Acting out of Fear

The saying goes “it takes more effort to get the ball rolling than to keep it going.” That’s true. Left unsaid, though, is that it takes even more energy to stop the damned thing before it destroys you. Ask Indiana Jones if you don’t believe me.

America is facing the same problem right now, as the most reactionary and shortsighted among us attack the police. Understand me. I am not a huge fan of the current culture in law enforcement. That is exactly what it is, however. A culture. Culture  can be abruptly changed with minimal harm to everyone concerned. Seat belt laws prove this. So do drunk driving laws.

Societal issues are not so easily resolved. Ask blacks who still face discrimination everyday. Ask women who still don’t get paid an equal salary but, when seeking or attaining positions of influence or power, are held to a ridiculously higher standard than any man. Unacceptable societal issues are what we face at the moment.

As I see it, and you can believe differently if you choose, the ball began rolling with 9/11. Certainly, there were domestic problems deeply embedded in the fabric of American soil long before that, but there was a line we would not cross, leverage we would not use. Thus, the ball grew, but it stayed in place.

There had also been terrorist attacks on American soil previously. In 1993, there was the first World Trade Center bombing. A radical movement was responsible, but one Americans didn’t really connect to themselves, and thus did not take very seriously. As well, the truck bomb was set off underground, with minimal damage. No shocking video. No visceral imagery. The ball, being a metaphor for our fears grew, but it remained still.

In 1995, there was the Oklahoma City bombing, but that was easily put down to a single deranged soul. It wasn’t a movement. Moreover, the target wasn’t what you would call a national symbol. The carnage and death toll were shocking, but for many, it was a localized incident. It still didn’t hit home. So, the ball rocked a little, but wasn’t uprooted.

On September 11, 2001, however, there was more than sufficient energy to set the ball rolling. Planes were flown into the World Trade Center live on national television. When the buildings, once the tallest in the world, fell, everyone was watching, and everyone was affected.

It didn’t end there, however. It could have, had we trusted each other, had our leadership been trustworthy. At first, the right ideas were voiced. We were encouraged to go on living our lives. Some found it trivial, even trite and disrespectful, but the sitting President suggested we go shopping. Admittedly, it was difficult to understand such a dismissive remark wasn’t about ignoring the devastation, rather refusing to let it attack our freedom.

Before the dust clouds billowed through the Wall Street district, police and firefighters could be seen rushing into the buildings. We waited and hoped, but when the buildings fell and the clouds flowed outward, few had come out.

In the interim, unfortunately, everyone seems to have forgotten their selfless service. I don’t mean just civilians who now fear and mistrust police. I mean the government which, while immediately creating a fund to compensate families with lost or severely injured loved ones, failed to properly administrate it, letting $12 million in unclaimed benefits sit for more than a decade while some dependents of victims grew up in poverty, unaware they were eligible for compensation.  Most importantly, I mean the police themselves. They forgot their job was to serve and protect, not suspect and kill.

Of course, there was another, separate war from the one on terrorism, which placed barriers between civilians and police. The proliferation of highly addictive drugs, such as crack and crystal meth, divided low-income urban areas largely populated by minorities whose young people, systemically denied other opportunities, adopted the gangsta life.

Bloods, Crips, and Latin Kings, among others were fighting a guerrilla war for neighborhood territories. Law abiding families too poor to move away were forced to hide in their homes to avoid being collateral damage. It didn’t always work. Reports of young children and infants killed by errant drive-by bullets penetrating thin walls became regular news fare.

Nor could citizens rely on the police. Before drugs became so prolific, law enforcement had been heavily involved in such communities. Afterwards, racial profiling became the norm. The innocents who needed protecting most, were feared as potential suspects because of their skin color. A bond of trust had been broken. Any progress towards default, rather than just written, equal rights for Americans of all races was halted.

Yet, before the Civil Rights Movement encouraged integration, Blacks and Latinos feared and mistrusted white police for decades. When the force did become less whitewashed, its ranks didn’t evolve into a spectrum of colors. Instead, everyone with a badge became blue. As such, there was still a barrier between civilians and cops.

It wasn’t until after 9/11, however, that the fear on both sides became more violent. Like terrorists, police learned to use fear to their advantage. The simple phrase, “in fear for his life,” became a free pass to kill suspects.

Naturally, when a method is successful in one area, its boundaries will be tested. No one complained when suspects brandishing weapons were killed. Suspects with probable cause, like Michael Brown or Eric Garner, were shot or strangled despite being unarmed.  Calls for changes in procedure to prevent further incidents were largely ignored. Inevitably, suspects without probable cause, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling being the latest, were killed by officers in “fear for their lives.”

Whether the fear is reasonable or immediate seems to have become irrelevant. It’s mere existence has been enough to protect most police from discipline or indictment. Brandishing as a standard for action has been reduced to “might have a gun within reach, I don’t really know., but I’m not waiting to find out.”

Philando Castile, for instance, had nothing in his hand when shot, although he had been reaching for his identification. The officer claims he ordered Castile not to reach, but there is no indication how much time elapsed between him shouting the order and firing four bullets into the car while Castile’s wife sat in the passenger seat, and his four-year-old daughter in the back.

Castile had properly and cooperatively informed the officer he was a licensed carrier, an officer who already knew he was in the system with a history of traffic stops (almost certainly due to profiling). The stop had been initiated because Castile matched the description of a black armed robbery suspect with a wide nose. Hardly a distinguishing feature among African-Americans. In fact, it’s just a ready excuse to stop virtually any person of color. It was that bigotry which planted a seed of fear in the officer’s mind. It’s fear you can hear in the officer’s voice, captured on Castile’s partner’s cell phone. Yet, it remains there was nothing in Castile’s hand when he was shot. Any possible threat, remote or tangible, was not immediate. The killing smells of panic and fear.

Given there has been a laundry list of such killings in the past two years, and so few prosecutions of reckless officers, it’s understandable trust in police by minorities is at an all time low. Never before in US history has there been a violent response to that lack of trust such as we are seeing now. Police being ambushed and killed. Broken glass being put in sandwiches they purchase over the counter. Officers being refused service at gas stations.

These are acts of terrorism. If they are justified, they are justified in the same manner with which the West installed and protected oppressive regimes in the Middle East. In other words, we’ve done this to ourselves. Civilian tactics against police have been learned from Al Qaeda and ISIL, from Timothy McVeigh and David Koresh, and even though they never fired a shot, from the Wilders. We have reached the point where America is not merely divided, but fragmented. No side holds the moral ground anymore.

So, how does one go about putting Humpty Dumpty together again? Police talk about being out in the community, not only engaging, but being proactive. I’m all for engaging citizens, but, as long as police remain frightened of everyday citizens,  the proactive element of fighting crime disturbs me.

Last week, I was seated in my favorite café. A black man, probably homeless, sat at the next table. He was preparing to eat a lunch for which he had paid, like any other customer, but spilled his soda. After obtaining some napkins to clean up the mess, he was confronted by a uniformed officer who had come in alone, presumably to purchase his own lunch. Hand on holster, the cop browbeat the man, who was completely cowed.

Finding the scene inappropriate, I told the officer the man had spilled his soda, which could happen to anyone. With his hand still on the butt of his weapon, the officer told me he was speaking to the black man, and tried to stare me into submission. Answering that I knew exactly who he was talking to, and there was no call to do so, I stared back. When he realized I would not back down, he walked to the counter without saying anything more, then left the store quietly.

Unfortunately, such episodes are how too many officers view proactive policing. Tom Mullen recently wrote a column in Huffington Post suggesting the police be run like fire departments. Even I laughed at the notion of police staying in their precinct houses unless called into action, rather than going out literally looking for trouble. My fear was everyone else’s. Criminals would simply take advantage. They’d run rampant. In this respect, it’s incredible to think we can climb out of the hole we’ve dug for ourselves.

But, what if we initiated a more measured change, such as the English approach? Keep the armed police in their barracks, while unarmed cops patrol neighborhoods. Without a gun at their hip, officers would certainly learn to find ways to arrest suspects without anyone getting hurt. Things like waiting for sufficient back up before making an arrest, for instance. Maybe use a plastic garbage can or a riot shield to supplement your bulletproof vest. And don’t beat the suspect into a pulp when you finally have him completely subdued. Don’t strike him at all, at that point.

The UK police in this video managed all that, much to the surprise and admiration of witnesses. What’s more, even though it’s obvious from one or two officers’ reactions once the situation is contained that they reasonably feared for their lives, deadly force was never a necessary option for them.

Of course, Second Amendment freaks would go ballistic (pun intended) because the next step would surely be to curtail guns in civilian hands. Without armed police to protect them from criminals, the alarmist argument would go, honest, hardworking people would need more guns themselves, and bigger to boot.

You don’t need to take handguns away from people concerned with self-defense, however.  Just weapons like AR-15’s, easily obtained, legally convertible to automatic firing capabilities with a $400 adapter kit, and used in three of the last four mass shootings in this country. Get rid of them, then enact decades-long prison terms without possibility of parole for anyone who commits any crime with the aid of a firearm. Any crime. Including police officers who use deadly force indiscriminately.  If such sentences apply for a kid busted smoking a joint, why not an armed robber? Or a trigger-happy cop?

Both Black and Blue Lives Matter, but what is the point of beating ourselves those two colors to decide which matters more? This country was established on the principle that they matter equally.

Ironically, through our own actions and inactions, the ball of terror is rolling with fifteen years momentum behind it, and it’s almost on top of us now. It should be obvious bullets aren’t going to stop it. Greater numbers are being fired everyday, and people are only more frightened. Reason is the only counter to fear. And we need it from all sides.

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