That Cincinnati Beating

Ludwig von Mises often reminded his readers that the state is all about beating, hanging, and killing, that when you advocate a law or a regulation, you are effectively granting the state the permission to kill non-compliers. This, and not compassion, is the essence of statecraft. And while plenty of foreigners know all about the killing power of the American state, few in the US pay much attention, unless it involves race.

Thus has the recent Cincinnati case of a police killing gained attention, especially the snippet that shows the police pounding a black man to his death. Like the Rodney King case in Los Angeles, this one seems destined to inflame passions. Those who regard blacks as official victims, entitled to unending benefits at the expense of everyone else, revel in such scenes, if only because they make the redistributionist political agenda easier to enact and harder to object to. And those who want to centralize law enforcement like it too, because it seems to suggest that local police are abusive and in need of top-down control by the squeaky-clean saviors from on high.

Using these scenes for political propaganda is effective because no person with an attachment to the idea of liberty is thrilled to see police beating anyone. The scene seems to embody a radical disparity in power, one person confronting a group of uniformed government agents who can legally kill anyone who struggles to be free of them. A police beating seems to sum up everything that is inherently wrong with the existing relationship between the individual and the state.

That is not to say that beating and killing is never justified. A property owner can kill an intruder. A person defending his life against an attacker can kill. Killing can be justified as self-defense and even as punishment. These are established principles in law and morality.

The tough part is making the transition to the state and its relationship to individuals. Can the police legally kill someone simply because he resists arrest? Why are the police permitted to break the laws they allegedly enforce? They are permitted to speed, trespass, and rob in the name of cracking down on speeding, trespassing, and robbing. There is something about the institutionalization of this hypocrisy that cries out for correction.

This case draws attention to the disparity. Nathaniel Jones, the victim, had passed out in the parking lot of a White Castle restaurant, doing no physical harm to anyone. Not wanting a man lying on its property, and not employing private guards, the restaurant called the police. The police roused him and an unarmed Jones came up swinging hard. He wasn’t complying — the greatest sin in the eyes of the state.

Was he defending himself or were the police defending themselves? It’s unclear. What is clear is that he was hit 40 or 50 times with a metal baton (by mostly white police, and one black) before falling and later dying. Traces of PCP were found in his blood and other drugs in his car. The police department is aggressively defending itself against charges of abuse: they say the police obeyed regulations in exacting increasingly hard punishments.

And yet, apart from taking drugs and trespassing, what precisely had Jones done wrong, aside from resisting arrest? The police tried to arrest the guy and one thing led to another until Jones was dead. This is in contrast to the case of Rodney King, whose beating followed not only an attempt to resist arrest but also a dangerous high speed chase in a residential neighborhood that clearly threatened innocents of all sorts. His beating was as much a punishment for this as it was an attempt to restrain.

In a world in which property owners had absolute rights, what would have happened to Jones? Could the restaurant owner walk up to a passed out man on his private property and blast him in the head? That would be contrary to normal rules of proportionality. In fact, Murray N. Rothbard argues (Ethics of Liberty, p. 85) that this would be the equivalent of murder.

Killing would only be proportional if the person were threatening the life of the owner of the property, or his employees or customers. One can imagine conditions under which a sleeping druggie would go this far, and thereby be due the maximum punishment. But the property owner would have every reason to stop the escalation, if only to avoid legal entanglement and bad publicity.

We should remember that the rules of proportionality set up a maximum allowable punishment but do not mandate it. Good sense suggests that, say, a net or sedative spray might be a better approach when someone resists being thrown off private property. Surely, the police should take this approach, if available, before beating and beating a person until he is dead. In the Rodney King case, the police used stun guns, which had no effect, before resorting to extreme tactics, though, despite appearances, they caused little injury to King. Might this have been a better approach in the Jones case?

Our increasingly federalized police seem all too willing in these days of the War on Terror to employ terror tactics whenever they can get away with it. They have been unleashed as never before, and hence have an increasingly antagonistic relationship to the citizenry. They are less and less like servants and more and more like masters.

Roadblocks in the US are now common. We think nothing of showing our papers whenever we are asked. The slightest behavior out of the ordinary calls down questions. You have the distinct impression that you have no recourse to law and that your fate is entirely in the arbitrary hands of the state. The armed agents of the state seem to be experiencing a permanent bout of paranoia.

Imagine how private security guards might have handled the matter differently. Wal-Mart, for example, which uses private security. Might they have just helped the man and tried to contact a family member? Might they have sedated him had he become unruly? Or just backed off for a time until the man stopped protesting? Or offered him $20 or a bottle of scotch to go? They would have at least understood that beating, let alone killing, people on company property is bad for business. But the restaurant called government police who believe they can and should use every amount of force they can get away with under the regulations.

As this case is looked at closely, and all the details spread across the Cincinnati papers, a great irony presents itself. The case will eventually be referred to the US government for investigation and correction — the same US government that has killed thousands and thousands of civilians in Iraq, shoots people on the spot for resisting any of its foreign adventures, and otherwise thinks nothing of destroying life, not just for one person, but for thousands, and not just for the guilty but the innocent too.

And while this case will end up under court review, the thousands of cases of killings in Iraq are subject only to military whitewash. There is no rule of law, or anything approximating it, in Iraq, where the US government demands the absolute right to have its way with the population.

These are the people we hope will save us from the abuse of our local police. We fret and worry about the death of one man in Cincinnati, but hardly anyone wants to talk about the thousands dead and tens of thousands maimed and otherwise harmed in Iraq. If you are against police brutality, by all means investigate every allegation. But let’s not forget that the greatest brutality of all is war, and it is prosecuted not by local police, but by the most brutal cop of all: the central state.

Lew Rockwell Archives