We expect the impossible, and get the unendurable
Almost all Americans believe in The Majesty of Law as if it was magic; that it creates Order, that Order depends on Law, that everything is built on a sand that will wash away if not defended by Law. The national mythology that we pretend to worship – life, liberty, the purfuit of happineff as inalienable rights resident in the individual – that mythos is believed by few if any. But this, this assumption that everything and everyone (but ourselves, of course; I know Right From Wrong, but you I’m not so sure of, so I’ll keep watch) depends on Law as the foundation of Order – this impossible thing is believed by all.
And all are wrong.
This idea is false, impossible, and dangerous. It finds and greatly magnifies any extant prejudice those tasked with applying it have. If Order depends for its continued existence on the application of Law, then those who police our society, at all levels, must prevail, else all is doomed. It is inescapable. Once you assume that civilization depends on law, the application of that law must be vigorous, remorseless, unstinting and unlimited – because you believe our system depends on it. How can we risk all this for just one life?
Nor does it matter how opposed to this aggressive policing you might be, even if you are a policeman. It doesn’t matter at all. It may be that somewhere – nowhere I’ve ever been, nowhere around here, certainly, but somewhere – there is a police force dedicated to respect for the citizen and a thorough professionalism. It will still strongly, forcefully gravitate toward racist brutality if Order depends on Law.
A thing like a robbery is no longer simply an attack on those robbed, which is all that it should be about. No. You’ve made it into An Act of Revolt, a crime against us all, a clear attempt to overthrow order.
So the Thin Blue Line fallacy; that there are Good People, whom the police need to protect from the Bad People who seek to hurt them, and only the Police can separate the two.
Bullpucky. Horse hockey. Television logic, devoid of reality.
Wherever you are now, if there is a line of police around you, you are in prison, yourself a policeman, or – horrors! – running for President. For the rest, for the best and worst of us – if someone right now wanted to get to you and do you harm, is there anything to stop them? No. (Gun freaks; even if you are well armed, someone not that far from you is better armed.) People in our nation, in 2016, are less likely to be harmed by anyone or anything than at any other time in history. That you got through today unharmed by anyone is because you live with people who have no desire to hurt you; they don’t want to hurt you because they want to live with people who don’t hurt them. If you have trouble believing that, if you see theft and murder every day of your life –
Turn off the TV.
Portland experienced a particularly cowardly death at police hands some few years ago, an excruciating memory for the decent of my city. A young man was tried at the only court of justice that mattered in his short life in a trial in which prosecution, judge and jury were all emotion-guided men and women with loaded weapons pointing at the accused. They found him guilty of being an unarmed black man with emotions, and carried out the sentence because he was obeying commands, yet had the temerity to flinch when hit with a rubber slug. So the brave white policeman shot him with a high-powered rifle.
In the back.
Brave, courageous Thin Blue Line. Protecting us good people from – uh – What ‘Thin Blue’ barrier was the murderer a part of, again?
If he was a member of a force dedicated to Serve and Protect (or if the assassin had a shred of decency) this would have been a career-ending move. But if the actual goal was, as you think it must be, to be a prophylactic against Bad People on behalf of Good People, to protect our society against attack, then, no fault no foul. We know the young unarmed man was Dangerous, that (White) Society has to be protected from people like him. So not only did pointlessly ending a life not end a career, it was, in Portland’s deeply racist, amateurish Clown Show in Blue – I love my city, but our police are and always have been vicious, openly racist thugs – a well-trod path to promotion.
Because if the safety of our whole culture depends on Good People being protected from Bad People, those doing the protecting have to be able to discern instantly who the Bad People are, and be free to act preventively. The entire Thin Blue Line concept depends on it: The Police cannot see into people’s hearts and know what their intentions are, yet at the same time we demand that they do and thereby prevent bad things happening. The police will, no matter how they struggle against it – and few do – desperately seek to find some external clue to that manifest goodness they must protect against evil, and immediately see its lack, else all things fail and fall into death and destruction.
There is no label, no tag, no signal that Bad People show, no smell or sound that gives them away. (If I were given to imagining that a visual clue to Evil did exist, I would conclude from personal experience that that clue would wear a suit and hold a Bible.) But so many Americans – going out on a limb here and saying most – and an even greater percentage of Police, believe there is a clue.
A young black man is, on average, slightly less likely than a white to use drugs, commit crime, be on welfare or be any danger to you. If you are white, and possibly even if you are not, there is absolutely no chance in Heaven or on Earth that I can convince you of this. Some one hundred years of research, hundred of millions of dollars spent on tens of thousands of studies have consistently shown this. But you know that a young black man is dangerous, reality be damned. You see it on TV. You get evidence from movies.
So what chance is there that putting a blue uniform on you and strapping a gun on your hip will not focus this, give it free reign? And if you have even the slightest trace of such an expectation, putting you and your blue and your gun on the streets and telling you that your job, a condom protecting Good from Bad, is the foundation of all we see, which will collapse if you don’t do it well –
What is the chance that you will not come to see color as a danger sign? That you will start to see the behaviors you’ve already decided are there? Even the smallest slice of racism, the smallest drop of discomfort around minorities no matter how well hidden or denied, will blossom into full bloom if you are put in the position our Police have been put in: the demand that they protect Us from Them by instantly knowing which is which. There are no signs, no labels, but we insist there are. So of course policemen imagine them, project them, find them. As would you. As would I.
Which is why the police keep killing so many of our innocent citizens, men, women, children. We have put impossible expectations on them and regularly abuse them for their failure to meet them. How could the Police have allowed this awful thing to happen? What do we pay them for? We’ve bought so many toys for them, bigger guns, more helicopters, maybe a tank or two; how is it bad things keep happening?
Few things are more dangerous, more damaging to the mind, than giving someone an impossible job and telling them the whole world depends on them doing it. Functional insanity is the result; we see the same thing in servicemen in nuclear missile silos tasked with waiting day after day after day for nuclear Armageddon, which impossible mental conflict – calmly waiting for catastrophe, forced to imagine as part of a daily routine the un-imaginable – leads to a great deal of self-damaging behavior.
Given the impossible conflict of applying this Blue Line expectation, where neither part of the equation is true – leaving aside the very small number of criminally insane, who tend to weed themselves out of society, ‘bad people’ are the same people as ‘good people’, different only by poor decisions, limited choices created by poverty, or by the reduced ability compared with the rich to afford and hide their addictions, and can’t be told apart by any signs; and the Police have no ability to prevent crime before it happens – given that conflict, it is entirely logical and predictable that the brain will focus tremendous energy on finding a way to square that circle.
As, for example, by deciding that there are such visual badness clues. Like color. Or any other easy, unexamined prejudice. And it is much to our shame that the police – our police, that we put on the street – predictably fail at the impossible, that they make bad decisions based on the racism that our expectations so powerfully magnifies, and in the throes of that impossible conflict, that they instinctively protect themselves by changing their own memories of, or lying about, their actions. In that intolerable conflict we create in their all-too-human minds, ‘truth’ becomes anything they need in that moment for it to be. So do we all.
I beg you hear my words, my warning: If you have become convinced, as part of your world-view foundation, some thing that your subconscious mind knows doesn’t wash – our brains are better than our minds at weighing probabilities and seeing reality – if you Believe some not-real thing, and are faced with evidence of that believed-but-impossible thing not being true, you will, beyond your ability to control or shape your own thoughts, automatically add all the emotion, all the blessed Moral Certainty that you need to overcome your conflicted mind. Again, you must not see this as weakness; it’s how the brain works.
If you are racist and confronted with a black man showing signs of not being inferior, you will instantly add all the emotion – all the lizard-brain certainty – that you need in order to overwhelm this uncertainty. Such an emotion-swamped mind, insisting on imposing this Certainty on the situation, will easily pull that trigger. We cannot tolerate this conflict, and we resolve it internally by projecting all our expectations of behavior onto the real person and real behaviors in front of us.
So the Assassin in Blue didn’t shoot a human being – he pulled the trigger and drove a high-powered chunk of lead through a cartoon of his mind’s creation. Unfortunately there was a human being standing behind it, with his arms raised.
That’s what we put our Police through by our stupidity; we tell them they must do something they can’t do – and, oh, yeah, here’s a gun. I’m sure that will go well.
While the Thin Blue Line fallacy rules the land, no life is safe – when the citizenry indulges the magical thinking that there are Good and Bad people you can tell apart by the labels we imagine they wear, who have to be kept separated or everything will fall into chaos, that society must be hammered into shape on the anvil of Law, then a life becomes a tiny, unimportant, disposable thing when weighed against All of Civilization.
Nobody is safe until we give up this delusion. White is advantaged and black and brown suffer, for now; but prejudice is itself stunningly unprejudiced – any characteristic will serve, any at all, including yours. This myth is madness, a machine to grind to paste anyone it needs to grease its wheels.
But we will not give up our Thin Blue Line delusion. Until we do – until we think more deeply about the place of law, until we learn hubris –
No lives matter.