Monday, June 8, 2015

The Balance between Liberty and Order

I awakened from the dream, knowing it was just a dream but feeling the intensity of the emotion that it produced in me. I was a policeman again, in a small office, in a small town with a couple of other officers when three people came in. They were strangers in town and as it turns out, they were activist/actors, on a mission to challenge law enforcement and to prove that police were enemies of freedom.  They had a story and each actor played their roles well.   I don’t remember what the pitch was, but in my dream, I recognized the play early in the performance and I, and the other officers, were on guard.  Other law enforcement professionals recognize the phenomenon; your mind is suddenly on alert from some subtle cue, and suddenly “things just don’t seem right”.  It’s hard to explain to the inexperienced, but it is a kind of intuition that operates deep in the subconscious. For the police, your life depends on this intuition.

The story told by the visitors was intended to cause the police to overreact and their plan was each of the “players” would be then be “mistreated” in some way that would engender sympathy and support for their “cause”. With a clarity not often present in dreams, I saw that each of these (two men and a woman) had a different view of just exactly where the line is drawn between civil order and individual freedom, but they all agreed that the status quo was too “extreme” in favor of social order and, in their view, too “hostile” to individual liberty. 

The details of the “play” are a bit fuzzy now, and probably unimportant anyway, but as I lay in the pre-dawn darkness, I was keenly aware that this dream reflected a deep truth that reflects a present reality in our culture.  There are people who understand and adapt to the notion that some individual freedom is voluntarily placed in subordination to maintain civil order based upon shared values. There are people who believe that the system favors order at the expense of liberty (in varying degrees). Then, there are those on the other hand who believe that excessive focus on liberty has threatened, and is destroying order (also, in varying degrees). The “activists” occupy the fringes at both ends of the spectrum. The three activists in my dream all felt that social order was oppressive and that the freedoms of the individual were insufficiently appreciated. I remember knowing in my dream that these actors did not all agree as to what a “perfect” society would look like but that their “mission” in life was to promote their view that police were the visible manifestation of all that was wrong with our government and our system of laws.

The dream played out with all three being arrested (which they intended) but in a different manner, and for different reasons than they had planned. The other officers and myself conducted ourselves in a manner that was completely unexpected by our “visitors” (as would happen when prior intel would permit the officers to inject an element not foreseen by the antagonists). Following some “dream-world drama”, and one of them nearly being killed in a “resist arrest” move, all three were “unarrested” after being “schooled” on philosophy and law. Some of my former students will nod knowingly, because they apprehend that this is “how I roll”. Even in my dreams (some might argue ONLY in my dreams) I am still “the professor”.

In my dream, as in real life, the failed “plan” of the activists, and the subsequent manner of arrest, and the fact that one of them was almost killed in the process, had unintended consequences.  The experience resulted in one of the actors having a complete change of heart and mind, the second one being seriously intellectually challenged as to his underlying philosophy, and the third one only hardening his heart and steeling his resolve to destroy the system;  One “win” for the good guys, one “loss”, and one “maybe”.

As I lay there deciding whether to get up or try to squeeze in another  hour of sleep, another recent memory came to mind that seemed to illustrate and underscore the philosophical content of the dream, and convince me to get up and write these thoughts down on paper. A couple of days earlier, I was on Watts Bar Lake in my 28’ sailboat with my good friend, a retired NYPD officer.  Eddie was at the helm as we motored back to the marina (the wind was calm so there was no sailing back) and I was viewing the distant shoreline through powerful binoculars. If I rested my elbows on the cabin roof, the vibration of the engine and movement of the boat on the water distorted my distant vision. Trying to eliminate all movement of my body by resting solidly on the boat only transmitted the minor (but distinct) movements to the binoculars, and as a consequence, the image of the far shore was too blurry to be useful.  But… if I stood steady on the deck, and let my brain allow my body to compensate for the movement of the boat, and absorb the vibration of the engine, then I was able to view distant objects with clarity. My body became the “buffer” between the dynamics of the boat moving through the water, and the static shoreline.

I think that the balance of order and liberty is like that. The “boat” is the firm foundation of the law, rooted in history, tradition, philosophy, and morality, and validated by the commitment of “we the people” to that morality and our traditions.  But history shows that even in the best of times, there are minor imperfections, and “vibrations” that are systemic. That is the “lake” that is life. It is dynamic, fluid, and powerful.  We try to navigate through the waters of life towards some distant objective that we know is there but that we cannot clearly see because of the instability of our situation.  We need a system to provide some steady, predictable, mechanism to get us over, across, and through, the waters but unless we are all “on board” we will not reach the destination. As individuals, we must remain flexible, and “give” a little to the demands of the water, and the realities of the boat, to get the clearest vision possible for the future safety and security for all.  The solution for clearer vision, and a safer journey is NOT to get out of (or to destroy) the boat!

In my dream, those three visitors saw “the boat” (the system of laws and government) as the natural enemy of individual liberty. The police were the visible representation of all that was wrong, and “oppressive” about the system. The visitors wanted to destroy the system in order to arrive at the same far distant shore as everybody else, but without the confining structure and limitations that the system inevitably requires. In the words of president Dwight D. Eisenhower, "A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both." Fundamental principles of liberty are balanced by fundamental principles of duty.  The system that was created and which we have struggled to maintain, is a balance between the maximum amount of individual liberty that can be achieved at the same time as the maximum amount of tolerance that must be extended to the “vibrations” of our civic duties and responsibilities. In the words of esteemed commentator and author Dr. Thomas Sowell, “"Tolerating imperfections is the price of freedom."

The media in the last few months has carried a number of stories of conflict between members of the public and the police, with whom some citizens feel a strong sense of anger and fear. The police likewise feel a sense of anger and fear at those citizens because we are caught in a classic “values conflict”.  The media capitalizes on the fear and anger by refusing (in many cases) to be “fair and balanced” in their presentation of the news. The result has been several police officers, and several citizens killed. In at least one recent case, it seems clear that there was an example of misuse of police authority and a blatant abuse of power.   In other cases, careful review has shown that the citizens acted in frenzied fury and out of (calculated?) misrepresentation of the facts. The issue for everyone is whether, or to the extent, that the machinery of government (the system) has pushed so hard for social order that it has lost all tolerance for the individual rights of the community. The “balance” between social order and individual freedom has been seriously compromised in some communities. The great danger is that such a condition, if handled poorly, will escalate to a national problem.  Every time the issue is approached from passion rather than reason, the players resemble those in my dream: someone with a personal “axe to grind” whose notions of individual liberty trump the necessity of lawful order. I fear that without wise leadership, and a deeper understanding of, and appreciation for, the dynamic tension between order and liberty, we will lose both. The “activists” need to acquiesce to the ruling of the majority as to our national (historic) values and the limitations of our tolerance of disorder.
-JAS- 2015

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