Sunday, February 6, 2011

Nobody I Know

So I watched a video of several Houston police officers repeatedly kicking a teenager that they were arresting for burglary. I wasn't particularly shocked or surprised by what went on; neither was I surprised by the response of city officials to the release of the footage.

But I also won't be surprised, when, six months from now, we've all pretty much completely forgotten that this ever happened. After all...
I snagged this from PostSecret a while back, and I think that it gets to the real heart of why we have Police brutality, as we called it when I was growing up. Most of us don't care, unless we get a sense from the person who was roughed up that We Could Be Next. Then, we're "outraged."

But it's easy for most of us to ignore any given incident -

  • they were doing something suspicious; I keep my nose clean.
  • it was someone of a different ethnicity; the cops don't treat us that way.
  • that was Somewhere Else; our cops are different.
  • the person who was beaten up did something to deserve it; I would never antagonize a cop.
  • it was a criminal who was beaten up; I'm not a criminal.
And so on, and so on.

Because, basically, Accountability Is Work. It takes effort to hold people accountable. Why am I bothering to spend time being involved in the oversight of police officers when I could be watching the Super Bowl? Yeah, yeah, we all know that all it takes for the triumph of Evil is for enough good people to do nothing. But someone else will pick up the slack. I'd rather freeload.

And Accountability Entails Risk. How many times have we heard that if police officers can't do their jobs in the way they see fit, crime will become worse? And so we decide that the small, impersonal risk of being on the wrong end of a riot baton isn't worth the also small (likely smaller than we think) but very personal risk of a guilty man going free.

Freedom is, at its core, the assumption of Risk. Perhaps this is why "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose," those who can't lose anything more have little difficulty with taking even extreme risks. Despite the desperate paranoia of the Right and the Left, our freedoms aren't being taken from us. We're surrendering them in an attempt to excise the risks that come with them. Or, even better, we're surrendering others' freedoms in an attempt to minimize our own risks. (Isn't this the bargain that President Mubarak of Egypt offered us over and over again? Help me retain power, and I'll make sure that my people are never able to put the Muslim Brotherhood in the driver's seat. Isn't it nifty how all of these things tie in together?) But it's debatable to what degree one can ever truly barter only with someone else's currency. But as long as it's nobody we know, we seem to be willing to take that chance.


Keifus said...

What continues to astound me is that Americans imprison a higher percentage of their population than anyone. More than China, more than Russia, and no other civilized place appears to even come close. How is this not a police state? Well, it's not noticed for the reasons you mention. And I'll be the first to admit, it's hard to spot from here in crackerville. After all no one I know...

I've come to not like seeing freedom or risk as a simple tradeoff. I am not much of an authoritarian, but I think it's still a much more complicated equation than that, all folded up in those big questions about civilization and hierarchy too. Take public health as one of many examples: are we more free that we can live lives wthout the threat of polio, smallpox, etc due to mass vaccinations or are we less free because someone is twisting parents' our arm to get the shot?

Aaron said...

Well, I think that it's worth noting that there's a risk either way. Vaccination carries a risk, and not vaccinating carries a risk. Freedom is, in a lot a way, the right to determine which risk you'd rather live with.

But yes, it is more complicated than that, especially in a social situation, where the consequences of actions aren't limited to just the actor.

But the challenge, perhaps, isn't the real complexity of the issue, but the perceived complexity. Sure, letting the cops beat up some strange guy doesn't automagically make me safer. It's not a 1:1 correlation. But if I treat it as such, my actions will reflect that, and that's where things become dicey.