The State of Things

I’ve been looking on with wonder at the rate of police related problems that have occurred not just recently in America, but over time. I’ve already blogged about Michael Brown in another post, Speak to the Rock, so I won’t go into that, but there are some other instances that bear talking about, before we get into what is probably the real issue.

The first thing I want to mention that has happened recently is the 12 year old boy with a BB gun who was recently shot and killed by the police in Cleveland. I look at that and see only tragedy. I can’t imagine how any police officer could do that and live with themselves.

I say I can’t imagine because there is a fundamental issue with the police that needs to be addressed by the country as a whole. I’ll get to that in a moment, but first let me frame it with another example from a time that isn’t really all that far in the past, Columbine.

I was as incensed by the cowardice of the police who dealt with Columbine as anybody was. It happened that we had to watch a team of SWAT members all decked out in body armor crouch behind a firetruck as we knew that people were getting shot inside the school. They crouched there and refused to go in, fearing for their own safety.

Well, not too many weeks before there was another thing that happened concerning body armor, a small group of robbers using body armor knocked over a place in California. During that televised ordeal we got to watch the police shoot at the robbers, and their bullets simply bounce off. The police had to go to a local gun dealer and confiscate more powerful weapons, fearing that they would not be able to stop the men.

At Columbine I had to watch this team of men, who I knew by watching them had the same kind of armor on, hide behind the firetruck rather than go into the building. What they were thinking was obvious, they could get killed. Why would they want to expose themselves to that danger?

Aren’t there some unwritten things that we expect people in law enforcement to understand? Isn’t one of those things the fact that one of the fundamental definitions of the office they hold is to encounter danger for the rest of us? Isn’t encountering danger for the rest of us not just about encountering those things we perceive as obviously lethal, but also about encountering those things that we are merely afraid might be lethal but also might turn out to be nothing at all? We can’t, as individual citizens, really trust ourselves to judge correctly about those things which straddle the line between genuine threat or not a threat. We have to trust those we hire and train to encounter those situations.

It’s fundamentally dangerous to be a cop. It’s more dangerous for them because they carry with them the weight of assessment of the situations they encounter. Here is the issue: assessment takes time. It not only takes time, in fact, but it also takes knowledge of society and intimacy with the people that the officers are supposed to protect. We are supposed to pay these people to take on the added risk they incur, and they are supposed to understand they are taking on that risk. They are doing it for all of us collectively.

Why, then, are we tolerating police who throw away their duty to assess in favor of their fear, such that they shoot too soon. The job is not supposed, either, to be tantamount to committing suicide. They can’t be expected to allow those who really are a threat to steamroll them. People who are that kind of threat aren’t just challenging the officers they face, they are challenging all of us. Therefore, when a police officer kills somebody they are doing it in our name. It’s one thing if they had to make an assessment in a short period of time and came away with the wrong understanding, but quite another when they forgo assessment altogether, in favor or farming that out to an emergency services system or simply drowning in a sea of their own fears.

We don’t need cops who go about doing their jobs dominated by fear. Perhaps the issue has to do with how many police officers are necessary? There may not be enough people capable of thinking about the job this way to cover the demand. Maybe the demand is too high, with too many officers on various payrolls? Perhaps it has to do with society at large losing its grasp of the core teaching of civics? Maybe we don’t raise up generations anymore who come along with any understanding of the communal obligations and responsibilities we have toward each other, protecting and serving being one of them? Maybe it has to do with our rampant individualism, which is a good thing in many circles but can crowd out some of the finer aspects of our humanity because no man is an island? Whatever it is it is sapping the energy of our communities as we deal with fear driven assaults and communities that assume that every police shooting was a fear driven assault. Yes, it is true that a community can adopt that attitude, especially if they have a history of its truth.

So a 12 year old boy is dead. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, that is almost a textbook case concerning assessment. He ought to be alive, and have very much learned a lesson about waving around a BB gun. The police should have communicated to him that he was lucky it was them that he encountered and not some random citizen who might have perceived him as a threat, and who doesn’t operate under the same duty to asses that they do. You’re probably going to dislike me for this, but that officer who shot Michael Brown didn’t have the duty to die at Michael’s hand as he determined that Michael was simply a teddy bear of a giant young man who was having a bad day and was trying out being bad to see if that would get him anywhere. And George Zimmerman, the guy who shot Trayvon Martin in Florida, had no business going about as if he could take on the role of a police officer. He had no training to make the assessments necessary. When he aggressively approached Trayvon he was making a mistake. He was asking Trayvon to attack him in order to defend himself. Any cop worth his salt would have seen that. In fact, any cop worth his salt would probably not have thought Trayvon dangerous, and probably not have pursued anything further with him other than to notice he was walking by. George Zimmerman should be sitting in a jail cell right now, except that this nation has a love affair with fear.

And that is the issue I wanted to get at: the nation’s love affair with fear. Fear rises up and demands that every nit pickety little thing that we can worry about should be worried about. Fear says that something that won’t happen more than some small percentage of the time ought to be thought about with extreme prejudice merely because if it does happen it would be a bad thing. Fear doesn’t allow us to forgive anybody for anything. It causes us to hold it against politicians who commit some blunder, even though they might be basically good people and those who run against them aren’t. It causes us to excoriate those in the public eye for legitimate offenses well beyond the punishment actually due for those offenses because we have to maintain some kind of fiction of aristocracy we can hide behind rather than approach society as a thing to responsibly and dutifully enter. It causes us to worry more personally about the loss of our assets than whether our attitudes toward our fellow man might be crap. Those controlled by fear and employing others always fear that paying them anything more than a subsistence wage will bankrupt them. It causes a basic distrust of the economy as well, assuming that inflation is not normal at a low rate and that, therefore, we can’t trust government to take on debt. It works a lack of trust toward others because they might not come through for us and we could lose out as a result. Yes, it develops a real distaste within us for loss because it isolates us as the only characters in this play. Fear loves a codified system of law by which anyone crossing a line can almost automatically face their punishment. Fear has no time for exceptions unless they are in our group or come with some understood economic benefit.

Ask yourself for a minute what love is like in comparison to fear. It may be high time that America understood there is a difference.

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