This business with the Guards in Mayo joking about rape raises interesting questions.
I’m not going to defend three fools in a squad car, but I would like to examine the limits of acceptable conversation a little. Like everyone else, I’ve seen Gardai abuse their positions to arrest law-abiding members of the public, solely because they felt like having a little power trip and I think the Gardai in Erris have been violent and heavy-handed in the way they treat people trying to express a legitimate objection to the Shell project.
In the current case, it appears that they arrested a woman who was simply standing in a public place, filming. While there are some restrictions on broadcasting a film, there is nothing illegal about filming on a public road, and therefore there’s a nice irony in the fact that their arrogance in falsely arresting the woman was what led to their conversation being heard all over the world.
However, none of that is relevant, so let’s leave it aside for a minute and look at the limitations that apply to private conversations held by police, or anyone else for that matter, without presuming anything about the particular circumstances. Is there such a thing as a private conversation when people are at work? I think that’s the kernel of it.
Some people have said that policemen on duty shouldn’t joke at all, because they’re being paid to work. Well and good, but how far does that go? When two or three cops are together in a car, must their conversation be strictly work at all times? Are they allowed to talk about the weather? How about the football? Is someone permitted to pass an occasional light-hearted comment, or are they required to be Judge Dredd? No laughing, no interaction.
That would scare me. It’s bad enough to be stopped by policemen who are complete unprofessional idiots, but if, on top of that, they turn out to be humourless, unthinking automatons, I’m in real trouble.
However, let’s assume that most reasonable people understand how human relations work and see no problem with colleagues chatting as they drive along, talking about family, sport, politics and telling a few jokes, the way normal people do.
What can they laugh about?
Could they ask each other riddles?
Tell knock-knock jokes?
One theory of humour is that it involves the resolution of incongruities. In other words, when you take something utterly absurd and paste it into the familiar world, people laugh. You end up with things like Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a movie which was banned in Ireland when first released because some people jumped to the wrong conclusions about it.
Going back to our three cops in the car, if they had been recorded acting out a conversation where one of them says to a member of the public, Tell me your name and address or I’ll crucify you, that would be a very serious thing to threaten, but I don’t think there would be the same outcry.
Why? Because nobody believes that would ever happen, and even the recipient of the threat wouldn’t take it seriously. Yet, there are places where a policeman might do precisely that to a person he’s just arrested.
It’s all about context.
Supposing they all laughed when one of them said Tell me your name and address or I’ll shoot you.
Surely murder is even more serious than rape, but if gardai were recorded talking like that, I just don’t think anyone would give it a second thought, because they’d know perfectly well the cops were plainly acting out an absurd and highly-unlikely scenario. In a society like ours, slipshod though the police can often be, these things simply do not happen. The police don’t murder people, they don’t rape them, and they never will unless there’s a total breakdown in society.
So here’s what I’m curious about. Would there be demands for dismissal if they had been recorded saying Tell me your name and address or I’ll kill you?
And if not, why not?