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Demands for “law and order” are as common as the common cold. Poke any candidate for office and “law and order” reflexively pops out.

Champions of law and order conveniently leave out any specifics. Law and order for whom? What “law” is going to be enforced? Which lawbreakers will be held to account, and which will be allowed to slip away unpunished?

Still, law and order sounds good and it gets a lot of public support in chaotic times. People want to feel secure. They don’t want to be worried about being attacked, robbed, or raped as they walk around outside their homes or watch TV in their living rooms.

Essentially, law and order means keeping the peace. People who feel secure have no need to resort to various forms of vigilantism to achieve what feels like justice.

One problem with calls for law and order is that the people demanding it seem to want only a narrow form of it, and that form usually ends up being enforced against some groups of Americans in order to protect other groups of Americans.

A prime example of that is the quagmire resulting from law enforcement officers breaking the law. They do this with some frequency and are often supported by other members of law enforcement who help cover up the crime. When the assigned keepers of law and order are the very ones breaking the law and creating disorder, people’s security is in dire jeopardy.

There is no law and order when two women are shot multiple times by police officers as they attempt to deliver newspapers, and the officers are not even charged with wrongdoing.

There is no law and order when unarmed Amadou Diallou is shot 19 times outside his own apartment in New York City, the case against the police is removed to Albany, and a jury acquits the police. Nor when Abner Louima is sodomized by police officers inside a police station and other officers try to cover up that crime.

There certainly can’t be law and order if black families are afraid to call the police when they feel threatened or simply need help for a family member in distress. Like everyone, they don’t want to be worried about being attacked, robbed, or raped as they walk around outside their homes or watch TV in their living rooms.

When law enforcement officers break rather than enforce the law, their victims often have no avenue to restore law and order for themselves except for public demonstrations against the disruption of law and order in their own lives. But this public disruption often makes other groups feel insecure and we end up with victims’ efforts to achieve law and order for themselves being suppressed in the name of law and order for others.

Calls for law and order usually focus on crimes of violence and property theft, but law and order has to mean more than that. People want to be protected from all knowing, wrongful actions of others, regardless of how powerful the wrongdoers are. People do not feel secure when they have to worry about being ripped off by bankers, sold dangerous drugs by pharmaceutical companies, or forced to drive dangerously defective vehicles.

We need to reach the point where all people have confidence they will be protected from wrongful harm from others, regardless of who they are, how poor they are and who is causing the harm. We are far away from that goal when the past president of the United States encouraged armed rioting and has so far not only skated free of responsibility, but plans to try to regain the presidency.

There will be no law and order — no peace — as long as law and order is “for me, but not for thee.” Law and order needs to be for “we.”

Lee Russ is a retired legal editor who was the lead editor and author of two national sets of law books: “Couch on Insurance,” 3d edition, and the “Attorneys Medical Advisor.” He lives in Bennington. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of Vermont News & Media.


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