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Gore Vidal's Essays

America the Great ... Police State

Gore Vidal
Contributor
National Book Award winner Gore Vidal was born in 1925 at the United States Military Academy at West Point. His first novel, Williwaw, written when he was nineteen years old and serving in the Army, appeared…
Gore Vidal

Editor’s note: Each week, we will reprint an article from the Truthdig archives. The following essay was first published on July 28, 2009.

For those of us who had hoped that the Obama administration would present us with a rebirth of the old republic that was so rudely erased a few years ago by that team of judicial wreckers, Bush and Gonzales, which led, in turn, to a recent incident in Cambridge, Mass. that inspired a degree of alarm in many Americans. But what was most alarming was the plain fact that neither the president nor a “stupid” local policeman seemed to understand the rules of behavior in a new America, where we find ourselves marooned as well as guarded (is that the verb?) by armed police who have been instructed that they are indeed, once armed, the law and may not be criticized verbally or in any other way and are certainly not subject to any restrictions as to whom they arrest or otherwise torment.

This is rather worse than anyone might have predicted, even though the signs have been clear for some years that ours is now a proto-fascist nation and there appears to be no turning back; nor, indeed, much awareness on the part of our ever-alert media. Forgive me if you find my irony heavy, but I too get tired of carrying it about in “the greatest nation in the country,” as Spiro Agnew liked to say.

I was first made aware of this development in 1946 when I was limping around in army uniform in New York City and noticed that the local police (admired by none) were beginning to run wild, possibly because so many of the able-bodied young had, like myself, been serving for some years overseas. I recall that some sort of parade was being held and what looked to be a thousand or two citizens were trying unsuccessfully to cross Fifth Avenue. I waited on a street corner for an hour in my uniform, limping from my disability earned by my service in the war. But after nearly an hour of waiting, I stopped a policeman who was wandering idly around and asked him politely when I’d be able to cross Fifth Avenue. He shrieked at me, “Go call da mayor!” And I said, “Oh I will, I will.” Actually, I did know the mayor at that time, but he was not available on that sacred day. I did make a protest as a veteran who had mustered out with a disability for life, but this seemed to be a cause of great merriment. In any case, that was my first experience of a Nazi-like police force in New York City, a city pretty much home to me from childhood on.

I was also aware as the years passed how often friends would be beaten up in front of what were called “faggot bars.” Meanwhile, the police never seemed to stop an incessant whining about the enormous dangers to which their work subjected them as they gallantly served our great city, even though they were insufficiently paid and admired. I thought then that the whole damn lot of them should be sent to Camp Lejeune to be put through a strong course of basic training by the Marine Corps.

I also propose this as a solution to the problem that they currently pose us, not only on Fifth Avenue but in Harvard Yard, where a young policeman recently distinguished himself by being rude to the president, complaining with the irresistible policeman’s whine that he and the president were just alike in their problems, only he was being particularly bugged by the press, in effect, said, “join the club.” Now that they were becoming buddies in embarrassment, the little corporal said, characteristically allowing his envy to show, “You’ve got a bigger lawn than mine” — thus, proving how serious daydreaming can place yourself into a position of parity.

But the true meaning of the mess in Cambridge has been carefully avoided by a media incapable of getting the point to anything if they can excitingly change the subject to something else. So here we now have a cast of characters that includes the president himself, a distinguished scholar and a feckless young policeman who on the radio said, when asked why he had behaved so rudely to the “old” scholar, he said because the old guy had been rude about his mother. I haven’t heard this excuse since the playground of St. Alban’s in 1935.
One interesting fallout from the tragic business in Cambridge – and it is tragic, let me tell you – was that the president was forced to speak suddenly in his own voice, and at his very best, and not swathed in the authority of his great rank, but simply as a citizen making a sensible comment about a nobody policeman. Yes, I mean “nobody” literally – I know all human beings, if they are Americans, are highly valued and worshiped, indeed, for their wonderfulness and their helpfulness to fellow citizens. I state this ironically, as you might suspect. After all, why would the young man be armed unless he was a superior citizen, elected, as it were, by his fellows to ride herd on an unruly mob unless he was demonstrably special by virtue of being legally armed, which is how we are supposed to tell them from us?

But there the president was, saying, this is stupid. But he did not say, “How dare you go after a 58-year-old man who is one of the great scholars of the country and think you can get away with it?” Unfortunately, it never seemed to have crossed the president’s mind in this crisis that he is expected to do something about it. I know there is a great deal, as they say, on his plate, but after displays of this sort, he should call together a commission involving every section of the country. Every municipality is complaining about local police forces run wild. And no one does anything about it. And our masters are armed to the teeth and would seem more likely to fire at us instead of at the troublemakers. I can’t think of any civilized country that would allow this, from the look of these bulky guardians of the peace, to whom no right-minded person would allow even a slingshot to be given.

So, we are a weirdly militarized citizenry governed by the worst elements in the United States, and something is bound to blow up, as I have felt for some time now. In my wanderings around the U.S., I talk to people without money, without power, ordinary voters, as well as nowadays, people maimed by war, or time, or life or whatever, and I am convinced more and more that this is a vicious country in which the police are allowed to run amok, absolutely independent of anyone, and that is why from time to time they are allowed to get away with murder. One surprisingly knew that a wrinkle has been discovered in the seamless surface of our troubled state. Policemen are seldom tried for their crimes, or indeed, held responsible for what they do, which disturbs the peace and causes distress among the orderly.

I would suggest that the president, if he wants to be useful — and not many presidents do in my experience — he might as well call together a commission in response to citizens of every major municipality in the United States who are complaining to central authority about police forces out of control. And no one dares do anything because the police will say, “Well, you know they are acting like this because they are bad people who hate us because we are good people, rescuing cats from trees and otherwise loved by every decent person in the land.”

What the police in their ignorance have not figured out is that they have lost all credibility since World War II. They are sort of parasites on the fringe of society and do no particular good for anyone except possibly themselves. Certainly to hear them complain — you’ve never heard such whines as from a policeman who feels he’s been wronged! Apparently, all Earth owes him a living, and he’s the bravest man on any block.

One aspect of the events in Cambridge was that the president could have been characteristically brilliant on this subject, as he has been on so many subjects having to do with our general welfare as citizens (and he is also one of the useful, hands-on presidents), but the media, conditioned always to miss the point, went out of their way to miss the point here by many a mile. They blamed it all on – you guessed it – RACE! Well, you can blame anything on race, including Scripture, or the tides and the moon, and this and that, but that president and that professor are by coincidence both black, which to the plain horror of the media, had nothing to do with the brave little corporal who was feeling his oats and wanted to have some fun with an older man who couldn’t fight back. They get very bored in those jobs, and, of course, he was armed with a gun, and able to kill anybody he wanted and probably get away with it — what a temptation!

Anyway, the president has not done what he should have done, which is to have reminded us that the United Kingdom — a more livable nation than the United States, let me say with first-hand experience of both — has disarmed its police. There are no angry men wandering around carrying guns over there. This is a lesson to us, but we’ve armed practically every grange house in the United States because our regular guys just want to swagger around.

Incidentally, it was quite funny to hear one of the favorite adjectives that our new masters use to describe vicious civilians who deliberately mock them, like the professor and myself on Fifth Avenue, and I think they would include the president, too, if the Secret Service was not lurking nearby. Their term for any civilian who criticizes them is “arrogant,” but they are themselves far gone in arrogance and spite.
Let us accept the facts staring us in the face — that demonstrably we are no longer a republic. We are no longer governed by laws, only by armed men and force. This is just like the days of Billy the Kid. You have an armed man going down a dusty street and that is authority. And it has come to this for us.

If the media will ever become alert to real news, they will put paid to their universal cry that no matter what happens of a disagreeable nature in the streets or elsewhere in public, it is due to racial hatred. Both corporal and president made no attempt to clear this matter up. Arguably, you can say that everything is subject to it or tarred by it, but it was not true in this case. The young man with the gun seems to have been correct on these issues; he was training others like himself to put up with the lesser breeds, and to say that this was race-inspired because both the president and the professor were black — am I making too subtle a point? — is a serious, murderous mistake in a country like ours.

As I listened to the fallout from these stirring events, I wondered if this might be a moment when the media would reform themselves and only print actual news; for one thing, not all explosions of temper and so on are attributable to race. It would be nice if the media realized how dangerous they when they begin to falsify motives which, to be blunt, they have no authority to do. If a black person is in any way in a jam of any kind, it is because he is responding to racism or if a white person goes berserk over anything with anybody, racism drove him to it. This is a great, great red herring like some giant whale gliding across the pages of police dockets.

So let me mention the real issue. The real issue is class. We have the greatest divide between the very rich and the very poor of any country on Earth, surpassing even France. And this division gets wider and wider as financial disasters overwhelm us. We were already in pretty bad shape before things began to fall apart a year or two ago. We must acknowledge that our character, never much good in these matters, is now reprehensible, and the police seem to have taken it upon themselves to exact revenge for a full professor and his — plainly, in their view — insulting income, which they figure must be considerable. The days of greed through which we all lived now have not done us much good, nor have they taught us any lessons, but you cannot live long with such divisions, which in my view as an outsider overlooking the scene seems to be a nation of total liars. Everybody is lying. Television lies, candidates lie. And everyone says, “Oh they always have.” I love that excuse. Well they haven’t always done that. Sometimes lying to the people is a great mistake. And it is well-known that the rich will tell almost any lie to avoid paying taxes.
My last view of what looked to me to be parade’s end occurred during a walk in the woods that I took below a Duke University campus building, where I saw a broken bridge over a stream. I turned to what looked to be a local farmer, who realized that I was looking with “suspicious” interest at a vast pile of repair work: bags of cement, etc., and he anticipated my question: “They’re going to rebuild this bridge — it’s something very, very big,” he said. “Why in the middle of the woods?” I asked. “There are no roads here.” He said, “No, there’s a trail, true, it’s not much of a trail.” “So why are they building such a huge bridge,” I wondered, “when they’ve been happy apparently for many years with a very small bridge?” And he said, “Well, we’ve been told by the feds that they fear that there may be civilian insurrections. And they want to be prepared for them, and they need this bridge, no matter how small, to cross the stream in case of an emergency.”

Needless to say, I had no quick rejoinder. But he seemed to want to talk, and so I said, “What was here before?” And he said, “A small bridge which a small pickup truck could go back and forth over.” So I asked, “And who told you that it was in case of civilian problems?” And he said, “Well, everybody told us that and explained the size of it and most people here thought it was better to have a big bridge than no bridge at all, and here we are.”

I went back to the lecture hall at Duke where I’d been speaking, and I chatted about the woods, about the bridge. Nobody seemed to have noticed it. I asked a politically minded professor, and he said, “Well, it’s a problem.” He said, “The government’s getting ready for something; we don’t know what it is, but something’s obviously on their minds that’s disturbing them.” And I said, “Revolution?” “Oh,” he laughed, “this is North Carolina, don’t bother about that, but whatever it is, they’re putting a lot of money into this bridge.”

A year or two later, I took the same walk again. There was a very large bridge of solid cement, and it looked entirely finished. I found another gentleman of the forest, and I said, “Well, can you find much use for this huge and expensive bridge?” He said, “It certainly was expensive, I can tell you that.” He had the happy look of someone who had benefited from the expense. We chatted about the government and what they were up to, and a certain wariness could be heard in our dialogue. We were puzzled; something unexpected had happened, something really unimaginable — a vast work had been constructed for imminent horrors, it would have seemed. I did ask here and there about it, but I was given no answer.

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