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"Face the car and put your right hand behind your back," commanded the fresh-faced, muscular policeman. I did, and he slapped a handcuff on my wrist, his partner's hand on his Taser as he watched from a short distance.
"Now your left." I was fully bound, the cold metal pushing sharply into my wrists.
Suddenly feeling infinitely curtailed, I tried to understand why I was in handcuffs on the side of a busy road, harsh lights flashing in my eyes.
"Why are you shackling me, sir?" I asked politely. "This seems excessive."
He looked at me harshly. "Haven't you been watching the news? Don't you know what's going on in the world? We have to protect ourselves."
I considered his words, and quickly scanned my mental files for recent news events involving policemen. All I could come up with was a litany of instances of police using excessive force, abusing, injuring, and killing people without cause.
I didn't answer.
The predicament was the outgrowth of a parking ticket I got in Buffalo over a year before, for which I had mailed payment, but the payment was apparently never received or posted. As a result, as I was informed, while in handcuffs, my car's registration had been suspended, and it would be impounded.
The policeman pushed me into the back of the cruiser and sat in the front typing into his computer. The handcuffs seemed to grow progressively tighter and I tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to stay aware of my breath as my hands, wrists in cuffs, ached and grew numb from lack of circulation.
Imagining total withdrawal of freedom is one thing, but sitting behind bulletproof glass, hands tied behind one's back in a police car affords a direct experience of captivity. In the face of it I was tense, a little outraged, and frustrated at the complete restriction of movement.
But then, as I felt my utter helplessness to do anything, something inside me popped. A part of my consciousness seemed to jump out of my head and hover above me. It saw my tense body in the backseat, the policeman in the front, cars driving by, the sun moving toward the horizon in an almost cloudless sky. I saw myself feeling violated and upset; saw the policeman at work.
In that moment I realized the bondage felt familiar. I remembered that a fleeting sense of psychic slavery often flutters across my peripheral vision, but then I do something I "want to do"—have a cup of coffee, check my e-mail, turn on a movie, or go for a walk in the woods, and the sense of restriction fades like the stars when the sun comes out.
But in the car, in cuffs, I knew that the inexorable physical bondage was a direct mirror of the bondage of my inner life. It was the same thing as my likes and dislikes, opinions and prejudices, comfort-seeking and pain avoidance; it was a mirror of the bondage of my justified negativity—criticisms, gossiping, complaining, and even outright raging.
I saw that the policeman saw me as a threat requiring restraint and containment because he is trained to see the world as a dangerous place, with force and violence required to keep the danger at bay. I even felt some compassion for his particular variety of slavery, so like mine in every respect.
In seeing the depth of my own bondage, I saw at the same time the mostly invisible bondage of all of us. Inasmuch as we use even subtle coercion and violence to effect anything, we have departed from freedom and taken a step into slavery. In this sense, each of us is a microcosm of a larger situation.
The wars of imperial terror against resource-rich targets in the Middle East, and the resultant revenge attacks on Western centers; the indoctrination masquerading as education; the sickness and death-inducing system called healthcare; the loaded-deck economic system that ensures wealth trickles and flows from the poor to the wealthy; the policemen charged to protect and using their power to humiliate and abuse—all are part of the same impulse to avoid inhabiting our collective alienation from an essential freedom to be.
Recognizing the profundity of our collective predicament, I leaned back into the hard plastic seat of the cruiser. Where there was tension, relaxation began to flow. Where there was resistance to my incarceration came acceptance. My breath became deeper and fuller and available to awareness. The situation wasn't good, and at the same time it was perfect.
At that moment the car door opened and I stepped out. The policeman unlocked the cuffs, handing me a ticket for my traffic infraction.
"You're free to go."
I began the long walk home in the brisk evening air. The fiery orange sun, radiating unfathomable power, so present and yet beyond all earth-bound concerns, slipped beneath the a distant horizon and was gone.