Yesterday’s Thoughts

June 18, 2005

Two Kinds of People

There are two kinds of people.

People who think there are two kinds of people, and those who don’t.


If you laughed at that you are the first person to do so in the more than 15 years I have been repeating that line. Which says a lot about me. And you too, if you laughed.

So if you don’t agree that there are two kinds of people whenever I say that there are two kinds of people you should read that there is a particular dimension over which all people’s responses are distributed. Whether this distribution is bimodal is a fact that we can argue over later.

The two kinds of people that I am interested in today are distinguished by their answers to this question:

Are you more afraid of criminals or of the police?

This is a major discriminant and I believe that the responses strongly correlate to people’s feelings on a wide range of issues.

For myself, I have very little fear of criminals. I have great fear of the police. I am a law abiding person. I pay my taxes. I am not engaged in any criminal activity. I don’t drink and drive. I try not to park my car illegally. I don’t consciously exceed the speed limit by more than 10 mph. I live in a relatively safe neighborhood, in a relatively safe city, but I have lived in high crime neighborhoods and in high crime cities. While in college I drove a taxi in Philadelphia, and while I wasn’t harmed other drivers were and it was a semi-constant fear.

There are two ways I account for the strength of my fears, a moral argument and a risk assessment argument.

Moral Argument If I am mugged I will lose my money, possibly my life, and certainly my sense of safety, but there won’t be any question in anyone’s mind that I have been wronged. My friends and family will believe I have been wronged, my community will believe I have been wronged and my government will believe I have been wronged. The police will be taking my report and attempting to track down the mugger. Even the mugger will agree that I have been wronged, even if he also thinks that I deserved it or has some other rationalization.

On the other hand, if I am arrested on a completely fabricated pretext, my friends and family might believe that I have been wronged, but my community will wonder how I went wrong and my government will be working actively to prove that I did wrong. Very few people will be coming to my defense. Even the mugger will believe that I have done wrong.

Which is scarier to you? I am more afraid of the second.

The moral argument is abstract. It doesn’t matter if I am never going to be arrested on a fabricated pretext, particularly if I am likely to be the victim of a criminal. That depends on an assessment of risk.

Risk Assessment Argument I believe I have more risk of being wrongly held by the police than of being the victim of a crime. Obviously I don’t hold the most commonly articulated position on this, but I don’t watch the evening news, so my judgment is not informed or impaired by the media.

Others will evaluate the risks as I do and many others who evaluate them in the opposite way. If you are afraid of criminals because of your experience of being robbed, or having someone in your family attacked, beaten, kidnapped or killed, then it is reasonable to fear crime and criminals. If you have been stopped while driving legally because of your skin color, forced to “move on” even though you were not engaging in any crime, spied upon, been the subject of police brutality or falsely imprisoned, then it is reasonable for you to fear the police.

I am not saying one view or the other is correct, but I do believe that one view gets a lot more political traction. I will discuss some reasons for this below, but it is worth mentioning that those who fear the police more than the criminals are systematically discredited, “Don’t do anything wrong and you won’t have to worry about false arrest.” Add that to the fact that many members of the fear-the-police class are either poor (and presumed to be criminal), or non-traditional (queer, minorities, immigrants, non-conformists, heretics – also presumed to be criminals), or actual criminals, you can see that the fear-the-criminals crowd has the advantages of an asymmetric argument. Not only are you intellectually wrong, you are intellectually wrong because you are morally wrong.

Correlated Views Many decisions are motivated just along these lines. How do you feel about tougher sentencing laws? How do you feel about increased power for police oversight committees? What do you think of driving while black laws? Should the police be required to read a criminal their Miranda rights before questioning? Are Democrats weak on crime? Are Republicans opposed to civil rights? Should the government be intruding into an individuals private sexual activities? Should the government have a role in public health and morality?

US citizens are currently being divided into two camps on a new variety of issues. The discriminating question is:

Are you more afraid of terrorists, or the government?

And the correlated views are displayed in responses to these questions: Should the government be required to obtain a subpoena before examining a subjects library records? What about tapping a suspects phone? What if the suspect is a terrorist? What if an FBI agent says so? What if the subject is going to kill 20,000 people in the next hour? What if the President says so? Should the detainees at Guantanamo be held without trial? Should the US government be required to produce evidence in a public forum to support continued detention so called enemy non-combatants?

I think, but don’t have to hand evidence to prove, that there has been a concerted effort since the time of Nixon to increase the fear of crime. There seems to be even stronger evidence that the terror threat levels were manipulated (see Tom Ridge’s statements about not knowing why the threat levels were being changed.)

I can imagine the some of my particular fears come from the intellectual and Hollywood culture that I have been exposed to. Kafka’s Trial paints a picture of the brutality of government. Mr. Smith went to Washington to deal with corruption. How much adrenaline have I pumped over the crooked cop, judge or prosecutor? How many tears have I shed over the crook with the heart of gold?

And yet, I believe that my risk assessment of the police and the criminals is the correct one. And I believe that the threat of our government is greater than the threat of terrorists.

How to prove it? Coming soon.

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