Valor and Discretion

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Once upon a time I worked a second shift job and regularly walked home from the train station during the later hours of the evening. One night as I was making my way home, a police cruiser pulled up alongside me and the officer asked me where I was headed. I said I was going home, and he then asked me where that might be. I gave him the name of my street, and with that he bid me good night and went on his way.
Probably the most common interpretation of the officer's motives would be that he saw someone he did not recognize walking the street during one of the hours when most crimes occur, and he wanted to make sure I wasn't out to wreak havoc on the territory to which he was assigned to patrol. Of course, whether this police action is actually justified or not is another question altogether.
I don’t mean to say that the officer, a fellow human being, didn’t have the right to speak to me. The point is that by initiating a conversation such as he did, he expected a response. I of course had no obligation to answer, but what are the probable consequences of ignoring a police officer who wishes to communicate with a person who refuses to respond?
But at the time, the rightness or wrongness of his actions was not something that entered my mind. I had not yet even suspected the existence of true human freedom which forms the foundation of the posts that regularly appear here on STR--I was your typical Average American Citizen. The exchange with the officer, at the time, seemed perfectly reasonable to me and I cooperated fully with his requests for personal information without a second thought.
Well, I am no longer an AAC, and am actually writing for STR. It is safe to say that I interpret reality in a significantly different manner now that I better understand the concept of human freedom.
So how would I now interpret such a relatively benign police encounter? What ideas might go through my head if an officer, tomorrow, made uninvited inquiries as to where I might be going? None of your business. Watch me ignore you and keep on walking. I do not need your or anyone else's consent to move about upon the face of the Earth. Stuff like that, I suppose.
But now comes the $64K question: What would I actually do?
While I cannot be 100% sure, I believe I would do exactly what I did previously, albeit with my teeth clenched just a bit.
What up with that? you ask. All talk and no walk? You gotta stand up for your rights!
Permit me to explain. I take quite seriously the assertion by Murray Rothbard that the State is “a gang of thieves writ large.” The State is not like a gang in some respects, it is a gang. And writ large. Don't think gangbanging punks, think Mafia, only much bigger. A gigantic and extremely dangerous criminal organization staffed with ruthlessly dedicated enforcers.
Given this perspective, let's restate the previous equation with some terms rewritten using equivalent values:
One night as I was walking home, a dangerous looking gentleman in an Armani suit walked up to me, making absolutely sure I saw the large gun tucked into his waistband, and asked me where I was going. Well, it appeared that I might be in a bit of a tight spot, and so upon quick review of my options, I decided the safest response would be to respectfully answer the question and deal with whatever might come next as best as I could, as the situation was not really mine to firmly control. I told him I was headed home. Oh yeah? And where might that be, tough guy? he then asked. Over on Sumter, I replied. He looked me up and down for a moment, evaluating what I might represent, and said: Aiight. Get on home safe now. Run along.
Did I handle that situation in an unreasonable manner? Should I have pointed out that Hey, you do realize that your coercive threat is a violation of my human rights, yes? You have no authority to behave in such a manner. I am going to continue on my way and ignore both you and your unethical actions. Good day to you, sir.
If my goal is to get home to my family and to continue on with my life, then I submit that it is not unreasonable that I attempt to maneuver my way through such a situation by making choices that will maximize my chances for success. And if I had been carrying a weapon myself, I don't believe the strategy changes. If, in the defense of my right to life and liberty, I manage to justly put down Don Corleone's nephew mano a mano, what would I have to look forward to in the future?
When you find yourself facing an enemy who has vastly superior firepower, then in some battles discretion is the better part of valor and diplomacy trumps the implicit request for a beat-down or worse.
To claim that a police officer ought to be held to a higher standard than a thug is to legitimize the State. It is to expect respectfulness of human rights and justice through the arm of the State's laws, and this is giving undeserved moral and ethical credit to a gang of thieves. No State has ever done more than provide lip service to inalienable human rights, in that the State's very existence depends upon it violating those selfsame rights. Standing up for your rights does not include making a State employee play by the rule of unjust positive law that the State itself has created.
Freedom advocates of all flavors and labels rightly evoke Lysander Spooner’s idea that the Constitution holds no authority over the citizenry. The flipside of this is that the parchment holds no authority over those it proposes to restrict--the government.
Memorizing the State’s laws and quoting Constitutional scripture as a strategy to make the State’s enforcers behave is worse than productive. It gives credence to the positive laws that the State has put forth, the vast majority of which do not deserve anyone’s attention. It is an attempt to fight the system by working within the system, which, like voting, will never work to affect the desired change, which is the elimination of the system itself. As a practical matter, the State will always be able to interpret the law, Constitution included, in its own favor whenever it deems it necessary, no matter how outrageously its employees may behave.
After all, does it really need to be written out on hundreds of pages in legalese that I have the inalienable right to be left alone as long as I am not aggressing against anyone else? It’s a pretty simple concept, isn’t it?
Unwarranted encounters with police officers are unfortunate run-ins with powerful thugs, and one needs to recognize that there is a grave and immediate danger of being assaulted or kidnapped if the officer determines that you need an attitude adjustment.
Yet I still do not draw any hard and fast conclusions here, as there are a myriad of interacting factors to consider, and every individual will weigh each of the various factors differently. I believe there are many right answers here. Many brave individuals have decided to stand up for their human rights in the face of police aggression, and I have nothing but admiration for their actions, as they are undeniably just actions.
It all boils down to, I think, human dignity. How much abuse can you take? How much should you take? Humiliations abound in our society for the freedom-minded individual. He needs permission to do just about anything. He is prohibited from possessing certain items and performing certain actions even if no one else is harmed. He is robbed every time he earns or spends a dollar. Where is the line between hunkering down and springing into action? Will the ultimate winner be the one who dishes out the punishment, the one who fights back against very long odds, or the one who can take the abuse and remain standing?
I believe that selfishness may be the most important value for the believer in individual freedom. If everyone acts to safely maximize his own personal freedom, and supports others in their attempts to be free while as much as possible denying support to government’s freedom-limiting aggression, then I don’t believe criticism is warranted in situations where one decides not to risk what others might. Or am I merely attempting to justify my own personal character weakness here?
As far as action is concerned, I currently advocate and practice the education of “non-believers” and non-support of the State wherever possible, and a very healthy and selfish concern for the one and only precious life I have to call my own.
Tricky stuff. I would like very much to hear your comments on this one.

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tzo's picture
Columnist tzo
Columns on STR: 64

tzo now lives in your head.


Gwardion's picture

Great column.

This is the kind of logic that needs to get around to the radicals.

Even though I agree with them on principle, looking like an ass, breaking stuff, and getting into dust-ups with the current "authorities" does not help a movement that is supposed to be based on mutual respect and non-violence.

Sometimes "winning" an encounter means being able to walk away a free man.

golefevre's picture

One of the best philosophers of the modern age, Jim Croce, summed your sentiments up nicely when he sang, "You Don't Mess Around With Jim." The entire premise of government is one of violence, both implied and also very explicitly stated by the guns "law enforcement" carries with them. A routine traffic stop has the potential to end very badly for a citizen who is flippant or confrontational (and guess who gets to determine these attitudes). I think you hit this concept square on the head when you identify this encounter into degrees of indignity. Answering a question humbly does not show weakness, it shows wisdom. Our belief in these fundemental human liberties needs to be so ingrained into our psyches that our egos suffer not a bit of indignity by playing along with inane inquiries from the enforcers. Had the patrolman also asked, "Why are you heading home THIS way?" then discretion is still advised, because law enforcement loves to play games and bait people into answering a question in a way that is incriminating. Give them as little as possible and be on your way.

Another well-written essay and I look forward to reading more about your journey from "AAC" to your present state of mind.

GregL's picture

Very original and thoughtful article about a moral dilemma and situation that we've all been in.

GregL's picture

BTW, I tried to enter a vote of "Awesome" for this column but as soon as I moved my cursor over the voting area, the screen moved to the top of the article.

iliad's picture


Excellent commentary, as usual. There is a thin line between bravery and stupidity. I believe every person's line is different. I had a similar encounter and stood my ground, for a short while. It quickly became obvious to me that I was on the loosing side of the argument, so I decided to comply. Retreat is not a sign of cowardice. Many times it is a sign of intelligence. In my situation the officer's communication, both verbal and non-verbal, told me I was about to receive an attitude adjustment. I decided to comply with his demand for identification and was "allowed" to proceed on my merry way. I stood my ground, but knew when to retreat. I do not feel like a coward, although I do feel as though my freedom was violated. I believe that just knowing that the officer was violating your natural rights puts you ahead of the AAC. That is half of the battle.

Mitrik_Spanner's picture

I was stopped in Utah in my semi-truck on a state highway as it passed through a small town. The police there make a lot of stops as a matter of drug interdiction, the highway in question having proximity and a straight shot to the Mexican border. My truck had been recently repainted and didn't have certain insignia required by law, thus creating a pretext for the stop. That was fine by me; I had paperwork to demonstrate my compliance. The officer wanted to go farther though. He wanted to search my trailer for contraband. I resisted in a respectful way saying that I thought that since my paperwork was in order, I had satisfied the original grounds for the stop and that a search of my trailer went so far as to constitute an unreasonable search based on constitutional grounds. He explained that his work on this stretch of road routinely yielded successful interdictions and forfeitures and that I should cooperate in a spirit of cooperation with the laudable goals of law enforcement. I yielded at that point because I felt I had made a good effort to articulate what should be, realizing that what should be is not what the reality is. I did what I thought I could do and lived on to continue my campaign of trying to undermine the state in a hundred small and not so small ways each and every day.

albergine's picture

on expecting the approach, i've found that response is dependent on the level of toe curl, the differing degrees of such being dependent on the manner of approach. When late walking (at night) i was asked what i was doing, with minor toe curl responded with 'walking why ?, was told it was late for a walk and responded as to there being 24hrs in a day, end. A friend was pulled in his car, due to eye contact at a junction and him laughing, they were shown his documents, looked over the vehicle etc, then when done were informed of a terrible stink, they said they couldn't smell anything, they were told it was their aftershave, they moved on.

Paul's picture

While this article makes sense, as far as it goes, there is a problem with it: What happens, after a lifetime of putting up with abuse? When you are on your deathbed, are you going to say to yourself, "I wish I had resisted, at least once?"

You cannot become more free by complying with every statist whim. The problem with being "the one who can take the abuse and remain standing" is that, after a while, you are no longer standing. You are on your knees.

The problem also is this notion that every sign of resistance will be rewarded with a beat-down. It just ain't so. There are many, many cases where pushback had no adverse consequences whatever; other cases where the gain in self-respect was worth the pain.

When one's personal situation calls for survival (e.g., when supporting a family), then survive. When that no longer holds, then at least on some occasions, don't put up with crap. And on the off chance that that results with the end of your life, then take as many of the bastards with you as you can. Eventually, if enough people do this, they will run out of bastards.

Tom Terrific's picture

Thank you for this well-written, thoughtful and educational article.

The moral dilemma referred to in a few of the comments is unnecessary. Backing down and complying needn't be about a lack of courage; it can be about picking your battles, viewing your opportunity to resist as a resource and spending it where it will be most effective. Only you know which concern is paramount to you.

I will comply with an oppressor's dictates if by so doing I remain at liberty to cause all sorts of other kinds of trouble. Take the long view. Bow and scrape, and then corrupt your neighbors when the oppressor has turned his attention elsewhere. :)

The non-violent non-cooperators are the only real threat by the oppressed to an oppressive regime; and don't think that some of them don't know it. Let's get busy and cause as much trouble as we can, while we can! There's a vast populace out there, ignorant of their power; and we must educate them.