. They judged him solely by his uniform, his career choice, and I felt judged in turn. It hurt my feelings a lot.
A year later, everything changed. Military appreciation discounts abounded. ROTC enrolment soared. No more fingers on campus. Small children were encouraged to approach my husband, tug on his uniform, and thank him for his service.The military and the people in it became heroes again, overnight.
Once again, my husband was judged solely by his uniform. This time it happened to work to our favor. Damn right I’ll take that 10% off. Free entry to National Parks? Great!
But guess what? He was the same guy, pre-9-11, post-9-11. The hero worship irked me nearly as much as the fingers, because I knew he was just a fallible human being like the rest of us. If he deserved respect, it wasn’t for donning that uniform in the morning; it was for upholding the highest standards of what that uniform represents. And the military is still the military. A flawed system like every other institution. As such it requires careful watch-dogging, constant checks and balances, addressing of problems as they arise (or at least as they are noticed).
That post 9-11 hero-worship did no one any real favors (aside from that free trip to Legoland. My kids appreciated that.). Instead it helped create a climate in which dissent from political/military decisions were read as unpatriotic, even as traitorous. And that led in turn to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I think there are few people left who see that decision as anything but disastrous, based on flawed information that wasn’t given the scrutiny it deserved.
Then and now I believe real patriotism means taking off the rose-coloured glasses. Seeing beyond the uniform to the person. Acknowledging that our institutions, our leaders, and we ourselves are all made of humanness, therefore essentially, forever, flawed. Thomas Jefferson knew this. He said, “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”
Part of the cultural dialogue lately has suggested that white liberals are engaging in a type of racism. That by iconicizing Michael Brown or Eric Garner we are actually saying this is the best of black humanity or something. We’re being prejudiced. I disagree. I think instead Michael Brown’s death was a catalyst for something that had long been brewing.
However, I’m hearing that criticism of any actions of the police involved in these shootings, or dissent with the grand jury decisions equals scorn of law enforcement institutions. Isn’t that prejudice? Saying that the police who have made bad decisions, who have shot unarmed people, who have gone in to situations trigger happy, are still up among the best we have? That’s the best they can do? That police are too fragile to tolerate scrutiny? That to me, is not respect. That’s coddling.
And I call bullshit on it. I can respect the law and officers of the law without thinking they’re perfect. Respect for police, to my mind, means insisting all are held to the same very high standard of behavior (and yes I think they should be paid way better too).
On Saturday I took part in a local black lives matter rally. I didn’t see any scorn expressed on the part of the ralliers. I saw people demanding parity of treatment by the law. I saw people demanding justice. I saw people suggesting a need for enhanced surveillance and accountability of police activity. None of this, to my mind, suggests lack of respect or scorn. Instead this will reveal both the many officers who are doing fine, wonderful work and the ones who are not. It will reveal the flaws in the system that exist and need to be fixed. Because, like I said, there are flaws in every system.
The police are people. They should be highly trained, and they’re doing one hell of a hard job. For that they earn and deserve my respect. But do I owe them my blindness? No way. The opposite. I owe them my scrutiny.
Blind respect for systems and uniforms, rose-colored glasses and hero worship. None of these are truly respectful. They help no one. They don’t better society. Instead they lead to disaster. We need only look back as far as Iraq to see that.