I was walking with my dog last week in woods near our house. As we crossed a grassy clearing where the trail passes a road, a car slowed and a voice boomed from it: “Put! That! Dog! On a leash, sir!

“All right,” I said. My parents always insisted I obey policemen and other figures of authority. Doing what school crossing guards told you could keep you from getting hit by a truck. The lesson had enduring practical relevance, too. Saying “Yes, officer” to a state trooper might subject you to a $20 speeding ticket and the annoyance of being lectured when you were in the right. Saying “You crazy? No way I was doing 70 back there!” would not change the ticket, and it could subject you to something worse.

My parents were not simply telling me to submit to force. There was a constitutional undertone to their lectures. An encounter with police is a special kind of encounter, as I would understand when I came to read Ernst Kantorowicz and Pierre Manent. Citizens submit not to the policeman but to the law. The policeman, too, submits when he dons his uniform. He is not, at least in constitutional theory, exercising his will. He is carrying out tasks assigned him by the state—which, in a democracy, means you. The deference you owe is to Officer Joe Blow, not Citizen Joe Blow. This distinction may be a subtle one, but it marks the difference between duly constituted authority and random bullying. One has not just the right but the duty to resist bullying, even at the risk of getting a few teeth knocked out.

I had a troubling thought, though, as I watched the car speed off. It was not a police car. It was a plain old gray car with bumper stickers on the back. And for what conceivable reason would a park policeman enforce the law in plainclothes? I doubt he was posing as a camper in order to break up a ring of rutting deer. In short, had it been a cop? Or was he just one of those scolds with too little self-esteem and too much time on their hands? One meets them on neighborhood listservs, tattling about people who put their garbage bins out too early on the eve of collection or drink beer on the front porch.

On the other hand, he didn’t sound like those people. “Simpering” was a word you might use to describe the neighborhood goody-goodies. Not him! Then there was the word “sir.” He hadn’t used it politely. In fact, he’d used it as a synonym for “idiot.” But, apart from foreigners, people who work in hierarchical organizations are the only ones who still use the word “sir” at all. Assuming the guy hadn’t just been discharged from the military with a galloping case of post-traumatic stress disorder, there was a good chance he was a cop. On the other hand, I shouldn’t need a degree in management to figure out whom the government has authorized to boss me around and whom not.

I was mulling these distinctions when a car squealed to a stop behind me. “Did! You! Hear! What I said!” boomed a familiar voice in a decidedly noninterrogatory tone. Now I got a good look at the young man who had yelled at me. He was striding across the pavement towards me with a look of purposeful anger. He was not wearing any semblance of a police uniform. His clothing did reveal one thing about him: He had spent much of his adult life in weight rooms. It seemed I was about to live the teeth-knocked-out part of my little constitutional lesson. “Who are you?” I hollered at him.

“I’m a policeman,” he said, stopping in the middle of the street. “Park police.”

“All right,” I said. I went over and leashed the dog. I walked off. He got in the car.

The guy could have identified himself as a cop without forcing me to challenge him. But that would have spoiled for him the thrill of aggression that was the whole point of our encounter and (I rather suspect) of his choice of career.

We think of going without uniforms as a mark of our easygoingness. It is not. It can be the mark of a republic collapsing into authoritarianism. A uniform permits a citizen, without running the risk of getting beat up, to figure out his duties under the law. Without uniforms, you get some version of what seems to have happened in the deadly Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman encounter in Florida this winter. A guy in civilian clothes claims (and may even have) the authority to threaten violence in the name of the state, while those he confronts see no evidence that he is anything other than a bully or a sociopath. Our country is a little too on edge to tolerate that kind of ambiguity, and a little too heavily armed.

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