You Want Them on that Wall, You Need Them on That Wall

Liberal patriotism requires safeguarding the proper role of the military and police in a democracy

In the penultimate scene of the 1992 film, A Few Good Men, Colonel Nathan Jessup, played by Jack Nicholson, is challenged by a military lawyer he outranks about his involvement a murder of a man under his command at the hands of his fellow Marines.  Colonel Jessup erupts in vicious anger: “You can’t handle the truth!  Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns.  Who’s gonna do it?  You?”  

Jessup then offers a majestic, extended rant about the heavy burden he bears and makes clear his utter disdain for the trial he was dragged into to hold him and others to account. 

I thought about this searing movie scene a lot this past week as I viewed images of thousands of National Guard members camped inside the Capitol building overnight and guarding a newly secure perimeter as Congress voted to make Donald Trump the first U.S. president impeached twice. 

We need them on that wall right now.  The vote took place exactly one week after a violent mob attacked the same chamber, and one week before Joe Biden will be inaugurated in the same building as the next U.S. president. 

The heavy military and police presence in Washington D.C. and state capitals around the country less than a week before a presidential transition is both a worry and a reassurance.  It is a sign of how things have deteriorated, yet proof that we will defend against threats from within to our democracy.  More National Guard members will be deployed for the inauguration in the nation’s capital than the overall U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

If the train from utter chaos last week to uncertain calm this week arrives at a smooth political transition next week, one thing that will keep it on its tracks are Americans serving in positions of public trust in institutions set up to maintain security and order.  But their presence is a sign of how badly the fabric of our democracy has been pulled apart by divisions and dysfunction.

Trust in many of America’s institutions, under strain for decades, has declined even further during the Trump years.  Confidence in the police hit a 27-year low of 48 percent last summer as Americans outraged at murders and abuses took to the streets and demanded reform.   This rating for the police is still higher than many other institutions of American life – better than the Supreme Court, big business, organized labor, public schools, and churches. 

The public has lower confidence in the police than the military these days, with seven in ten Americans saying they have a great deal or a lot of confidence in the armed forces, making the military one of the most trusted institutions decades after a sharp drop in public perceptions during the Vietnam War.  

Those are numbers politicians on both sides of the aisle would love to have – Congress gets the lowest ratings of all institutions at 13 percent, coming behind even the broadcast news and Internet media. 

American ambivalence about its own security institutions is an enduring and complicated feature of our own democracy, one underscored at this difficult moment.  A dark shadow looming in Washington and states across the country now on high alert facing similar threats according to the FBI: some members of the military and police, both current and former, have been found in the ranks of last week’s insurrectionists and other mobs threaten America’s democratic institutions.  

This reality prompted America’s highest-ranking military officers to issue an extraordinary reminder to the millions serving in their ranks that it was their job to support and defend the Constitution.  Acts aimed at disrupting the Constitutional process are against America’s traditions and values – they are also against the law, the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s reminder emphasized.  In its statement, the commanders were bringing the people serving in military back to the basics – they took an oath, and the core of their oath was to support and defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.  The presence of domestic enemies are what is so awful to absorb about this moment.  In the post 9/11 period, Americans became habituated to the idea of foreign enemies. 

All of this comes after four bruising years when the country’s commander-in-chief repeatedly politicized America’s security institutions, sometimes using them as political props and other times as punching bags.  Politicized discourse about the military and police is not a new phenomenon in America – political parties have used these institutions in our national debates for years in efforts to score points with constituencies.  But having the nation’s top leader regularly degrade these organizations has sowed broader societal distrust and disunity. 

Millions of Americans took to the streets this past summer in protests demanding justice and accountability for deaths and abuses at the hands of police.   The vast majority of these protests were peaceful but at times were met with excessive force.  In some instances, government buildings, private businesses and community centers were targeted and burned.

The shocking images in the nation’s capital last week – angry insurrectionists roaming the halls of Congress seeking to hurt and kill America’s elected representatives – were just the latest in a series of incidents across the country that have damaged public faith in institutions. 

Someone I know who has worked for years in a government agency whose mission is to keep Americans safe described the scene inside the office on the afternoon that the pro-Trump insurrectionists sacked Congress – an emotional mix of heated anger and anguish.  Anger against the mob that was attacking the heart of the democracy they committed their lives to protect, blended with the anguish of realizing that some of their colleagues in part supported Trump’s call to action or even had family members take part in the scenes unfolding. 

The fact that the current threats to America’s democracy are intermingled in many of our personal and professional lives makes this one of the most difficult moments in the country’s history.  America has experienced similar traumas before, but never with the gale force intensity of media bringing these events in real time onto our televisions and into our social media feeds. 

There are investigations into why the Capitol Police and other security institutions were so unprepared and performed so poorly in response, including investigations into allegations that current members of Congress facilitated reconnaissance tours for those plotting last week’s attack.  But these inquiries are just the starting point – there will be bureaucratic measures and better training to ensure the highest professionalism and to root out those individuals who lack respect for America’s values.  More broadly, America still needs to investigate and fix actual problems in law enforcement and the military including racial bias and profiling and the excessive use of deadly force by police. 

But the most important ingredient in an effort to ensure America’s police, military and security institutions reflect our country’s values is a more constructive political dialogue – and we all play a role in this. 

The next few days will be a pivotal time for America – another stress test among many of the past few years. The actions of the police and military will be important in determining whether the next stage of the transition of power is peaceful and orderly. These institutions take their cues from political leaders and the people. 

Some of the same Republicans who silently stood as President Trump whipped up a mob into a frenzy – and some of the same ones who stuck their necks out in support of Trump’s lies about last November’s elections bear a heavy responsibility for the violence that targeted all members of Congress.  Some of the Democrats who at times seem to reflexively criticize police or the military for mistakes or target them with simplistic slogans more than they affirm the need to strengthen and support these institutions to protect the public order were rescued from the crisis that could have resulted in more people dying than did last week. 

In the year ahead, as the dust settles from the most tumultuous political transition America has ever seen, our political leaders should treat the police and military that have protected them with respect by subjecting them to the checks and balances of our political system to make sure they are sticking to the values that have made our country great.   This requires our political leaders to demonstrate their own commitment to those values in word, demeanor, and deed.

At the end of A Few Good Men, Colonel Jessup is hauled away and remanded to custody to await a trial for his actions that led to the death of a Marine – a fitting ending that sent a clear message that no person is above the rules and the system works when all abide by the rules or suffer consequences.

The institutions and political processes that have enabled peaceful transitions of power for centuries in America hang in the balance – and we all have a role and responsibility to protect it.