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‘With great power comes great responsibility’

by Caleb Baumgardner | April 21, 2021 at 9:30 p.m.

As I type this, it has not yet been 24 hours since the jury handed down its verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin yesterday.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, the principal officer involved in the death of George Floyd last summer, who was charged with second- and third-degree murder, as well as manslaughter, has been found guilty on all counts. He is looking at decades in prison.

Depending on his sentence, he may spend the rest of his life there since he is 45 years old.

In the analysis and commentary I’ve heard since the verdict, many people have touched on the racial aspect of this case. Because that has gotten so much attention, I want to focus on a different aspect of it that is tied into the racial aspect of it but is, at least in my mind, still distinct from it.

Are there people who are upset about the verdict of the trial who are so because of racial animus, even if they will not say so out loud or even admit it to themselves? Absolutely.

There’s another angle too. That is the issue of authoritarianism. Let me explain to you what I mean by that.

I was mostly sure that the verdict would be what it was. What doubts I had came from the fact that I know for a fact, because of what I do for a living, that there are those who would never vote to convict a police officer of any crime, even if they believed them to be guilty of one, simply because they are a police officer.

I am glad no such people wound up on that jury. I know of other juries where that was not the case.

That blind trust in and deference to authority figures, particularly those who are agents of the government, as well as the belief that those figures should have license to commit crimes in order to prevent crimes, is unequivocally, by definition, authoritarian.

In my experience, it runs deeper in American political life than most people are prepared to admit.

What’s interesting is that many such people identify as conservatives. I don’t necessarily mean Republicans, I mean conservatives. The two do not always entail the same things, especially nowadays.

From my upbringing, as well as my involvement in and study of politics, I think it’s pretty uncontroversial to say that one of the cornerstones of conservative thought is to view the institution of government as something that, though necessary, has in its nature a tendency cause trouble if not carefully monitored and constrained. This is so because the institution of government is necessarily coercive, having nearly exclusive legal recourse to the use of force and violence in order to keep order, uphold the law and protect members of the community it governs.

For this reason, conservative thought is, in my experience, skeptical of government and its agents.

I should note that when I talk about conservative thought, I don’t mean what you find in the books published by intellectually dishonest hustlers like Sean Hannity or those like him. Such people may hardly be called thinkers. I mean real, actual conservative thinkers like Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott.

I have seen plenty of conservatives, including many I know personally, rightly condemn Officer Chauvin’s actions in keeping with traditional conservatism.

But I’ve also seen far too many, especially in the media, strive mightily to come up with some reason — any reason at all — why Officer Chauvin either didn’t kill George Floyd or why his killing of him was lawful and morally permissible.

One wonders if such people, if they were placed in George Floyd’s position, would not, while struggling to breathe, compliment Officer Chauvin’s technique or advise him to move his knee a bit so that more pressure might be applied.

Seriously though, that kind of desperate defense is the opposite of skepticism of the government. I mean, if a police officer can kill someone in the manner that George Floyd was killed in front of a crowd and on camera, viewed by millions around the world, and get away with it, then what can’t the government do to you, really?

But I think the reason the people who think that way do so is because they honestly believe that there is no way they could wind up in George Floyd’s position, because they believe that for such a person to end up in a position like that, they must be guilty of something. For such people, all police officers are apparently incapable of mistakes, much less malice.

And since police officers are not only agents of the government, but the agents of the government that most people are likely to encounter in their day-to-day lives, what that really means is that they believe that agents of the government are incapable of mistakes, much less malice.

And that right there is textbook authoritarianism. It’s also absurd. Police officers are as human as the rest of us, and as such, they are absolutely capable of both evil and error. And it must be said that one evil of which they, along with anyone else, can be capable is racism.

It must be comforting to believe otherwise. No doubt the alternative is scary. But the alternative is the truth. It’s about time all of us came to terms with that.

If this is an indication of the state of American conservatism today, one wonders if the label even still applies. But then, the word conservative, like many other words in our country’s political discourse, has largely lost any meaning. It gets used to describe the general will of a political tribe at any given moment, and how that word is used will change when that general will changes. But I digress.

One of the things I learned from reading comic books as a kid is what Uncle Ben taught to Peter Parker, better known as Spider Man. That is, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Police officers have more power than almost anyone. Under the right circumstances, they can legally deprive any of us of our property, our liberty and even our lives.

Most of them use this power to protect others and serve their communities. That’s the job they signed up for.

But like Uncle Ben says, that power comes with great responsibility. And when that power is misused, especially as brazenly as it was misused against George Floyd, there must be accountability.

Otherwise, all you’ve got is power without responsibility.

And that, Faithful Reader, is tyranny. To demand that in the name of loyalty to the police or in the name of patriotism is to go down a dark path from which it is difficult to return.

But thankfully, on Wednesday, there was some accountability. Let’s hope that sticks.

Or, better yet, let’s hope for and work toward having a country where the kind of thing that happened to George Floyd just doesn’t happen anymore.

Caleb Baumgardner is a local attorney. He can be reached at [email protected]


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