Books for the News, Chicago, History, Politics and Current Events, Sociology

Police Power and Twenty-First Century America


In Cop Knowledge: Police Power and Twentieth-Century America, Christopher P. Wilson writes about narratives of police power in mass culture—from crime fiction and film to the denizens of contemporary political discourse who make use of the squad room, the beat, and the badge. His conclusion? That the stories we tell about police power are intimately linked to the course and outcome of modern liberalism, including a current resurgence of neoconservatism.


In January 2003, Slavoj Žižek penned the article “Gerhard Schroeder’s Minority Report and Its Consequences,” which explored themes from Steven Spielberg’s adaptation (2002) of the Philip K. Dick short story—in which criminals are arrested before they can commit their crimes, thanks to the efforts of a specialized police department, working under the government’s protective wing. For Žižek (and also for Spielberg, who went on the record), the police state evoked by the film was clearly transposed to U.S. international relations post-9/11, where the Bush doctrine suggested with a heavy hand that American military might should remain “beyond challenge” in the foreseeable future. Žižek goes on in the piece to point out the election of Gerhard Schroeder—the German Social Democrat, and a candidate who ran on a platform against the U.S. occupation of Iraq—as a real-life instantiation of a “minority report.” In Žižek’s later questioning of the war on terror and its resultant political stances, he cites Terry Eagleton on two opposing forms of tragedy: “the big, spectacular catastrophic Event, the abrupt irruption from some other world, and the dreary persistence of a hopeless condition, the blighted existence which goes on indefinitely, life as one long emergency.”


What might life as one long emergency begin to look like?


Who is in control during one long emergency? To whom do they report? Whom are they controlling, and to which ends?


“These definitions coincide with the terms which, since Greek antiquity, have been used to define the forms of government as the rule of man over man—of one or the few in monarchy and oligarchy, of the best or the many in aristocracy and democracy, to which today we ought to add the latest and perhaps most formidable form of such dominion, bureaucracy, or the rule by an intricate system of bureaux in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called the rule by Nobody. Indeed, if we identify tyranny as the government that is not held to give account of itself, rule by Nobody is clearly the most tyrannical of all, since there is no one left who could even be asked to answer for what is being done.”—Hannah Arendt, “Reflections on Violence,” New York Review of Books, February 27, 1969


Nothing resolved here; only a few questions. For more on the relationships between bureaucracy, policing, and civil liberties, consider:

The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society by David Garland

Against Prediction: Profiling, Policing, and Punishing in an Actuarial Age by Bernard E. Harcourt (Harcourt also summarizes Chicago’s NATO weekend in this article for the Guardian)

 Images from in and around the CANG8 protest at the twenty-fifth annual NATO Summit, May 20, 2012, Chicago, Illinois.