Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Real Outrage of Ferguson

They Actually Work Pretty Hard on This Stuff
In many ways, the response to Michael Brown's killing and the events that followed has been appalling, and somewhat puzzling. Because while there is no real surprise that there are ideological divisions between closed-mined support for "law and order" and an understanding of the real implications of being a poor young black man in 21st century America, the hard questions run so much deeper than that. There's a standing Bigotry vs. Diversity question that will bring people down on predictable sides of the issue, and there is the rancid racial politics of the modern American Right, the Rush Limbaugh/Sean Hannity fueled obsession with the racial victimization of white American men.

But to me, there is another question, and it cuts almost diagonally across all those previously established cultural trenchlines. To me the question is simply this: Should using a handgun against an unarmed assailant qualify as self-defense? Now, there are times when this question is easy - a woman defending against larger male attacker, a physically disabled person resisting a strong-arm thief - but the salient question here is a Law Enforcement officer effecting an arrest on a person who is violently resisting, but is unarmed. Now, this is a reasonable question to ask, because police across America take violently resisting felons into custody every day without shooting them. Hundreds, if not thousands of them. The police have extensive training in controlling violent offenders, they have a variety of less-than-lethal options from a baton to mace to a Taser, they have armor and backup and experience that most people don't have. If the guidelines for using lethal force specifically call for a "reasonable belief that his life is in danger", can that standard EVER be honestly met when the attacker is unarmed? How many times can you recall hearing about an unarmed felon killing a police officer, or even avoiding arrest?

And yet the shrieking only grows louder. SELF DEFENSE! They shout. JUSTIFIED SHOOTING! They rant. But I wonder - did Officer Wilson have no choice? Did he have to shoot? Was it truly 'shoot or die'? Because the alternative is that he CHOSE to shoot, in a moment when it wasn't necessary. And instead of a few scrapes and bruises, a kid is DEAD. And that's as big a deal as there is. And doesn't the right wing worship at the altar of the tough guy? How many times did we see John Wayne get in a fistfight with his guns in their holsters? Did he ever draw them? NO. It was a fistfight - he understood that, and that what you place at risk in a fistfight is different on an existential level from what you risk in a gunfight. They are different things, done for different reasons, and to kill someone to end a fistfight, a la George Zimmerman or Darren Wilson, is weak. The antithesis of what a tough guy would do. Shameful.

Now, it's true that a big part of the right-wing message these days is fear. Fear of Terrorism, fear of Russia, fear of Ebola, fear of African - Americans, fear of Muslims. So they may find it useful to portray Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin as marauding thugs, to be feared even when unarmed, and to be shot down in the name of all that's good and American. But at the same time, don't they have to feel a little sick? Their hero couldn't take a kid into custody, despite training, equipment and years of experience. He had to kill him. Doesn't that say that Michael Brown was the better man, tougher, able to dominate a trained profesional law enforcment officer with bare hands?

In a country awash in a foul stew of guns, hatred and fear, we need to ask one key question: What are guns for? Are they for ending every disagreement, every conflict? Or should lethal force be restricted to times when it is truly the only solution, when the negative outcome is much worse than a bruise or a broken nose? I sense such a hardening of attitudes, where killing unarmed children has gone from 'tragic' to 'justified', and now it's only a matter of time before it becomes 'preferred'. I carried a gun for many years, and it never occurred to me to use it against an unarmed person. That's got to be murder.


  1. Now, it's true that a big part of the right-wing message these days is fear.

    I think that has always been a major (if not THE major) part of the right-wing message.

    Here and everywhere, throughout human history.