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The Sense of Outrage

Thanks to Scott Greenfield,[1] I found a new blog today. The subject appears to be the intersection of law, warfare, and national security, and the blog—if you can call it that; it’s more of an ezine—is named Lawfare.

The article that drew my attention was on “Lawyerly Integrity in the Trump Administration.” But it didn’t draw my attention so much for the issues it discussed. Or, more accurately, while it did do that, what spurs me to write today is the mention of “a sense of outrage” in a blockquote.

The blockquote itself is about how one’s moral compass slowly begins to drift in a situation where—to mix metaphors—one’s political appointment to serve in a particular environment can force one to try threading the needle in the interstices betwixt one’s personal sense of integrity, and the compromises necessitated by loyalty to the President, or administration.[2] As your moral compass begins to drift, it is because, well:

You lose your sense of outrage, which is, after all, a feeling we experience when we see something abnormal. Once the abnormal becomes routine, outrage fades.

But it isn’t anything to do with lawyers specifically, or politics necessarily, that caught me up short in reading this. You see, I had just finished reading Scott Greenfield’s[3] “Short Take: For The Children, Any Source Will Do.”

Therein, Scott wrote in a way that primed my mind to think about the loss of outrage over an outrageous thing. Police officers, acting on a “very serious” tip from a heroin-addicted delusional woman, had raided an ordinary citizen’s home for the crime of having a daughter.

It was, quite simply, outrageous. And you would think that the appropriate response to a police raid based solely on the words of a delusional addict in a hospital emergency room, coupled with seeing a girl enter her own home, would be outrage. But for Assistant Police Chief Arnold Williams of Detroit, speaking to 4 News, it was not outrageous at all.

You can go to Scott’s post, or to the original article he relied on, for the actual quote. Or, you can read how I put it on my office’s Facebook page:

Head cop: “We were told by a heroin-addicted delusional woman that she and some young girls were being trafficked out of this house. We saw two young girls go in the house. So, we decided to break in, pull guns on everyone, and ‘free’ them, including the 13-year-old girl we threw on the floor and cuffed while ‘freeing’ her from human trafficking. And, yeah, we realize now it was all a big mistake. But if a heroin-addicted delusional woman told us that story again, and we saw two young girls going in a house again, we would do exactly the same thing again. Because, you know, young girls just don’t live in houses.”

When the Lawfare quote up above popped up into view, I immediately flashed back to this, and to Hannah Arendt’s The Banality of Evil.

Arendt’s conception of the banality of evil is frequently misunderstood. An excellent quote I found at Haaretz—but be warned that you’ll be hit by pop-up ads a-many should you visit the horrid website—put forth what seems to me a more accurate presentation: [4]

No extreme evil, not even Nazism, springs from a vacuum or is completely disconnected from the functional mechanisms, cultures and subcultures of the world, even if it represents an unprecedented phenomenon. In this sense, no evil is outside history or outside mankind. The individual’s collaboration with the world in which he grew up, and the way in which that world shapes and molds him by the force of ingrained conditioning, until he becomes flesh of its flesh, is morality’s most ancient arena of struggle. No person is entirely free from being conditioned by images, prejudices, concepts of beauty and ugliness, clichés or social norms that he grew up with and which abut exclusionism and racism.

Of course, I like this right off the bat because I’m always trying to point out to people, in a play on the Birth of Athena, that Hitler did not spring fully-formed from the brow [5] of Germany. So there may be a little confirmation bias going on here.

But this quote about Arendt’s view highlights the interaction between individuals, and the world in which they become who they become. All of us are shaped by the world in which we live, and most of us are shaped unthinkingly. The longer things are the way they are, the more we are shaped, and formed, and grow to see that world as normal, without even questioning it.

Nor is it simply a matter of ignoring terrible things until it is too late to do anything about them. Not for most of us, anyway. And, in the context of my article here, definitely not for law enforcement officers. It’s about living in a world where these things aren’t deemed terrible.

Because that’s a key point here for me: we don’t all live in the same world.

Cops, these days, live in a rather warped world. Despite the fact that fewer officers are murdered in the line of duty these days than for most of the history of cops, they’re taught the opposite.[6] Moreover, where once they were brave men (and I’m not trying to be sexist; back then, there weren’t so many women cops) who risked their lives as public servants, now they live by the First Rule of Policing.

That’s why Scott Greenfield writes:

Every law we enact, every crime we create, every sanction we mindlessly impose to get people to comply with regulations, whether important or trivial, or even protectionist for some law-maker’s campaign contributors, sets in motion a string of potential events that could result in the killing of a human being.[7]

Similarly, every time police officers go into someone’s home, there is a risk that someone in that home is going to die.

This is problematic because, as law enforcement power has grown, and grown unchecked, cops’ moral compasses too often don’t drift: they’ve simply been thrown away.

But this situation did not arise overnight.

Going back to the Lawfare article,

Another reason the model [of faith that you would uphold your integrity in what the writer calls a “Korematsu moment”] is too simple is that decisions happen incrementally in real time in ways that make it hard to see how trivial compromises for the sake of presidential or administration loyalty might commit one to a course of action that ends in a place that sacrifices reputation and integrity.

It isn’t that cops are evil little puckering assholes of authority. Talk to almost any[8] police officer, and the First Rule of Policing notwithstanding, you’ll find a mostly[9] decent person who really wants to do what is right, and good, and helpful. As the writer Maya Angelou once said to Bill Moyers,

Throughout our nervous history, we have constructed pyramidic towers of evil, ofttimes in the name of good.

All of this brings to mind the apocryphal, and false, Parable of the Boiled Frog. Cops never intended to become enemies of the People. Nor did they do so overnight. I’m convinced—although maybe I’m wrong—that it was a long, slow process over at least two-to-three decades of time.

Though I disagree with most of this article written by a cop-apologist (who at least recognizes that he is rationalizing), one thing is true. And, no, it’s not that four of the six months at police academy should be spent waiting tables, although teaching cops to deal with people by making them wait tables might not be an altogether bad idea.

The thing that is true is that cops too often overstep their authority not just because they can, as the cop-apologist admits. They may now choose to act as undisciplined hooligans, but they neither started out this way, nor did they intend to be this way.[10]

Rather, it is a combination of factors percolating over time. As with the political appointees in the Lawfare article, things are a little more complicated than just saying that cops are the way they are because they can be.

After all, how is it that they can be? It’s not just because they have badges, guns, and bad haircuts. I blame it on the loss of a sense of outrage by people on the outside when viewing that which is outrageous.

It might be easy to see how, for example, “in the moment,” a cop, or group of group-thinking cops, might get caught up in the human-trafficking zeitgeist—the social panic du jour—and believe that a delusional drug addict in the emergency room is telling the truth about underage girls being sold for sex, and want to run to the rescue.

Hell, anyone can get caught up in the moment. It takes training and experience to resist this.

Experience alone, as Assistant Police Chief Arnold Williams of Detroit has shown, is insufficient. After all, the boots on the ground actually, truly, really, without even trying to deceive themselves, believe that what they are doing is right. They really believe that charging in, guns a-blazing, at the first sign that something is wrong, without any prior investigation because-my-god-if-we-wait-someone-could-get-hurt-or-killed, is the right thing to do.

They don’t stop to think about the fact that their rash war-modeled act might be the thing that causes the hurting, and killing, because they are trained to be warrior cops. For gods’ sakes, we give them tanks, paramilitary outfits, and training befitting badly-trained soldiers going to war. They’re apparently trained to shoot people from helicopters—without being trained when not to shoot people from helicopters—rather than wait someone out, and then we glorify them for it.[11] Then we’re surprised that they act like badly-trained soldiers in a war.

In the end, what this means is that it is up to those of us who have not been trained to think, act, and react like cops—ordinary people, “civilians,” as the new war-mentality has cops labeling us—to experience a sense of outrage. The cops themselves cannot be outraged at their own behavior, because they were trained to behave this way; they think it’s right. As Assistant Police Chief Arnold Williams says, they’d do it again, even after experience shows them that young girls do live in houses.

And not only must we experience it—because they cannot—but when we do, we must express it. Not just to ourselves, but to those who can make a difference, our legislators. We must write letters to the editor. We must swamp social media with our outrage over these outrageous behaviors. We must not allow our sense of outrage to be dulled, to adapt, to adjust to a new reality, and have the humanity trained out of us, the way it is trained out of our police officers.

We must not lose our sense of outrage, which is, after all, a feeling we experience when we see something abnormal. Because once the abnormal becomes routine, outrage fades. We unthinkingly give in to the banality of evil.

But, as thinking—and outraged—human beings, we must use our outrage to power us to re-train our cops. We must remember that they—as all individuals—will tend to collaborate with the world in which they grow up, and the way in which that world shapes and molds them is by the force of ingrained conditioning, until they become flesh of its flesh.

And the only way we are going to change that is to change their training so they might have different experiences and become, once again, members of our community.

Their sense of outrage restored, they might become outraged at such outrageous acts as battering their way into our homes, just because we have daughters.



Footnotes
  1. Hey! I think we made it through a couple posts without mentioning He-Who-Must-Be-Mentioned. [↩]
  2. Damn, I really need some writing lessons. [↩]
  3. Twice in one post! [↩]
  4. I’m resisting the urge to pull out her books, and peruse them for quotes. That’s one reason it takes me so long to write blog articles! [↩]
  5. Side note: Eric Essman, mentioned in this post, came around some years later, and apologized to me for his earlier attacks on what I’d said. [↩]
  6. “In fact, during most years from the 1990s until today, the number of officer deaths has been roughly the same as 100 years ago, when there were far fewer officers.” — Atlanta Journal Constitution, April 26, 2017. [↩]
  7. Bam! Terry MacCarthy will be proud. Three significant references to Scott in one post. I’m making up for the last couple posts that left him out, I guess. [↩]
  8. I do have to stress the “almost” in “almost any.” [↩]
  9. I also have to stress “mostly,” but that might be true about nearly all human beings. [↩]
  10. Well, unless you count the Pinkertons. [↩]
  11. “It’s an option most departments shouldn’t use because they’re not well-trained in it,” not because it’s wrong. And the guys who do the shooting from the helicopters? They’re the elite. [↩]
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