A reader writes,

I think Ferguson is a great illustration of your 3 axis model. Would love to read a post of your’s discussing that.

I have been on vacation with only sporadic skimming of news. All I know is that a black resident was shot by a white policeman, and some rioting has ensued. The three-axis model would predict:

–progressives would view the black resident as representing an oppressed class. They would be critical of society’s unjust inequality and racism.

–conservatives would view rioters as representing barbarism. They would be critical of anyone they think encourages rioting.

–libertarians would view the police as representing coercion. They would be critical of police who act as if the unlimited use of force is their prerogative.

Again, I have only been skimming the news. Is that actually how views have been falling out?

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18 Responses to Ferguson

  1. (Not That) Bill O'Reilly says:

    More or less. Though some conservative outlets have also been viewing police forces themselves as representative of barbarism given increased militarization and arbitrary use of force.

    • David says:

      Progressives seem to be more upset about the (very brief) arrests of two journalists, as opposed to actual the killing of Michael Brown.

      Perhaps Progressives view journalists as oppressed, but I suspect it rather boils down to people’s general sympathies with other, similar people. Coastal Progressives have more in common with the arrested journalists than with Michael Brown.

      My sense is that conservatives have largely avoided this news story, rather than coming out against the rioters. The rioters do seem pretty benevolent, all things considered.

  2. Seth Ariel Green says:

    Most of the conservative commentary I’ve read has focused on the excesses of the police state.

  3. Jaguar_Paw says:

    This is exactly how the commentary is playing out

  4. Brent says:

    The conservative side seems more versatile, as it is mixed with libertarian minded people. The left is also focusing more on the police state. But in its most general, yeah, your guess is spot on.

  5. Handle says:

    The 3-axis model is even more powerfully predictive when one considers how much of a Rorschach test this news story has been for the various groups.

    I’m going to coin, “Procrustean Rashoman,” as the great descriptor of the nature of discourse in our society when running on the three-axis mechanism.

    With every concocted news cycle event – everybody in the chattering classes treats their politics as one of the suspects in a great murder mystery, and so tells a slanted and inconsistent story in which their guy is a saint with an alibi but everyone else is guilty as sin.

    First, in a country of hundreds of millions, police shoot and kill people everyday but those incidents don’t generate any special attention. Why does this story? Probably because it fits too close to the Trayvon Martin narrative pattern, which the progressive-affiliated media institutions emphasize because it can be portrayed to fit the oppression axis in their preferred way.

    Second, I have been somewhat surprised at how little attention has been placed on the actual facts of the case, which are still very blurry. The fact that these details – which to me seem indispensable in order to make a reasoned judgment about fault and justice – are almost irrelevant to many people discussing the matter makes a strong argument for forced axis-framing as the way politicized people psychologically perceive and talk about their world: as special-use hammers for which everything is their particular kind of nail.

    Third is the way partisans don’t even think they have to engage with orthogonal issues which constitute the criticisms of the orthogonal partisans. So, when conservatives or libertarians point out to progressives that it really doesn’t make sense to the oppression narrative that the ‘protest’ against ‘racist police’ would manifest itself in the mob-like destruction and looting of private storefronts which had nothing to do with the incident. To a progressive, this is inherently excusable and completely besides the main point.

    Fourth is bizarre focus on the whole ‘militarization’ aspect; especially by libertarian-axis partisans. Radely Balko has some good points, but people are using his terminology and running with his thesis in completely nonsensical ways. Some people are associating ‘militarization’ with the shooting itself, but what’s equipment and tactics got to do with it? Any cop with a handgun is ‘militarized’ enough for that.

    When probed as to what difference it makes if police wear ‘military’ body armor (should we insist they don’t and expect some positive effect?), people become incoherent, or, again, insist they shouldn’t have to be coherent, because any military resemblance is per se an indicator of what is unacceptable. If an AR-15 is ‘militarized’ because it can shoot at greater range than a 9mm pistol (though with much less destructive power than a .45 handgun), then should we insist on the .45 because the AR-15 is too ‘military’? Should we take away rubber bullets, bean-bag rounds, water canons, and non-persistent irritant-gas, so that the police can only rely on their handguns?

    • S says:

      I have been clicking on this thread waiting for you to speak up. You need to be blogging more

    • Brent says:

      Arguably, yes. “Non-lethal” becomes synonymous with “it’s okay do that to people for any reason”. If you aren’t prepared to shoot to kill, you have no right drawing your weapon.

      • Handle says:

        I find that statement to be inaccurate on many points and will presume it false without some substantial supporting evidence.

        However, I will just point out how extreme a statement it is to assert something like equipping a policeman with a taser is worse than leaving his merely with a baton and a handgun.

        A belief like that only emerges out of a lot of ignorance of the nature of actual law enforcement and a profoundly anti-police perspective

    • Jeff R. says:

      People find the resemblance between military and police gear unsettling for good reason, I think. The police and the US Marine Corps have rather different missions, but start dressing cops like Marines and the cops will start to act like Marines.

      It’s a strange world we live in. In Iraq, the US military is supposed to act like cops rather than soldiers, resulting in the underapplication of force against an insurgency. In the US, the cops act more like soldiers, the result of which is the overapplication of force against American civilians. I can’t be the only who thinks its weird that the USG cares more about the civil rights of Iraqis than its own citizens, can I?

      • Handle says:

        “but start dressing cops like Marines and the cops will start to act like Marines.”

        This is an interesting “clothes make the man,” theory of psychology and behavior. I’m not buying it – can you support it? What exactly is a policeman going to do differently now that he’s wearing a better, Carbon-Boride plated bullet-proof vest that was originally developed for the military? Call in indirect fire or close air support?

        I mention the vests only because I’m mirroring exactly what I’ve been reading in critical blog commentary about “body armor”, as if increased survivability for police is a ‘Very Bad Thing’.

        What do you mean when you say a policeman is “acting like a Soldier?” And how does a Marine act anyway? They obey rules of engagement too which are occasionally – such as around embassies – even more restrictive than those which are operative for ordinary municipal police departments.

        I think what you are trying to say is that if I put an ordinary policeman in military-looking body armor, he is going to go berserk and start disobeying protocol and shooting everyone his whims dictate. Which is totally absurd.

        What about other military-origin survivability-enhacement gear? Should I not give a policeman better first aid kids or Chitin Coagulation QuicClot pouches? What about one-arm tourniquets or Israeli field bandages? Maybe if he has no secure portable radio and can’t call for backup, he’ll be more wary of engaging with a potential suspect?

        Please, try and make claims that make sense.

        • Jeff R. says:

          Handle, I’ll give you three guesses where the following passage comes from:

          The prisoner was then issued a uniform. The main part of this uniform was a dress, or smock, which each prisoner wore at all times with no underclothes. On the smock, in front and in back, was his prison ID number. On each prisoner’s right ankle was a heavy chain, bolted on and worn at all times. Rubber sandals were the footwear, and each prisoner covered his hair with a stocking cap made from a woman’s nylon stocking.

          It should be clear that we were trying to create a functional simulation of a prison — not a literal prison. Real male prisoners don’t wear dresses, but real male prisoners do feel humiliated and do feel emasculated. Our goal was to produce similar effects quickly by putting men in a dress without any underclothes. Indeed, as soon as some of our prisoners were put in these uniforms they began to walk and to sit differently, and to hold themselves differently — more like a woman than like a man.
          The use of ID numbers was a way to make prisoners feel anonymous. Each prisoner had to be called only by his ID number and could only refer to himself and the other prisoners by number.

          The stocking cap on his head was a substitute for having the prisoner’s hair shaved off. The process of having one’s head shaved, which takes place in most prisons as well as in the military, is designed in part to minimize each person’s individuality, since some people express their individuality through hair style or length. It is also a way of getting people to begin complying with the arbitrary, coercive rules of the institution.


          • Handle says:

            Please tell me exactly how you expect a policeman’s behavior to change while wearing ‘military’ body armor vs. ordinary police bullet-proof vests.

          • Jeff R. says:

            Look, I understand your point about protecting the lives of police officers, and I don’t disagree with it. I’m just saying I think Balko and like-minded folks have a point, too, that you’re missing.

            Put it this way: the Stanford prison experiment was an excellent demonstration of the primate tendency towards forming group hierarchies. Tell some guy he’s an authority figure, give him a cheap khaki uniform and a night stick that in some sense symbolizes his authority, and he’ll quickly start expecting people to obey him without question. Likewise, you tell people the guy with the khaki uniform is an authority figure, and they probably will obey him without question.

            However, people are also tribal. The task of a soldier is, of course, to defeat members of enemy tribes in a contest of arms. So what happens when police officers dress like soldiers? Well, if Dr. Zimbardo’s little experiment tells us anything, it suggests that they will start to think of themselves like soldiers and think of the public not as individuals they were hired to protect but as enemies to be conquered.

            Not everybody, of course…some cops will still treat their jobs as just, you know…a job. And not everybody will look like an enemy combatant. But still…don’t expect it to do nothing.

          • Handle says:


            Let’s focus on the specific criticism that is being levied surrounding the coverage of the incident in St. Louis, which is increasingly appearing to be yet another Trayvon Martin-style media fiasco.

            What’s militarization got to do with the shooting of Mike Brown? What’s the connection and why is it being alleged and insisted upon in this particular case, especially before many of the relevant facts came out? What was the policeman wearing in that situation? Does anyone even know? Why does no one seem to actually care? It seems pretty relevant and material to the point being made in this case.

            To me it is one giant non-sequitur of a gap in logic. An underpants gnomes theory of law enforcement. Instead of:

            1. Steal underpants
            2. ???
            3. Profit!

            We have:

            1. Equip policemen with military-origin devices like body armor and less-lethal devices like tasers.
            2. ???
            3. More innocent people get killed by police than the pistol and baton counterfactual but with no potentially offsetting benefit to society.

            Really? Come on. If I were a lawyer arguing a case trying to get the police to look less intimidating, I would hope this were true, I would attempt to baldly assert it was true and see if I could get away with it, but I don’t think anyone could demonstrate its truth at all.

            People are just trying to get away with it. It’s a lousy argument without support and which doesn’t even fit the facts of this case. It’s a too-good-to-be-true mythology.

            The criticism is that the ‘militarization’ of the police – in the sense of merely equipping them with some devices of military origin of both offensive and defensive natures, or even just giving them tasers which is not really military at all – results in more harm than good, despite the rules of engagement and on the use of force remaining the same.

            I ask “What could be the mechanism of this hypothesized, but certainly not proven, behavioral shift? People are pointing to the wearing of body armor, but what does the wearing of body armor do to change the cop’s behavior?”

            You are saying that wearing body armor makes them think they are a Soldier and that everyone around them are likely combatants who can be killed in more doubtful circumstances and with abbreviated process.

            If that were true, we would see an big jump in unjustified police killings following the issuing of these devices and items of apparel. A classic trend discontinuity. To the best of my knowledge, there is no evidence for that claim, and even Balko didn’t say it like that.

            You also mention tribalism and authority-priming.

            But policemen already wear police uniforms and have lethal firearms and have a lot of solidarity with each other and authority over suspects and civilians. How does body armor change any of that so dramatically?

            How does it help matters if cops are more worried about dying in a tense situation because they don’t have survivability gear and don’t have less-lethal options? That gives them an incentive to use their lethal weapon early, because they have no alternative that doesn’t impose a greater risk of death or injury.

            The whole thing doesn’t make sense. When cops use too much force too often, ‘militarization’ is just a lousy excuse for why. These are plenty of other reasons.

  6. another Bob says:

    @Handle – I understand your criticism, on the margin, a police officer clad in better body armor probably does not result in more officer shootings of unarmed African American 18 years olds.

    @Jeff – You are also probably correct. What SPEx (and that other experiment where a subject apparently shocked a patient to death because someone in a lab coat told them to) shows is how readily many people adopt brutal behavior based on no more than a few physical clues and a few suggestions.

    I think we can assume that police officers, being regular people, except that they like police work, are likely to behave brutally under those same circumstances. And, the residents are likely to behave like the SPEx prisoners – angrily.

    Perhaps the ‘militarized police’ blather is a red herring. Those of us who are not police officers hope that there’s some external cause of police brutality. “It must be those AR-15s and armored personnel carriers and SWAT teams”. But, that just ain’t so. SPEx and other psychological research shows that most people in the police officer role behave brutally; always have, always will.

    Now, imagine this…an 18 year-old boy, who has grown rather large recently, 6ft, 250lbs and has discovered that other people can be physically intimidated, commits what amounts to a petty strong-arm robbery. A police officer, let’s say she is 5ft and 110lbs is facing this kid person clad in pajamas holding just a two-shot derringer. She might think to herself, “I’m gonna shoot this asshole in the head, twice.” – brutality or self-defense? Or, if she is just in her pajamas, she can’t shoot him. She might think, “I know this kid’s mother. I’m going to let her know what’s going on. And, we may find a peaceful solution in which this kid lives and learns a lesson and the storekeeper gets paid for the cigars.” – benevolent or impractical?

    But, never mind all that, those people are brutal, those other people are barbarians. This story is simply ‘black-and-white’…and makes for good ratings.

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