"Which is better – to be ruled by one tyrant three thousand miles away, or by three thousand tyrants not a mile away?" –
~ Attributed to Boston physician Mather Byles, 1770.
"Do you see this soldier in this checkpoint?" Iraqi Wael al-Khafaji asked a Reuters reporter, pointing to a spot just a few feet from his Baghdad barbershop. "He can do whatever he wants to me right now and I can't say a word. Is this democracy?"
Before the U.S. invasion, this businessman – like millions of other Iraqis – was ruled by a distant dictator who had little direct influence on his life. Today, everything he does takes place under the shadow cast by armed men who have given themselves permission to brutalize or kill anybody who refuses to obey them.
For Mr. al-Khafaji, it makes no material difference whether the checkpoint is manned by U.S. soldiers, State Department-employed mercenaries, members of Saddam’s Republican Guard, or elements of a local sectarian militia. The problem is the presence of people who claim the right to use aggressive violence to force him to submit to their will. The problem is not one of geography or affiliation; it is a matter of institutionalized immorality.
Americans who supported the Iraq war would be scandalized by Mr. al-Khajafi’s ingratitude. They would be wise to ponder his insight while examining the extent to which our own country is becoming a garrison state. They would also do well to emulate his habit of looking with acute suspicion – and no small measure of resentment – on the oddly dressed armed men who presume to exercise authority over us.
Democracy is the art of inducing victims of government power to focus on the question of who controls the government, rather than what it does. The same can be said of the perspective encapsulated in the slogan "Support Your Local Police" (SYLP).
As sociologist David Bayley pointed out, "The police are to the government as the edge is to the knife." The police are an implement of coercion wielded by the political class, whether they are operationally under the control of Washington, D.C. or City Hall.