In our media-saturated culture, we tend to see the people in the news as embodiments of grand sociopolitical realities.Thus, for example, have the Baltimore police and Freddie Gray, Michael Slager and Walter Scott, and Darren Wilson and Michael Brown become figureheads for our pet causes. The big-government left tells us that the cops involved must be convicted and harshly punished, because otherwise there can be no recognition of police brutality or racism. The authoritarian right maintains that if, as in Wilson’s case, the officers are cleared of all charges, there is no problem with police brutality or racism. Then it is not the police themselves who are tried, in the minds of statists, but police brutality and racism.
But these men cannot be reduced to mere symbols. They don’t simply embody anything. They are (or were) individual human beings.
To turn police officers involved in suspects’ deaths into scapegoats — before they’ve been convicted of any crime — is barbaric. Such thinking predates civilization. It belongs to the Stone Age. As a society, we are not evolving, but devolving. We are taking a gigantic leap backwards.
What will become of our criminal justice system if people are no longer recognized as themselves? The mob may be content to do that to others, but would any of us want to be reduced to such a state ourselves? To be robbed of one’s individual identity is, indeed, to be dehumanized.
In the Michael Brown shooting, all available evidence suggests that Officer Wilson killed Brown in self-defense. That by no means negates the disturbing data that have come to light about the Ferguson police department. Far less does Wilson’s exoneration discount the problem of police brutality. The case in question says nothing about any fact except for the case in question. Sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar.
The anger of the demonstrators has ample justification. In many parts of the country, the police do behave, increasingly, as if they are an occupying army and the people they are sworn to protect a conquered enemy. Nor do racial minorities always receive anything approaching fair treatment by law enforcement officers.
But a mob is inspired, not byreason, but by raw emotion. It demands a sacrificial animal.To appease its feelings, it wants the offending cops convicted — regardless of whether they are guilty or not. That the mob would almost certainly be satisfied with such an outcome demonstrates its inhumanity. In their willingness to dehumanize other individuals, those who take part in it dehumanize themselves.
A guilty verdict against the apprehendingofficers would not bring Michael Brown, Walter Scott, or Freddie Gray back to life. Nor would a single incident of police brutality likely be prevented. Far from being converted from their folly, actual racists would find legitimate cover for their rage. As it is, police departments nationwide are now declaring themselves effectively at war with the civilian population. Not only has further harm not been averted but more has been inflicted by mob action and its response.
If any lesson emerges from this unholy mess, it’s this: if we are unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, our decisions, actions, and very lives can be snatched away from us. They can be twisted, like wet clay, into whatever shape suits the ambitions of a political faction. They become mere tokens in a contest for power. Under such a system, the concept of justice becomes a joke.
Justice is a strictly individual matter. It must be taken into account case by case. No nameless, faceless mass can be given “social” justice against any other. If Michael Brown was murdered, Walter Scott cold-bloodedly executed, or Freddie Gray brutalized off-camera inside that police vehicle, each act — however heinous — was a separate crime. None of them “embodied” anything, except a mother’s son or, for believers in the divine, a child of God.
Far from magnifying these men into anything larger than themselves, we have diminished them. In the process, we’ve diminished ourselves. And instead of making our country safer, we are turning it into an ever more frightening and treacherous place.