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Why we fear authority

Published: November 2, 2007
Section: Opinions


A friend of mine who recently visited Wesleyan University told me that the students there arent afraid of the police. He said that when Wesleyan students pass a police officer late at night, they dont shut up and start walking faster, as Brandeis students often do. He said that they wave and say hello and that everybodys cool. He then went on to say that its because Brandeis cops have guns and its a culture of fear and blah blah blah (I dont really have an opinion on the Should the campus police have guns? debate because I dont think that decisions that could potentially involve peoples lives should be left in the hands of a nineteen-year-old girl who, until quite recently, believed that a chipmunk was a baby squirrel).

Anyway, I dont know what actually goes on at Wesleyan, but I do know this: Im terrified of the policecampus and otherwiseand Im not sure why. When the urban poor are afraid of the police, its because of a legitimate fear that Rodney King Part 2 is going to play out over a parking violation, but its not a rational fear for a coddled, suburban teenager. When I was about 15, I was walking through one of the worst neighborhoods in Philadelphia with some of my friends, when a police car pulled over and offered us a ride. We immediately said no. We would have rather taken our chances with twitchy crackheads then drunk-on-power cops.

Alfred Hitchcock was notoriously afraid of the police. His fear stemmed from an incident in his childhood where his father bribed a police officer to arrest young Hitchcock and put him in prison for ten minutes (By the way, Hitchcock totally overreactedhe was in a holding cell for ten minutes. Watching those HBO Scared Straight specials is more traumatic). As a result, Hitchcock never got a drivers license. He figured if he never drove, hed never get pulled over.

And he may have been onto something. Ive been pulled over twice, both times for making illegal left turnsapparently, I dont read signsand, each time, it was terrifying. I was convinced that a kilo of heroin and a dead prostitute were going to appear in my backseat, that when the officer ran my plates, he would discover something horrible. But both times, nothing happened. My parents werent even that mad.

So, why are we afraid of the police? Maybe the same reason that were afraid of our parents, our teachers, any authority figure. Think about it: police officers are granted the authority to arrest you, just like your parents have the authority to punish you and teachers have the authority to grade you. Logically, you know that in order for the person in question to actually use his authority against you requires an indiscretion on your partyou wont get grounded unless you break curfew, you wont get a bad grade unless you miss a certain number of questions. But the very fact that authority figures have the right to judge and punish can seriously freak you out. You start to wonder if they have a special power, if they can tell just by looking at you that youve done something wrong. When I got pulled over, I wasnt really afraid that theyd find a mutilated corpse and accuse me of a crime I hadnt committed. I was really afraid that theyd be able to look at me and figure out my whole hidden history of sinfulness, no matter how minor my wrongdoings were. In other words, its a given fact that youve done something wrong. It just takes a man with a badge to figure it out.

Or maybe it would solve everything if we all transferred to WesleyanI heard that its #12 on the Princeton Reviews list of Reefer Madness colleges.