Monday, December 8, 2014


I've been really upset lately thinking about incidents where police have been literally getting away over and over again with, if not murder, at least manslaughter.  This in turn has got me thinking about why it is that I am so emotional about this sort of thing, and whether or not I should be concerned about these intense emotions.

What crystallized this for me was an interaction between myself and a professor of law from a St. Louis area university.  In a on-line magazine, he was just trying to point out the legal framework that the Grand Jury decision in the Ferguson Missouri police shooting came out of.  I raised the issue that the assistant District Attorney had given the jurors a piece of paper that had a law on it that listed as a legitimate reason for shooting and killing someone the simple fact that they were running away.  This was the law of Missouri until 1984, I understand, until it was struck down by the Supreme Court. The important point was that there was nothing on the piece of paper that pointed out that this law was no longer valid.  At the end of the trial---i.e. after the jury had pretty much already made up their minds---the same assistant DA handed out another piece of paper that did say that this provision of the law had been declared unconstitutional, but she didn't verbally draw the jury's attention to this issue or explain the implications.

The professor did acknowledge this point when I raised it, but I left the interaction (in the comments section of an on-line magazine) really upset.  I've been trying to understand my feelings since then.

The first thing I want to acknowledge is that emotions are not bad things.  Indeed, it seems that they are essential to the thinking process.  Emotions are the "drivers" of human behaviour.  A person without emotions is not some sort of logical super being, but rather someone who has no ability to initiate action because there is ultimately no logical reason to do much of anything.  This seems to be an acknowledged fact of neuroscience, so much so that people working on artificial intelligence have developed a consensus that any thinking machine worthy of the name will have to have something like emotions programmed into it.

But why was I so angry about this professor's comments?

Thinking about them, I've come to the conclusion it was because he was trying so darn hard to be emotionally neutral in his discourse.  He didn't call the DA "evil scumbags", but rather just pointed out the law.  Of course, that wouldn't be professional.  But it would have been human.  I think that a huge part of the problems with the modern world is the way we selectively diminish the entirety of a situation in order to convey it in simplified manner.  In the process, we end up cutting out the ethical element and in the process destroy our humanity.

In this case, explaining just the law and what the DA was doing in that Grand Jury, removes the moral culpability of the individuals involved.  It lets them "off the hook" of having to acknowledge that they were consciously manipulating the jurors in order to ensure that the police officer who killed that man on the street in Ferguson would not have to be put on trial.

Think about what this really is, it is an absolutely essential part of any professional career---but it is also pretty much the most evil, vile thing a human being can do.  It happens when a career air force officer forgets that every time he organizes an air strike, there is a very good chance he is going to be killing and maiming children.  It happens when an accountant works out "the bottom line" of a business deal and refuses to admit that the decisions he supports are going to end up pushing families into poverty, destroying parts of the environment and so on.  It also happens when a politician panders to the prejudices of his constituents in order to get elected, and refuses to consider the fact that in doing so he will be perpetuating violence against minorities.

I don't know if it is a virtue or a failing in me, but I have never been able to control my sense of moral outrage in these situations.  I know that this is the case, so I have tried through most of my life to avoid jobs that got me into contact with other people because my anger rarely ends does me any good.

To cite one example, I once was involved in a neighbourhood dispute over a taxi cab company that had opened up across the street from my house and which was attracting dozens of drunken university students at three o'clock am.  These folks would literally be screaming and yelling for taxis right in front of our house----waking up the neighbourhood.  The taxi company refused to do anything substantive to stop this state of affairs.  It was regulated by the city and could very easily have been ordered to stop accepting fares at this site, but the solicitor for the police department was dead set against any sort of proactive effort and the police board deferred to his judgement.

The problem was, as I saw it, he simply refused to tell me why he was so opposed to using regulation.  If I asked him to his face about it, he simply acted as if I hadn't said anything at all.  What was particularly galling was his wife was a friend of my then significant other, and I'd actually been in his home having Christmas dinner with him.  I asked "do you think I'm an asshole that doesn't deserve to have his questions answered?", and all he would say was "no, I don't think you are an asshole."  That was it.

I mentioned this interaction to a friend who laughed and said "he was just being a good professional civil servant".  The idea is that good bureaucrats never share any information with the public that might potentially help them do anything.  It is called "gatekeeping".  If I knew what his thinking was about why he refused to use the powers of the taxi by-laws to force compliance, it would have given me some leverage to get my way in the dispute.  By keeping me in the dark, it gave him more power to manipulate me.

Of course, the thing I was upset about was that I knew people who were having their sleep disrupted and who were feeling miserable having to go to work without enough sleep.  This lawyer, in contrast, was able to have a nice sleep and simply thought he was doing his job, which consisted of allowing minimal hassle for the police department.

A sad post-script to this event came years later, long after the problem with the taxi company had been resolved.  I heard that shortly after my interactions with this lawyer, he had been diagnosed with progressive aphasia.  (This is a disease that destroys a person's ability to communicate with other people.)  This made me rethink my anger about the way I had been treated.  Perhaps he was manifesting early, subtle symptoms of his illness instead of just acting like a jerk to protect his job.

But no matter what the reason, the upshot from this lawyer's behaviour was to totally ignore the human cost of his behaviour in defence of the police department.  This is exactly the same thing that has happened with district attorney's when they subvert the Grand Jury system in order to avoid having to discipline police officers who lose control and kill people for no good reason.

My personal feeling is that every human being is always confronted with moral choices and their hands are almost never tied.  Like the Spike Lee movie says, people always have a chance to "do the right thing".  In law, this principle is enshrined in the concept of "Fiat Justitia Ruat Caelum", or "Let justice be done though the heaven's fall".  In the case of DA moves to let police off the hook, the DAs know that police unions are powerful and that if they really do start enforcing the law against them with force, they will have real problems doing their jobs and getting re-elected.  Moreover, many of them actually like the police and don't want to anger people that they consider their friends.  They have the choice to "do the right thing" and instead do the easy thing.


One other thing I try to remember, is the injunction by the Heavenly Teacher in the Taipingjing. (This is a book that came from the religious Daoist rebellion---the "yellow scarves"---that was in the opening pages of Chinese classic The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.)  The Teacher warns his followers to not blame people who act badly too much because we are all products of conditions outside of our control---our childhood and perhaps clinical issues like progressive aphasia. Nor should we think too highly of ourselves when we do well, for much the same reason.  I often think about this with regard to my own behaviour.  I work at a menial job even though all my life I have been told that I could accomplish a great deal more if I just applied myself. But I know that because of my mercurial nature, I could never "bite my tongue" in the ways that are necessary to be a successful professional.  What this means is that I never will be able to gain the power necessary to do much good in the world, simply because I can never amass and hold onto it long enough to be able to wield it for the public interest.

Am I suggesting that there is no sense feeling moral outrage?  No, but I am suggesting that proper behaviour emerges from the community, not the individual.  I am outraged against the way our professionals manipulate the truth in order to further their careers.  But the only way we can try to stop that from happening is through collective action.  The protests against police departments are necessary, and I am very glad to see them breaking out spontaneously all over the US.  Perhaps this will result in some badly needed change.