“…between civilization and total chaos.”

Donald Trump is so wrong-headed about everything that it’s almost unfair to pick one misstep out of the daily barrage, but some things stand out: in response to this past Wednesday’s shooting of the police officers in Dallas, Trump said we “must stand in solidarity with law enforcement, which we must remember is the force between civilization and total chaos.”

Yes to part one, but his dire warning about civilization and total chaos is idiotic.

I taught in a high school for thirty-five years. I’m not going to claim it was Shangri-La, but I also know that the police (whom I saw maybe once or twice in the building over that long tenure) had little to do with keeping our little artificial civilization from the ravages of chaos. We did it ourselves—the teachers, the students, the administrators, the office staff, the custodians—we did it, because at some level we all knew that this little community was dependent on us for its survival.

There were fights, at times, and back in the seventies hints of all manner of smoke coming from the boys and girls’ rooms. There were suspensions and expulsions, failures and dropouts. But there were also politeness and decorum and academic achievement of the highest order. The students left and became doctors and tradesmen and soldiers and public servants and—I’m proud to say—teachers. And they did it, for the most part, without some external force keeping them (and us) from falling into the abyss.

Yes that was pre-Newtown, and I sensed a change after Columbine; but I never, even after that Colorado incident, felt that we needed law enforcement to keep the peace. The high school was our place: keeping the peace was our job.

One problem in America today is that too many people do not see this country as “our place.” The economic divide (race is only one component) has left too many of us without that sense of place, and if we don’t have a place, we don’t need to protect it.

Admittedly it’s reassuring to know that we have a police force when we need one. Law enforcement is not a job I would ever want, but it’s a job that would be a little less daunting if we all considered this country our place. For that to happen we need a makeover: stop the one percenters from deciding our future and stealing our present; deal with climate and trade and immigration and more topics than I can count; understand the issues and vote. If we all felt this was our place, Congress would respond to our needs, and the ninety-percent of Americans who want stricter gun control would have it. The police agree with that majority, but they can’t stop the chaos. 

In The Scarlet Letter a sanctimonious mob wants to punish an adulteress in order to serve as a warning for other women when someone in the crowd says “is there no virtue in woman, save what springs from a wholesome fear of the gallows?” If our only motivation for avoiding chaos is “we might get arrested,” then it’s already too late for the police. But if we want to make our place a better one because it’s our place, then we have a chance.

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