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The cost of freedom…

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?



VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – The above quote, usually attributed to Juvenal, has been translated idiomatically as “Who watches the watchmen?” and is usually employed to express a dilemma that inevitably arises in any governmental structure.

 As human social organization progressed from small, self-sufficient family groups to clans to civic associations like villages, then towns, cities, and nations, it became apparent that there was a need to maintain law and order within the society. In order to accomplish this, certain freedoms had to be given up and authority given to certain citizens to wield over other members of that society. This was always a hard to choice to make, and vesting that kind of authority in any individual or institution is a wrenching decision and never one to be made lightly. The trade-off between individual liberty and the right to have a peaceful and orderly society is never easy and the specifics of that exchange need to be revisited regularly to ensure that the bargain continues to be the best exchange possible.

 Plato, in his Republic, clearly recognised that society would have to make that kind of deal; essentially, it was a matter of pinching one’s nose and ceding power to certain citizens to keep the rogue elements in line for the greater benefit of the responsible citizens and the society as


a whole. But Plato was clear – that power was to be severely limited, subject to constant scrutiny and revision, and did not imply elevated status to those to whom it was (grudgingly) granted. The guardians, as he called the auxiliary/military class in his imaginary city-state, would be seen with mild disdain, treated as a necessary evil, and subject to rigorous oversight by the working citizens of the republic. They would sleep in barracks and be fed on beef to make them muscular. The military/police force members would be recognised as rather dull, unimaginative enforcers of the laws enacted by the rest of society; their status would be something like that of bouncers in a nightclub.

 In modern times, the dilemma is even more acute. We here in Canada support a democratic form of government; that means the specific regime in power changes from time to time and, unlike in the Republic, there is a lack of continuity in the top levels of civil power. A modern democracy has no “philosopher kings” (since Pierre Trudeau, at any rate) to maintain a constant and ideologically consistent political paradigm; nevertheless, the people expect that law and order will remain unvaried and that the “guardians” will wield their power in a consistent manner, no matter who sits at the top of the democratic pyramid. The result is that our “guardians” have a much higher degree of autonomy and self-regulation than is consistent with the balance between liberty and order that is desirable within a democracy.

 Here in Canada, for a variety of reasons, we are great respecters of our guardian class; we are more willing than most societies to grant them great authority at the expense of our liberty. Most Canadians are not consciously aware of the degree to which we have ceded our freedom in exchange for perceived safety from criminal action; on most days, the average Canadian is only aware of the relatively crime-free atmosphere in which he or she lives. That the guardian class has a surprising degree of power and latent control over his or her life remains below the radar as long as it isn’t overtly wielded. 

I have lived in developing countries, most recently and significantly Indonesia, where there were once dictatorships supported by a national police force. In Indonesia, at least, that police-state mindset still exists in the police and military; in many case they seem not to have received the memo that the country is now a democracy. It is estimated that 80% of people arrested are subjected to a greater or lesser degree of torture by the police. Amnesty International has rated the Indonesian police as the most corrupt government institution in one of the world’s most corrupt countries. Any…any encounter with the police in Indonesia will require, at the very least, a bribe. They are essentially well armed thugs who sell their services to the highest bidder. However, in Indonesia, the people resist the police excesses. There are constant editorials printed, despite the police taking action against members of the press; people demand that police reform be on any candidate’s agenda; there are even street protests despite the likelihood of being tortured by the police if one is arrested.

 In Canada, however, our cultural predisposition precludes even an open discussion of police excesses. Despite the RCMP’s undoubted excesses, Canadians as a whole refuse to criticise their iconic national police. Despite the constant and ongoing abuse of power, particularly with respect to aboriginal people in British Columbia, despite proven allegations of internal rot, despite their apparently growing trigger happiness, despite their killing of far too many unarmed and disturbed people or people already in custody, Canadians become enraged when one suggests that there ought to be some in depth civilian scrutiny of the Mounties. The majority of Canadians are still dazzled by the superficial glow created by such intensive public relations efforts as the Musical Ride and life sized cutouts of smiling, red tunic sporting, Sam Brown wearing police officers that are prominently displayed in consulates, embassies and other public locations. But when a native Canadian is shot in the back of the head while in custody, Canadians instantly assume that the killing is justified and express a determination not to want to hear the facts behind the death. Canadians even accuse those of us who would insist on an inquiry into the killing of being bereft of patriotism.

What is being missed by the misguided patriots is that it is far more patriotic to want the RCMP to live up to their image than it is to tolerate them breaking Canadian law and brutalizing and killing Canadians – or anyone else –  with utter impunity. Moreover, police must be held to a higher standard of behaviour and adherence to law than the general public; it is far wiser to presume that the police are at fault in any controversial incident than it is to presume them guiltless. The former leads to much more intensive civilian oversight of police activities while the latter carries the risk of supporting a move toward fascism and a police state.


At the moment, the police in Canada, starting but not ending with the RCMP, are feeling their oats. Stories of police excesses are becoming a daily occurrence. People are being shot and killed in routine traffic stops. Troubled teenagers shot to death then Tasered while surrounded by dozens of heavily armed tactical police officers, panicking unarmed visitors to Canada killed in the airport, native women reporting having been raped in police custody…the list goes on.

 But check the news discussion forums. Those who describe themselves as patriotic will immediately shout down and hurl abuse at anyone who comments that steps need to be taken to curb the high handed behaviour of our guardians. The Canadian predilection for submission to authority is alive and well, and yet it seems that virtually anyone who has an encounter with Canada’s police forces comes away disillusioned and inclined to demand a higher level of scrutiny of their actions. That is, if they are alive and able to demand anything. It is clearly time for a thorough housecleaning in all of Canada’s police forces, indeed in of all of Canada’s criminal justice system. It is time the people realized once again that the authority the police have derives directly from us and that they continue to wield it at our pleasure. That is, if we still have the power as a sovereign people to rein them in.

  If we, the people, are not going to watch the watchmen, who will?




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