Moral Responsibility

Thin Lines Are Easy To Cross

Polarization isn’t something to be feared. Polarization and the dialectic are what clarify things…the source of all light is heat.

Should citizens and police officers become polarized? Is this part of the recipe for progress? Mr. Hitchens and his mentioned confidant both say that conflict against injustice is a good thing for society. Bill Maher didn’t say he encouraged shooting police on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on July 14th, 2016, but he sympathized with it:

First of all, I’m a bit of a cynic. I think civilization is a mile wide and an inch deep. Without the police on the job — you know that movie the purge? It would be that every day without the police […] so obviously any time anyone shoots a policeman it’s just abhorrent. There’s no and, ifs or buts about it — so I don’t condone it, but I understand it. You can only look at so many videos of shooting unarmed black people. I’m surprised it didn't actually happen before.

Bill mentions the blue line mentality in this interview. The Thin Blue Line philosophy is akin to the Thin Red Line — the military code of solidarity formed from a mid-19th century Crimean War battle between British Marines and Turkish infantry.

Despite concerns for police safety, especially after the killing of police officers in Dallas and New Orleans, “police are safer under Obama than they have been in decades.”

Violent crime has gone down consistently under President Obama:

The red and blue lines symbolize the solidarity that military and police experience when they are under attack. It highlights the danger on duty that is the loss of life. This is also what motivates the Black Lives Matter movement.

The problem with red and blue lines is that they can and do bleed into a more general sense of solidarity beyond the bravery and brotherhood of matters of life and death. The lines become a code of silence meant to protect one another at all cost — justice, ethics, morality be damned.

This code is similar to the no snitching mantra that, along with Italian mafia movies, has been popularized by African American hip hop culture. In 2015, 2 Live Crew’s Luther Campbell, one of hip hop’s forefathers, wrote about how this no snitching street code needs to stop in order for BLM to succeed.

The question is, are police officers ready to make the equivalent proposition? There are very few signs that show they are. Hot 97's Peter Rosenberg got hot on this topic with an NYC officer during a July 6th conversation about the police killing of Alton Sterling.

There’s nothing controversial about officers joining together to defend their lives and the order of civilization. That’s their job, and they receive overwhelming National respect because of it. There is not a shortage of respect for police in America. Inversely, there are certain social privileges that come with the job. What is more than controversial — what is criminal— is when this unconditional support strips accountability from members of the force.

To be sympathetic with police, the uncertainty over whether a citizen is an armed threat is very difficult to gauge. If we had to confront these uncertain, potentially life or death matters — if it was our job — we would fear for our lives. There are citizens who haven’t learned to sympathize with and respect the uncertainty and fear that officers experience. There are sympathetic disconnects between officer and civilian. That said, waiting for positive ID on a weapon before shooting to kill is not some new, overvalued, or even dangerous concept.

President Obama was especially sympathetic to police at an interfaith rally to pay tribute to the Dallas police who were killed on duty July 8th. It was possibly the most powerful mediation of his presidency. He received three standing ovations and consistent applause from a crowd of Dallas officers while simultaneously affirming that they are not wholly innocent.

The President’s task of mediating between black and white America is a big one, so it may seem like he hasn’t been very successful at it. I think that President Obama’s words on unity will have a a greater impact after his Presidency — in the history books, so to speak. He’s always kind of spoken for the history books, which is a good move when you speak on race in America as well as anyone.

Exposing truths about American race divisions will attract vitriol, but I believe President Obama’s words on race will prove to be a key ingredient in the glue that keeps us unified on these realities moving forward.

His speech to Dallas police officers may have been the beginning of a real mend between police and black men. We can hope. The division between black men and the legal system is our most serious and consequential. It isn’t just that officers of the law are killing black men, it’s that the entire judicial system is locking them up. Land of the free? Not for them.

1,134 young black men were killed by police in 2015. Unarmed black people were killed at 5x the rate of unarmed whites that same year.

Young black men were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police officers.

The most urgent issue within our penal system regards drugs. Black men are going to prison — where, by the way, per the 13th amendment, slavery is legal — and they are being killed by officers largely because of their obligation to pursue and arrest non-violent drug offenders.

The problem with non-violent crimes is that the arrested don’t always feel or acknowledge that they have committed a crime, let alone one worthy of their life. When one does not feel they have committed a serious crime — say, marijuana in pocket — they do not feel that they should be arrested, so the instinct is to fight or flee, which is an obvious catch-22. Officers must do a better job at respecting the human nature to fight or flee against pursuit and arrest under non-violent circumstances, because as soon as someone does run or resist, police bullets become self-justified.

The gross fact about this is that black people are no more likely to do drugs than white people. They’re just targeted for the crime disproportionately.

Five conclusions:

  1. Cops need to cross the blue line. Justice for all takes precedent — loyalty to the integrity of what blue is. Otherwise injustice holds power, which is morally irresponsible.

2. Drug laws needs to change. President Obama’s National Drug Control Strategy aims to reduce drug incarceration, recently proposing a $1.1 billion treatment plan, but this needs immediate and intense focus under this new administration. In an act of both actual and symbolic change, President Obama has reduced the drug-related prison terms of 214 prisoners.

3. In the US military officers require bachelor’s degrees. This should be phased into the police force. A Michigan State study last year on this subject showed that

college graduates are used to solving problems and debating issues, and might not like the old school, by-the-book mentality of many police administrators.

4. The use of nonlethal weapons and training responses must increase. The Marshall Project posted a detailed column on this last year titled Alternatives to Bullets:

5. There must be better law and regulation to protect the public from lethal force. If an officer kills an unarmed citizen, including unarmed citizens who flee or even resist arrest, they should go to trial. It must be made simple and clear to America when shoot-to-kill is legal and morally responsible. Right now, it is not clear.

Cops must hold one another accountable. They need to be more educated and use nonlethal force. We need to get non-violent citizens out of both the scope of officer guns and the penal system at large.

Thin blue and red lines are codes of brothers fighting for and supporting each other against injustice, but if that code does not start from within it is false and impure. Once impurities are identified and clear blue eyes look across the line into the bright scleras of others — only then will they be able to identify who they see.

One day you will ask me which is more important? My life or yours? I will say mine and you will walk away not knowing that you are my life.
— Kahlil Gibran