The Thing Itself is the Abuse
I have a lot of friends who are not fans of George Bush. To put it mildly. They wish him no harm, certainly not Nicholson Baker's dadaist fantasy of flying saws, but they think he is the worst President since...well, ever.
These same people, without exception, talk about how great and important the "state" is.
Me, I wonder what the "state" is. There is a guy, George Bush, who in many ways runs the state, but my statist friends hate him. The state must be something else. It could be Louis XIV, of course, because he said "l'Etat, c'est moi !". But my friends don't really think Louis XIV was the ideal form of government. What is the answer? What is the state?
I think I found it. The state is Cherrail Curry-Hagler, of the DC Transit Police.
The Washington Post ran a story, and another, about a scientist who got arrested for taking three or four seconds too long to obey the state.
Here are the facts, which (remarkably) are not in dispute. Seriously, the arresting officer (Ms. C-H) agrees that these are the facts.
Stephanie Willett, EPA Scientist, 45
Cherrail Curry-Hagler, DC Transit Policewoman
About 6:30 p.m. July 16, Willett was riding the escalator from 11th Street NW (DC transit map) into the station, and eating a "PayDay" candy bar. Cherrail Curry-Hagler, D.C. transit policewoman, was riding up on the other escalator. Officer Curry-Hagler warned Willett to finish the candy before entering the station.
Willett nodded but kept chewing the peanut-and-caramel bar as she walked through the fare gates. Curry-Hagler, who had turned around and followed Willett, warned her again as she stuffed the last bit into her mouth before throwing the wrapper into the trash can near the station manager's kiosk, according to both Willett and the officer.
Curry-Hagler ordered Willett to stop and show ID, because she (Ms. C-H) intended to write a citation. Willett said she refused to stop and told the officer, "Why don't you go and take care of some real crime?" while still chewing the PayDay bar as she rode a second escalator to catch her Orange Line train.
At that point, Willett said, Curry-Hagler grabbed her and patted her down, running her hands around Willett's bust, under her bra and around her waist. She put Willett in a police cruiser and took her to the D.C. police 1st District headquarters, where she was locked in a cell. At 9:30 p.m., after she paid a $10 fee, Willett was released to her husband. She is scheduled to appear in court in October for a hearing.
Okay, now here's the thing:
1. Ms. Willett was on a DOWN ESCALATOR. She couldn't turn around.
2. She was already chewing the candy bar. She couldn't spit it out, without littering. Even I think you should be given a ticket if you spit chewed up food on a public escalator.
3. When Willett got to the bottom of the escalator, she put the last bit into her mouth, threw the wrapper into the trash can, and continued on toward her train.
There is no way that Ms. Willett could have obeyed the instruction not to eat in the station, unless she had run back up the escalator, or spit out candy bar.
The real reason that Ms. Willett (who, if it matters, is African-American, as is Ms. Curry-Hagler) got smacked down is that she brought out some attitude. She said, "Why don't you go and take care of some real crime?"
And here is the answer: given the law on the books, Ms. Willett had flagrantly committed "a real crime." You can't take food into a station, and you can't eat in the station. Ms. Curry-Hagler had not, in fact, committed an abuse of the system. Ms. Curry-Hagler, and all the other eager beaver Transit Gestapo in DC, are out there with their gimlet-eyed vigilance for EXACTLY offenses like these.
Which brings me to brilliant, but not nearly well-known enough, observation by Edmund Burke, in A Vindication of Natural Society.
In vain you tell me that Artificial Government is good, but that I fall out only with the Abuse. The Thing! the Thing itself is the Abuse! Observe, my Lord, I pray you, that grand Error upon which all artificial legislative Power is founded. It was observed, that Men had ungovernable Passions, which made it necessary to guard against the Violence they might offer to each other. They appointed Governors over them for this Reason; but a worse and more perplexing Difficulty arises, how to be defended against the Governors? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
[The Latin bit at the end means, "Who will guard the guardians?" But you knew that.]
The U.S. has criminalized so much behavior, from eating a candy bar on an escalator while moving toward a Metro station to mild drug use to consensual sexual practices, that our prisons are full of people innocent of any real crime. The only reason that we are even talking about the case of Ms. Willett is that she was middle class and an employed professional. In poor areas all over the U.S., police harass and beat nameless citizens while trying to enforce unenforceable laws. Those cops, and those bureaucrats who try to enforce the tax laws and the regulations on transactions and safety standards and a thousand other things, may or may not be good people. I expect that Ms. Curry-Hagler took her tin Transit Cop badge, and herself, a little too seriously in handcuffing Ms. Willett. But we don't fall out only with the abuse. The state, the state itself, with its hydra-headed legal restrictions on liberty and its extraordinarily complex and expensive mechanisms of support and oppression....the thing itself is the abuse.