Why We Still Trust the Police and the NSA

According to recent polls, around half of the American public still approves of and trusts the NSA and law enforcement, despite recent revelations of wrongdoing and abuse by both institutions. Why?

I am sure there are many reasons, but it might be as simple as this: We just do not want to think about it too much. After all, our system is structured such that is their (NSA and police officers) job to handle, not ours.

We have been criminalizing homelessness at a rapid pace. Over 50 cities have passed laws against feeding the homeless; ordinances prohibiting sleeping in cars have doubled nationwide since 2011. In Rikers Island, a large prison in New York City, mentally ill inmates make up 40% of the population. An estimated half of the people killed by a police officer have some type of mental-health problem. We are consistently asking the police to deal with the people we do not want to take care of, to make sure they don’t sleep on benches, get too crazy, or stink up a subway station—to contain the problem of homelessness, mental illness, drug abuse, etc., and make sure it does not spill into our lives. 

So when the police make mistakes, and we get mad, the truth is that we are being a bit hypocritical. The fundamental problem is not “how do we fix the police,” but why are we, as Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it, trying to solve all our social problems with a “hammer” (police). When we get frustrated at the police for not doing a better job, we are really frustrated with them for not being a social worker, drug counselor, father-figure, and law-enforcer all at once.

The same goes for the NSA. We might feel a vague irritation that we are being spied on, but we do not really want to spend time thinking about terrorism and why some extremists do not like us. We just want them to not bother or harm us. If you look at Pew Research Report’s data from Spring 2014, the facts are revealing. 42% of Americans approve of the government’s collection of phone and internet data, and 54% disapprove. Given that, you would expect that Americans’ top concern about the government’s anti-terrorism policies would be its restriction of civil liberties. Actually, that is our second concern at 37%. Our top concern, at 49%, is that our government has “not gone far enough to protect the country.” So while we do feel vaguely irritated at the NSA’s breaches of privacy, when the rubber hits the road, we still primarily want them to do the job we have asked them to do: take care of us, and contain this “outside” problem so it does not affect our lives.

Of course, the issues that lead to domestic crime are much more within our "sphere of responsibility" than the issues that lead to violent extremism. But in many ways the NSA - and our entire defense department, which receives way more funding than our international development agencies - is simply an international extension of our propensity to criminalize every social problem. And when we primarily rely on security forces to handle our social ills, we are simply saying that these ills are just about the behavior of some irredeemably bad individuals, and the only solution is to quarantine them in some isolated area away from the rest of us. To contain the problem.

So when we hear of breaches of privacy or abuse of police authority, we, deep down, are a bit disturbed. But to start to intervene and deal with the roots of these complex problems – crime, terrorism – would mean getting more involved, which is counterproductive, because the whole point of entrusting them with these problems was so that we do not have to get involved. We want our security forces to do the “dirty work of containing the problems” (quote from Obama himself, who has not been so good about NSA-issues, talking about police officers). We want them – at home and abroad – to defend and protect us, not just from actual harm, but from the effort of understanding why it is, for instance, that radicalized forms of Islam are gaining popularity in Egypt. The NSA and the police are offering us not just safety, but the kind of peace of mind we need so that we can keep watching Netflix. So that is why we trust them: it is just more convenient to do so. 

Sarah Ngu (@sarahngu) is a freelance writer and an alumni of Trinity Forum Academy and Columbia University. Based in New York, she writes regularly here and elsewhere on faith and culture, and produces thought leadership for businesses.