Max Weber notably defined the state as an entity with a “monopoly of violence over a given territory.” That definition always strikes my students as strange until we break it down. Whether the state is Sweden or North Korea, that state shares the characteristic of removing the use of force or violence from the hands of individuals and placing that use of force in the hands of institutions that ideally serve to create a stable state.
What we are seeing in the United State today is some of those institutions have blurred the lines about what they should do and what they can do. The great contribution of Anglo-American political thought – stretching from the Magna Carta to the Constitution – is that for a state to be legitimate, it must be bound by its own laws.
This rule of law is the most essential element of legitimate democratic governance.
But for it to work properly, the state must be bound by the laws it sets over the people and itself. Russia, for instance, had a rule limiting the presidency to two terms. When Putin decided he didn’t like that, he effectively scrapped it. He basically decided that he didn’t need to abide by the laws, so he ignored them.
The problem America is having right now is that some of the institutions that we invest with the power to commit violence on our behalf are not showing the necessary respect for that vital rule of law.
The outrage over the overzealous use of force by police and the systematic use of torture by the CIA is basically linked to the idea of institutions out of the reach of the rule of law.
The ultimate truth about what happened in the case of Michael Brown may never be known, but Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and others are clearer. And they paint a picture of policing institutions that are not bound by the laws that bind others. The idea that you can kill someone in broad daylight who is not armed and not even go to trial suggests that the laws that apply to all of us – and even to the police themselves – are no longer working.
As John McCain said yesterday at the release of the Senate torture report, America helped craft the international treaties that forbid torture. We helped create and signed the Geneva Conventions. We put laws on the books after the Philippines War that prohibit forms of torture. And then we ignored those limits when it became mildly inconvenient to abide by them.
Both of these trends reflect the broader, pants-wetting cowardice that we are exhibiting repeatedly in America today. We are so scared of black men and Muslim terrorists that a large segment of the population is willing to throw over the fundamental achievement of American political philosophy: namely that the government should be bound by its own laws.
This is truly distressing. Especially when you see mouth breathing morans losing their shit over the idea that America isn’t perfect.
The events of the last few years and months represent a challenge to what America thinks it stands for. If you want to blindly cling to a false image of what America is like a child clinging to a security blanket, then you aren’t really worthy of being part of the conversation about what America should be.