Last week, while driving in Ketchum, Idaho, I was pulled over for speeding (driving 36 mph in a 25-mph zone.) The traffic stop proceeded along expected lines: the police car switched on its flashing red and blue lights as it sidled up behind me, I pulled over to the side of the road, the policeman walked over and asked for my driver’s license and vehicle registration and insurance etc. After I handed those over, I was treated to a brief lecture on the need to observe posted speed limits; I apologized, received a warning, and resumed my journey to a local trailhead.
This little incident was watched, with considerable interest, by my seven-year old daughter, sitting in the backseat.
After the policeman had driven off in his cruiser, and as we began driving toward our planned hike, I asked my daughter what she made of the encounter she had just witnessed. She said that she’d been a little frightened as the police scare her, but she was happy all had ended well. I asked her why she was scared of the police, and she replied that she’d heard–probably from family conversations–of the terrible things they often do to people they detain, search, arrest or imprison. I then said to her that she’d witnessed an important part of her training and acculturation as a legal subject: she’d learned an important lesson about the reach and power of the law. It was an essential part of her growing up in a ‘legal society,’ in ‘a land of laws, not men.’
For in witnessing an uniformed police officer pull over her father, my daughter had learned that her father, the supposed co-master of the domestic dominion along with her mother, one who regulated most details of her life, was subject to a power greater than his: that of the state, and its armed, uniformed representatives, the police. She’d seen her father, an authority apparently unquestioned –except by her mother, interrupted in his ventures, commanded to cease and desist whatever it was he was doing, reduced to the role of a polite, deferential subject, one only too willing to be inconvenienced by a perfect stranger who just happened to be wearing a gun and a badge. She’d witnessed a presumed regulatory order come crumbling down, replaced by a far more far-reaching, powerful, and certainly impressive one. Nothing in my parenting arsenal of the raised voice, the disapproving tone, the wagging finger, can compete with the starched uniform, the holstered weapon, the flashing lights, the dramatic intervention in a public space. She saw me defer; she saw me obey; she saw me comply. (I’m unfailingly polite with armed police; I am, after all, a brown man with an accent.)
My daughter was in fact, witnessing a species of social construction at work: the sustenance and promulgation of an ideology of law, one essential component of which is to remind the legal subjects of the reach and extent of legal power in showy, public, demonstrations of it. All those who drove by on Highway 75 while I was receiving my little re-education learned a little lesson too; but the most important spectators were the children, legal subjects in training. Children must learn their parents, while powerful, are not the supreme regulators of their lives, the state is. Secular citizens are especially impressed by such displays of the power of the law–there is a new Supreme Force in town, and it wears a blue uniform.