The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri is both heartbreaking and reprehensible. Another young man, 18 years old, whose potential and impact on the world was cut tragically short in an instant. Subsequently the response by the St. Louis County Police to the protesters has been infuriating, and so completely unacceptable it’s impossible to describe it without using the phrase “violation of civil rights”. From showing up as an occupying military force, to tear gassing peaceful protesters, to arresting journalists Ferguson is our underlying rot exposed to the light of day; a pus filled boil that desperately needs to be lanced.
The root cause for these events, besides a context based on racial tensions stemming from a history of white dominance/fear of people of color, is the permissiveness of so-called righteous force. It is a cultural context so ingrained that it has become a staple, and the scope of its devastation has become so distinct that its application is uniquely American.
Violence is a way of life in America. Even though it creates problems, in the American psyche, it solves them. Often it’s the only permanent solution. The lone cop who defies his overly bureaucratic superiors to dispense a frontier brand of justice, or dedicated, selfless public servants rushing in to save the day are stock fair in our entertainment media complex. The examples are so replete their credulity is unquestioned even if we cynically scoff at these archetypes in real life.
In truth most of us don’t know how to operate outside of this context. America deals in death and destruction, but we do so in the name of idealism. We’re the last remaining “Super Power”, a puffed up title meant to raise us not only our esteem in terms of power, but to place us outside of any moral constrictions as well.
Death and righteous indignation are a part of our DNA. America is a land of black and white extremism. It’s a place where the guilty are punished, people are paid their fair share, and you’re judged by your actions not who your father was. We live with a persisting mythos that’s uncompromising, ever-present, and of which the righteous use of force is a foundational principal.
Because this illusion of the righteousness of our force is so integral to our way of life unless this perception of American violence changes our culture, and the rate of tragedies it produces, will remain static. We’ll continue to have a gun violence problem. We’ll continue to put inmates to death at a rate that matches “less civilized” nations. We will continue to have tragedies named Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, and Trayvon Martin. We’ll have lists of black men who’ve been shot and killed by people in positions of authority. And those seeking change on these issues will be increasingly vexed and despondent at the lack of social progress.
This use of force isn’t the sole purview of governmental institutions, but is confined to certain groups outside of those institutions: namely white men. As Bob Cesca pointed out federal authorities did nothing, in terms of force, to stop Clive Bundy’s, and his militia group supporters, blatant lawlessness. In fact the argument was made that if the federal authorities matched Bundy’s show of force with their own it would only escalate the chance of violence. That reasoning was completely disregarded by the police of St. Louis County, MO. It was the exact opposite.
With looting and vandalism as sufficient justification American citizens who happened to be people of color were treated to shows of intimidation and force that would be easily recognizable to a “Shock and Awe” doctrinaire. The militarization of our police forces cannot happen outside of the context of righteous force. It gives the aggressor the moral certitude necessary to rationalize the immorally irrational. It says that by default their actions are just, and the tools they’ve been given are necessary implements to carry out those actions.
Concerning the events in Ferguson President Obama said “there is no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protesters.” The problem with the nature of force is that while sometimes it’s necessary it is always excessive. Force, or violence, is a crude destructive application in any metric. It should be the last resort, but often it is the only one attempted. It is the skip-to-step taken. It is the “go to” response, and if we don’t take a long hard look at this lie of righteous force we’ll never heal our sick selves.