The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Cops or Robbers?

If you were to take a large group of boys and ask each of them individually what he wished to be when grew up you would be likely to receive a wide variety of answers. If you were to ask them the same question again one year later you would again likely get a wide range of answers and probably one that is very different from the one you received previously.

Nevertheless, you could probably accurately predict one or two things about the answers you would receive. You could predict that many of the boys would give their father’s occupation as their answer. Since boys, even in this age of career choice and mobility, tend to follow their fathers into their professions, this would be a fairly safe prediction. You could also predict that certain specific jobs would be likely to appear among the answers more often than others. These jobs would include soldier, fireman and policeman. These are among the things boys most commonly dream of becoming when they grow up.

What is it in these jobs that boys find so appealing?

It is the fact that they, at least in their ideal forms, exemplify every aspect of the heroic.

The word “hero”, in ancient Greek, had the root meaning of “one who protects”, i.e., the warrior who defended the Greeks from the attacks of their enemies. This would literally correspond to today’s soldier, but the roles of fireman and policeman are also roles of protection, from fire and crime respectively.

In the earliest Greek stories, the heroes were men like Heracles and Achilles, men in whose veins ran the blood of the gods. Accordingly, they were men of superior size and strength to ordinary men, and were thus able to accomplish extraordinary feats, such as the Labours of Heracles. While soldiers, firemen, and policemen are not demigods, above average size and strength are among the most important qualifications for these jobs. Or at least they were until the feminists, ever devoid of common sense, reason, and decency, insisted that such qualifications were discriminatory and therefore must go.

As the ancient Greek literature which featured the Greek heroes, developed, the earliest literary critics arose in the Athenian school of philosophers. These, for the first time conceived of the hero as an identifiable role within the literature that told his story. Since they believed that literature should serve the moral ends of the civil order – with Plato going so far as to suggest that literary works be bowdlerized – it is not surprising that they thought of the hero as a man of moral excellence. What this meant was that the hero possessed good character, consisting of the traits the ancients honoured as virtues – such as courage and justice – which he exemplified in the way he dealt with adversity – whether he overcome that adversity or not. The roles of soldier, fireman, and policeman each come with the duty to put one’s self in harm’s way, if necessary, and even to lay down one’s life, to protect those whom one is charged with protecting from invasion, fire, or crime. This requires the classical and cardinal moral virtue of fortitude – courage.

The roles of soldier, fireman, and policeman, therefore, each encompass all that has been meant by the word hero and it is this heroic dimension that causes them so frequently to pop up in the part of a young boy’s mind that considers the question “what do I want to be?”

Here in Canada, those who dream of becoming policemen usually have our federal police force in mind. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police is both a national institution and a symbol of our country as widely recognized as the maple leaf and ice hockey. Those with ambitions of a career in the police dream of becoming a Mountie for “the Mounties always get their man.”

That which is real, of course, is different from that which is ideal and, in the words of T. S. Eliot, “Between the idea/ And the reality…Falls the Shadow.” (1)

This summer, we were presented with an image of RCMP reality which is a stark contrast with the ideal. In this picture, the RCMP displayed all the competence of Dudley Do-Right, the fictional Mountie who appeared in the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons by Jay Ward Productions. Dudley Do-Right, if you recall, like such other notable fictional cops as Inspector Jacques Clouseau and Inspector Gadget, was an implausibly lucky moron who bumbled his way through to an undeserved success in each and every episode.

Ah, but that comparison, picturesque as it may be, simply does not do justice to the situation we are discussing. It would be more to the point to say that the RCMP were behaving, not like Dudley Do-Right, but like his arch-nemesis Snidely Whiplash. You remember Snidely Whiplash don’t you? He always wore a black top hat and frock coat, handlebar moustache, and had green skin and a fetish for tying people to railroad tracks, dropping boulders on their heads, and that sort of thing.

The incident to which I am referring took place in High River, Alberta, while the town was evacuated due to the flood that began in June.

High River, a town of about 13, 000 people, is located on the Highwood River, from which it derives its name, just south of Calgary. The Highwood is one of several rivers in southern Alberta that overflowed its banks last month, due to extremely large amounts of rain falling within a short period of time. Many communities had to be partially or totally evacuated due to the flooding. High River was given a total evacuation order on the twentieth of June. The RCMP, with the help of the Canadian Armed Forces, oversaw the evacuation and carried out the rescue work necessary.

At this point, you might be scratching your heads and wondering if I have gone stark, raving, mad. How, you might be asking, is the saving of 13, 000 lives an act that warrants comparing the rescuers to a cartoon caricature of a melodramatic stock villain?

It isn’t, obviously, and it is not the evacuating of the town or the saving of lives that I am referring to. Rather, it is the seizure of their guns while the town was evacuated. As the Mounties entered people’s homes, looking for those who had been left behind, both survivors and the perished, they searched the homes for guns and made off with those that they found.

Initially, when the RCMP reported having taken the firearms, they claimed that they were taken because they had been left unsecured and in plain sight for anyone to see and take. A plausible justification for the seizure, in that case, would be that in an evacuated town, guns left out in the open could fall into the hands of looters who might use them for nefarious purposes. Questions, however, were soon raised about just how unsecure and visible these guns were. Satisfactory answers to these questions have not been forthcoming.

For example, it appears that guns were removed from people’s closets. Perhaps these had not been locked away in full compliance with the requirements of the Firearms Act, perhaps they had. The point is that a gun in the back of a closet is hardly a gun that is left out in full sight. Furthermore, while it is reasonable that police, in an emergency like this, should be able to enter people’s homes without a warrant in a search and rescue operation it is not reasonable that they should be allowed to go snooping around in people’s closets.

Faith Goldy, a reporter with Sun News, the television affiliate of the Sun newspaper chain, raise four specific questions about the gun grab when this story originally broke. These were:

1) Did they do a search prior to entry to establish if there were firearms in the home? (i.e. were firearms specifically targeted?

2) Were any seized firearms locked/bolt removed? (i.e. were any deemed safely stored by law?)

3) Exactly how many firearms were seized? Again, a basic question.

4) What were the orders given to police? (i.e. were they told to search for firearms?)

The RCMP have only just now gotten around to answering the third question. On Thursday, July 18, Sgt. Patricia Neely announced that 300 guns, a little over half of the 560 seized, had been claimed by their owners and returned. (3) No wonder it took them so long to release that figure. Does anyone seriously believe that 560 guns had been left out sitting on the kitchen table for anyone to take?

The Sun News interviewed one resident of High River, Cam Fleury, whose house was not even affected by the flood being situated on the top of a hill. Nevertheless, the police broke down his door and went directly to the cabinet where his guns were stored. Clearly, Faith Goldy’s first and second questions are not unreasonable.

Some of you might be wondering what the big deal is about all of this. Perhaps you are thinking that because this was an emergency situation and the Mounties didn’t injure or kill anyone that we should cut them some slack as they were trying to rescue people. For the sake of those who are thinking along these lines it is important that we clarify what the issues are which are stake here.

Let us start with the fact that what the RCMP did would be considered a crime if anybody else did it. They forced their way into people’s homes. This would be considered the crime of breaking and entering on the part of an ordinary citizen. Worse, they broke into the homes of people who were vulnerable to a break-and-enter attack because they had been forced out of their homes due to the flood. They entered into people’s closets and storage cabinets, apparently, removed the guns they found there and took them with them. If anybody else did that it would be considered stealing. Indeed, if an ordinary citizen were to do that it would be considered worse than ordinary stealing because it was firearms that were taken. The police said they would give the guns back – provided the owners of the guns met all of the conditions the police set for their return. If an ordinary person were to steal a car, however, the argument “I was going to give it back” would probably not hold much water with the police or the courts.

Now someone might answer this by saying that some acts which are always a crime when committed by an individual person acting in his own right are not necessarily always a crime when committed by the lawful authorities. This is, of course, true. To kill another human being except in self-defence, is to commit the crime of murder. The civil authorities can, however, impose the death sentence as a just penalty for a capital crime. It is not murder for the civil authorities to pass and carry out the death sentence. This does not mean, however, that they have the right to arbitrarily decide who lives and dies. There are clear limitations, defining when the state can impose the death sentence and when it cannot, and for an officer of the state to kill outside of these defined limits is as much an act of murder as you or I were to do so.

There are those who would deny that there is any difference between a society’s civil authorities and the individual with regards to whether an act is criminal or not. Such would say that if it is criminal for the individual to do it then it is criminal for the state to do it and that the only exceptions that should be allowed for the state are those allowed for the individual. Some would even take this so far as to deny the legitimacy of government as an institution. The kind of ultra-libertarians who self-identify as anarchists, for example, consider the state to be a conspiracy against the public good on the part of those who claim an unjust monopoly on violence or coercive force for themselves.

I do not agree with this position, although I would acknowledge that it, like all errors, contains an element of truth. It is a sad fact of human nature, but a fact nevertheless, that sometimes violence is necessary. Our social nature compels us to live together as communities and societies but our individual natures create tension and conflict with each other. We therefore need laws for human society to function. The need for laws generates the need for civil authorities to make and enforce those laws and to administer justice. The enforcement of law and the administration of justice both involve the use of coercive force. Since he taking of the law into private hands and the pursuit of private justice, i.e., vengeance, create escalating cycles of destructive violence, to keep violence at a minimum it is necessary that kinds of force the civil authorities use to enforce the law and administer justice be forbidden, except in extraordinary circumstances, of the individual person. This is the message of Aeschylus’ Oresteia.

If, however, the limitation and minimization of violence requires that the civil authorities hold a monopoly on certain kinds of force, this creates a new danger, that those wielding this monopoly of force will turn it against the public. The authorities are, after all, human like anyone else. When government powers are turned to the abuse of the public we call this tyranny. We have developed safeguards in our tradition, to protect the public against tyranny, such as prescriptive, legal and civil rights, limitations upon the use of the powers of government. These are not foolproof, however, and, since governments, having crossed the line into tyranny, tend to go further and further, it behoves us to keep our eyes on that line to make sure they do not cross it.

Now let us think how this applies to the situation we are discussing. It is a crime to break and enter into someone’s house. About the only time it might be permitted of an ordinary person would be if loud screams calling for help were coming from the house. There are more circumstances in which it is permissible for police to forcibly enter a house – but these come with strict restrictions and limitations. They are allowed to enter a house and conduct a search as part of a criminal investigation. To do so, however, they must go to a judge and provide him with sufficient reason why they should be permitted to conduct the search. If they are able to provide such reasons they will receive a warrant which is a judicial permit to conduct a search that specifies when and where they are allowed to search, and what kind of search they are allowed to conduct.

In an emergency situation, such as a flood, police are allowed to enter homes without going through the process of obtaining a warrant. There are good reasons why this is the case. In this kind of search, the police are supposed to be looking for people who are in danger, to save their lives, not looking for evidence to use against them in a criminal case. Valuable time that could mean the difference between life or death for someone might be wasted if the police had to spend that time in court seeking a warrant.

If these are valid reasons for allowing the police to enter homes without a warrant in an emergency – and they are – they are also reasons why the police should not be searching for and removing guns while they are in those homes. If the time wasted obtaining a warrant might mean life and death for someone in an emergency so would be the time wasted searching for and removing guns. If the warrant requirement is deemed unnecessary in these circumstances because it is a search and rescue operation rather than a criminal operation then they should not be searching for guns in people’s cabinets and closets.

The RCMP in High River crossed a line. On one side of that line, they were the heroic Mounties of Canadian legend, evacuating a flooded town and saving lives. On the other side of that line, they were breakers of the very law they exist to uphold.

Why did they cross that line? Could it be that their heads were not screwed on just right? Could it be that their shoes were just a little too tight? (4)

Whatever the cause, they picked a particularly bad spot at which to cross the line. From the Thirty Tyrants of Athens who disarmed all but their own followers in preparation for their reign of terror to the gun-grabbing regimes of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, weapon seizures have been the mark of the tyrant since time immemorial. Perhaps it is not Snidely Whiplash the RCMP have been emulating in High River after all but that other Rocky and Bullwinkle archvillian, the Fearless Leader of Pottsylvania.

This is not the first time in which the RCMP has displayed gun-grabbing tendencies. Over the years they have been major advocates and supporters of the mountain of rules, restrictions and regulations the government has heaped up upon gun owners including the Firearms registry. While support for such laws does not necessarily make one an autocratic despot and it is not too difficult to see why law enforcement agencies might think that strict control over who has access to firearms might make their job of serving and protecting the public easier, the fact is that the more such laws multiply the more of an insult to and an onerous burden upon the law-abiding gun owner they become.

The more difficult the law makes it, for the ordinary law-abiding citizen to be a gun owner; the more guns become the property of just two elements – the lawless and the law enforcer. The more this happens, the less society looks like a civilization with order and peace maintained by the law enforcer, and the more it comes to resemble a battle field in which an endless war is waged between the lawless and the law enforcer. The more this happens, the less discernible is the difference between the lawless and the law enforcer.

The distinction between the lawless and the law enforcer breaks down much faster when gun seizure is not the result of legislation but of an arbitrary decision on the part of the police themselves – as in High River. When this happens, and the distinction between the lawless and the law enforcer is broken down, whatever resemblance there may have been between the reality of the policeman and his heroic ideal is also shattered.

When that happens, a society loses something that is irreplaceable.

(1) From “The Hollow Men”.



(4) Apologies to Dr. Seuss.

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