Blogs > Cliopatria > Forget It, Jake

Jul 6, 2011

Forget It, Jake

I look a little like this, today -- but less handsome, and with far less personal dignity -- because I've been reading online discussions about the Boston College subpoena, and most say that my goodness, this academic freedom stuff is nonsense, are you saying that the police shouldn't catch murderers!?!?

There's an unmistakable stickiness to the underlying assumption: if the police say they're trying to catch murderers, then they must obviously be trying to catch murderers. I mean, my god, they're the police! Wherever they are, whatever political system and social context created them, whatever historical moment they occupy, cops are cops, and "the police" are always, everywhere, and at all times the people who show up and try to restore order when people do bad things. They make justice like a baker makes cupcakes. It's just what they are.

See, for example, James Joyner's post today at Outside the Beltway, in which he concludes that "it’s hard to imagine a balancing test in which murder investigations wouldn’t trump academic inquiry." There's no room in that conclusion for the possibility that a declared "murder investigation" might not actually be a murder investigation. Because my goodness, how could a British investigation into a decades-old IRA murder be in any way political?

Or see the comments at Inside Higher Ed that follow a story about the BC affair: "Sorry folks, this one isn't even close. Unless you are a priest, a physician, a lawyer, member of a very short list of professions, you don't get to keep evidence of murders, particularly confessions of murders, confidential. You might think you ought to have that authority, but the law is quite clear. The rule is as it ought to be."

Or take the commenter at the Chronicle of Higher Education who saw the part in the essay about the police ignoring the murder of Jean McConville for nearly forty years, but still feels entirely confident that they've now decided to investigate it because they want to catch the killers: "(belatedly, but better late than never, no?)"

I've argued and argued and argued that the police in Northern Ireland aren't investigating a murder, and don't mean to bring anyone to justice, in any usual sense. If you haven't seen me make that argument yet, then you don't read my posts, and you aren't reading this sentence anyway, and so never mind, I'm going out for a beer. But time and again, discussions about the Boston College subpoena have been met with the response that but hey wait a minute, the police are trying to get the murderers

There's such an odd foundational assumption here that I can hardly work up the patience to discuss it. But we surely know better, and there's certainly available evidence in this instance to point in a different direction. Policing is a political act. So why is the opposite assumption so stubborn?

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