Saturday, August 23, 2014

To Banish Fear

It is easy to forget that police get scared. It is easy not to ask yourself what you might have done if you had a gun and a man came at you with a knife.
Ezra Klein "Did the St. Louis police have to shoot Kajieme Powell?"
A very good point. But, immediately prior to this in the same piece, Mr. Klein makes another excellent point:
But all Powell had was a steak knife. If the police had been in their car, with the windows rolled up, he could have done little to hurt them.
Every time there is a police shooting, one of the points that police departments and their representatives are quick to make is that the officers were in fear for their lives. Which is understandable. So perhaps the question that we should be asking in situations like this is: "Why does fear always justify force?"

This is broader than the police response to an erratic young man on the street. I don't think that all of the lawlessness and looting in Ferguson, Missouri is a result of the shooting of Michael Brown (after all, I think that black communities have the same potential for opportunistic criminals that white communities do). But it's certain that some of it is. To some degree, the burned businesses, looted stores and rocks hurled at police officers are a direct result of the shooting. In Salon, Ian Blair writes "Police are terrorizing citizens in packs." He's not the only one to level that charge. Perhaps a community is lashing out, because of fear.

Because, it seems that, more and more, our basic response to fear is violence, and we prepare to meet those things that frighten us with force.

If you do something to frighten me, I am generally considered justified if my response is to use force in an attempt to intimidate, incapacitate or kill you. (And as a man, if I am unwilling, unprepared or unable to summon the requisite violence, it is considered appropriate to question my masculinity.) The same is true of us as a nation. The words "War on Terror" are emblematic, as is the "War" itself. The machinery of violence on a national level mobilizes to deal with fear. And anything less than the most aggressive response we can muster is considered weak.

We are, it seems wiring our "fight or flight response" to always choose "fight." And a side effect of doing so seems to be that we are, more and more often, placing ourselves in situations where "fight" seems to be the only viable option. No matter how tragic, unnecessary or quixotic a fight may be under the circumstances. We, often unknowingly, provoke fights, fight our way out of them and then wonder why the world seems to be so violent. It is, I think, unrealistic to expect that we will ever live in a world where a violent response to fear is not an option. But I think that it's important that we live in a world where a violent response to fear is not THE option. Responding to fear with violence often begets more fear. And vicious cycles rarely have happy endings.

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