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The thin blue line


Attorney General William Barr gave a speech to a national meeting of the Fraternal Order of Police yesterday.

After referencing the shocking suicide of the guy his own father hired to molest teenage girls at the Dalton School, and promising to get to the bottom of the deep mystery of how someone who had tried to kill himself a few days earlier managed to do it after being left alone and unwatched in a cell for several hours with access to materials for hanging himself, he turned to his prepared remarks.

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[L]aw enforcement is fighting a different type of war.  We are fighting an unrelenting, never-ending fight against criminal predators in our society.  While there are battles won and lost each day, there is never a final resolution – a final victory is never in sight.

This reminded me of a couple of quotes. One is from Umberto Eco’s essential 1995 essay on the essence(s) of fascism(s):

For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle. Thus pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. It is bad because life is permanent warfare. This, however, brings about an Armageddon complex. Since enemies have to be defeated, there must be a final battle, after which the movement will have control of the world. But such
a “final solution” implies a further era of peace, a Golden Age, which contradicts the principle of permanent war. No fascist leader has ever succeeded in solving this predicament.

The other is from Nineteen Eighty-Four:

The heretic, the enemy of society, will always be there, so that he can be defeated and humiliated over again. Everything that you have undergone since you have been in our hands–all that will continue, and worse. The espionage, the betrayals, the arrests, the tortures, the executions, the disappearances will never cease. It will be a world of terror as much as a world of triumph. The more the Party is powerful, the less it will be tolerant: the weaker the opposition, the tighter the despotism. Goldstein and his heresies will live for ever. Every day, at every moment, they will be defeated, discredited, ridiculed, spat upon and yet they will always survive. This drama that I have played out with you during seven years will be played out over and over again generation after generation, always in subtler forms. Always we shall have the heretic here at our mercy, screaming with pain, broken up, contemptible–and in the end utterly penitent, saved from himself, crawling to our feet of his own accord. That is the world that we are preparing, Winston. A world of victory after victory, triumph after triumph after triumph: an endless pressing, pressing, pressing upon the nerve of power. You are beginning, I can see, to realize what that world will be like. But in the end you will do more than understand it. You will accept it, welcome it, become part of it.’

Orwell’s novel is a satire of totalitarianism, not a prediction of its eventual form, while Eco emphasizes that the fascist impulse takes many different forms in different societies. But certain essential factors or family resemblances are found over and over again.


Your families spend anxious nights, so we can sleep in peace.  You never know what your day may bring — what uncertainty, danger, or threat you might face.  But you still get up, put on your uniform and badge, kiss your loved ones, and head out to face whatever risks might come your way. 

This calls for a special kind of bravery.  I remember that when our troops went off to war in the First Gulf War, they were cheered along the highways as they went. And when they returned in victory, they were cheered and given ticker tape parades – and rightly so.

But when police officers leave their precincts every morning, there are no crowds on the highway cheering you.  And when you come home at the end of the day after a job well done, there are no ticker tape parades. . .

It takes a very special kind of courage to wage this kind of fight – a special kind of commitment; a special kind of self-sacrifice.

We have heard these sorts of paeans to “first responders” constantly since September 11, 2001. There is of course nothing wrong with acknowledging public service, although it would be nice if other public servants besides those who most directly deploy the violence of the state got some acknowledgement as well.

But the militaristic rhetoric that has become so central to this sort of praise can go and has gone in some disturbing directions. Eco:

In every mythology the hero is an exceptional being, but in Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death. It is not by chance that a motto of the Falangists was Viva la Muerte (in English it should be translated as “Long Live Death!”).
In non-fascist societies, the lay public is told that death is unpleasant but must be faced with dignity; believers are told that it is the painful way to reach a supernatural happiness. By contrast, the Ur-Fascist hero craves heroic death, advertised as the best reward for a heroic life. The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die. In his impatience, he more frequently sends other people to death.

The distance between the authoritarian admirer of “law and order” and the fascist enthusiast for unleashing heroic violence against the enemies of the state is never great in the best of times, which these are certainly not.

The rest of Barr’s speech is no less disturbing. It’s full of the typical culture war nonsense about how in the 1960s the liberals abandoned Amy Wax’s bourgeois values and let all the criminals out on the street, thus causing violent crime to skyrocket:

We live in an age now when the institutions we have relied on to inculcate values and self-restraint have been under constant assault for over 50 years.  As a result, we see about us increased social pathology:  boys growing up without fathers; alienated and angry young men; gangs engaged in the most brutal violence; mass shootings; increasing mental illness and suicide among young people; a drug epidemic inflicting casualties beyond what we would sustain in a major war; growing domestic violence; an increase in sexual assaults and child exploitation.

You name it.  And who is expected to deal with this?  As other institutions fail and abdicate, who is expected to stand their ground?  Who is expected to pick up the pieces?  You are.  The police.  The thin blue line. . .

When I last served as Attorney General in the early 90’s, violent crime was at all-time high levels in the country.  Starting in the 1960’s, we had gone through three decades of “reform” that turned our criminal justice system into a laughable revolving door.  Incarceration rates dropped precipitously; and crime rates tripled, reaching a high in 1991-92.

Speaking of Orwell, or maybe Kafka, the number of Americans in prison tripled between 1976 and 1990.

He goes on to blame social justice warrior DAs for not prosecuting enough cases, and Mexico (“the head of the snake”) for poisoning Americans by cramming opioids down our unwilling throats.

Other than Trump himself, Barr is the most dangerous person in the federal government. And the fact that he is so much smarter and harder-working than the dime store fascist who hired him to be his prime henchman makes him all the more so.

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