When U.S. Law Enforcement Had a Different Look

Americans have often thought of themselves as level-headed and BS-detecting. What would a modern Mark Twain or Will Rogers make of policemen all dressed up for war?
Sheriff Andy Taylor and equipment-loving Deputy Barney Fife (Wikipedia)

If you haven't yet seen it, please read this Storify account, by Kelsey Atherton, of how veterans of real combat—in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere—view today's wildly over-militarized American police. For instance:

A reader on the East Coast responded to my post last night, which said that perhaps the scenes of stormtroopers among us would startle the public into realizing how far this security-state trend had gone. This reader, S.C., suggests a contrasting visual cue:

Maybe you’re right to conjecture that police-state images might horrify the country into restoring good sense about cops in combat gear, riding in tanks on streets. Here’s a thought about that. It’s not new, but it might be worth mentioning.

I’ve pasted in an image [shown at the top of this post] that may fit slantwise with your insight. It’s not what you meant, but it conveys the message in a country that still likes seeing if calm wisdom and brains can head off any need for ostentatious official bellicosity. From the old and much-loved The Andy Griffith Show, it’s Sheriff Andy Taylor, who spurns sidearms in police work, and whose face expresses all that needs to be said about Deputy Barney Fife’s comically enthusiastic wanna-be militarism.

I love it that Sheriff Taylor always allowed Deputy Fife to carry only one bullet, and required him to keep it in his pocket. Maybe you’ll want to keep this photo in yours, in case it’s needed (and assuming it’s not already there).

It’s unrealistic, of course, to try too hard to map this half-century-old sitcom onto present problems. But it’s also unwise not to recall what Sheriff Taylor stood for, and not to recognize the extent of the country’s respect for it.

Agreed. On that same theme, here is a clip from an episode of The Andy Griffith Show 50 years ago, in 1964, in which Barney Fife has a different helmet but the same enthusiasm for dress-up military gear. 

That gentle, dismissive, pretense-puncturing humor—something I associated with Andy Griffith in my childhood and that my parents did with Will Rogers in theirs—doesn't have an exact current counterpart, or not one I can think of just now. Stephen Colbert is closer than Jon Stewart; in his earliest, funny-rather-than-angry days, Rush Limbaugh could sound this way. Among politicians, Ronald Reagan was actually good at it—"There you go again!"—as was John F. Kennedy in some of his press conferences. It's an effect Barack Obama strains for and sometimes achieves, for instance when poking fun at the latest Birther-style claim. (And yes, before you point it out, I'm aware that in an actual small Southern town 50 years ago, the real-world counterparts of Andy Taylor and Barney Fife would have been enforcing segregation laws.)

We would like to think that such level-headed, amused BS-detection is part of our national cast of mind. A Yank at Oxford! The Duke and the King in Huckleberry Finn! The Tweet shown above, by @BFriedmanDC, may offer a glimmer of hope for its reappearance. It is the kind of comment Sheriff Andy Taylor might have made if he had seen legions of Barney Fifes dressed for war.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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