Thursday, December 18, 2014

How do you say 'I Can't Breathe' in Arabic?: The Ethics of Militarization

One of the key issues in the national debate following the death of Eric Garner is the militarization of American police departments across the country. Generally speaking, “militarization” refers to at least two trends: the influx of military-grade vehicles and weapons into local police armories and the frequent use of full riot-gear and military grade uniforms in non-military situations. These trends have both imaginative and material effects. The material is quite clear: things ramp up physically for people who are engaged with the police. More people are injured and killed. The imaginative side is more complex and maybe more insidious. In short, the appearance of this new style of policing is changing the way the public views their own police officers and their orientation toward them. 

Last year, the university at which I work had a stroke of March Madness luck and winning basketball games drove excited students into the streets of their neighborhood. After the first celebration, the city and the university decided to ramp up police presence for the “safety of students and property.” What this meant in real terms was a whole cadre of police officers in full riot gear (masks which hid their faces, batons out and at the ready, body armor), standing on the sidewalks as strange-looking babysitters of the increasingly drunk but rather benign students. In short order, students began to try and cross the street, attempting to simply reach their friends on the other side or blatantly taunting the police. The result was several arrests and several injuries, some of which were quite bloody.

I don’t want to imply that these students are not capable of destruction of property or each other. I do believer, however, that the outcome of the celebration was in fact more dramatic and more unfortunate precisely because of the militarized police presence itself. In short, if you are dressed for combat, people become combative.

But this is not the only sense(s) in which the police forces in this country have been militarized. I suggest that to be “militarized” in our country is to operate with an ethical standard toward perceived threats that is essentially utilitarian and fundamentally disrespectful of the dignity of the human person.

Recently, a Congressional report detailed what many people have long feared about the United States’ beleaguered war on terror: we have been torturing people for years under the auspice of intelligence-gathering. Former Vice President Dick Cheney has been publicly defensive of the procedures detailed in the report, which include such terrible actions as rectal force-feeding, waterboarding, and extreme confinement. In a recent appearance on “Meet the Press,” Cheney told Chuck Todd and all of the Americans he served in office for eight years that he is unconcerned with the innocent people who were tortured and/or killed in the American campaign. He said, “I’m more concerned with bad guys who got out and released than I am with a few that, in fact, were innocent.” Later he added, “I would do it again in a minute.”

What he and other leaders are advancing here is an essentially utilitarian consequentialist argument for the torture and execution of innocent people. It’s the old “break a few eggs to make an omelet” argument: whatever achieves our intended end (a perceived good like preserving freedom or brining people to justice for September 11) is morally acceptable. If that includes the killing of innocent people, so be it.

Incidentally, Eric Garner was an innocent person. Eric Garner’s death was caught on tape, and no one can say that this unarmed man posed real threat to the six police officers who surrounded him and eventually strangled him to death. Many people who have been galvanized by Garner’s death continue to wonder: why aren’t people outraged by the murder of an innocent man at the hands of police? Dick Cheney tells us why.

A recent Washington Post poll demonstrates that Americans by and large think that torture is sometimes justified. What matters above all else is the eradication of a perceived threat. We have accepted, as a culture and a country, that it is simply ok to kill innocent people for the perceived greater good. Therefore, what binds modern American police departments to the military leadership of this country is the shared conviction that eradicating perceived threats—whole countries, people who live in countries where there are terrorist cells, citizens who share the skin color or economic status as the image of ‘criminal’ we have in our minds—takes precedence over the hard work of upholding human dignity.  If innocence isn’t even a reason for maintaining someone’s dignity, we can’t even begin to imagine what it means to maintain the dignity of the guilty.  

Here’s a final thought for my fellow Christian Americans: utilitarian consequentialism may be efficient, but it isn’t Christian. In fact, the killing of innocents is never acceptable in the Christian tradition, and this principle just happens to be the very same one undergirding the pro-life position that so many Republicans use to get your vote. Furthermore, the Gospel is so challenging because it actually demands that we respect the dignity of the not-so-innocent as well. It may not be good politics but true justice hardly ever is.