The Thin Blue Whine: Who Mourns the Murdered Mundanes?

The Brotherhood in Blue (and Red) Gathers at the Tacoma Dome during a memorial service for four police officers recently murdered in an ambush in Washington (above, below). More than 20,000 police officers, including 1,000 members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, took part in the service.

In a State of Nature, it is true, that a Man of superior Force may beat or rob me; but then it is true, that I am at full Liberty to defend myself, or make Reprisal by Surprize or by Cunning, or by any other way in which I may be superior to him. But in Political Society … if I attempt to avenge myself, the whole Force of that Society is ready to complete my Ruin.

~ Edmund Burke, A Vindication of Natural Society (1757), original spelling and punctuation.

The year soon to expire, according to the Washington Times, was a particularly “deadly” one for police. That claim was made in the story’s headline and first two paragraphs, and then thoroughly rebutted in its coda.

2009 “was a particularly perilous year for officers involved in gun disputes,” insists the Times, with a 24 percent increase in the number of officers killed in the line of duty by gunfire. As of December 12, 47 police officers died nationwide after being shot while on duty, as compared to a total of 38 who had died in similar circumstances in 2008.

As it happens, however, 2008 saw “the lowest number of gunfire deaths [of police officers] since 1956” — which would mean that 2009 wasn’t unusually dangerous for police, but rather that the previous year was an unusually safe one.

In fact, fewer police died in the line of duty this year (117) than last (125). Tucked away near the end of the article, the Times observes: “In 1973, during a heyday of corruption and crime, there were about 600,000 officers and about 156 gunfire deaths. Now there are about 900,000 law enforcement officers nationwide and only 47 gunfire deaths this year — a per-capita decrease of nearly 21 percent.”

“The chances of being killed in the line of duty are lower than they have been in modern times,” noted Kevin Morrison of the Officers Memorial Fund.

This is the reality behind the all-pervasive rhetoric describing law enforcement as a uniquely hazardous occupation. Pundits of an authoritarian bent, playing to the punitive populist sub-population, refer to a non-existent “war on police”; police officials insist that exceptional episodes of genuinely tragic violence represent the “new normal” for police officers.

The impression that police are under siege is also cultivated through the pomp and paramilitary ritual that characterize police funerals, even when the circumstances of death weren’t particularly heroic (such as a traffic accident or other lethal mishap). Such events aren’t so much intended to lament the death of an individual as to celebrate the might and glory of the State.

The December 8 memorial service in Washington’s Tacoma Dome for four police officers killed in an ambush sets a new standard for institutional self-dramatization by the “law enforcement community”: The event, which drew an estimated 20,000 officers from 150 agencies, including a crimson-clad contingent from the RCMP, was the largest memorial service of its kind since — no extra credit if you’ve guessed correctly — those convened after 9-11.