A common argument made in the ongoing national discussion about police brutality and violence is, very roughly, “We should be careful in criticizing the police because we have little idea of how difficult and dangerous their work is.” Which reminds me: some ten years ago, when discussing the Abu Ghraib tortures and sundry atrocities with a serving military officer, he offered me the following piece of wisdom: “You cannot, from this safe couch-warming distance, judge the actions of military men; you have no idea of the dangers and stresses of their work.”
You know, whereof one cannot know every excruciating detail, one should not criticize or judge or pass moral judgment?
I don’t ride around in a police cruiser, I don’t encounter gang members, I don’t break up domestic disputes. I really should watch what I say when I see a police man crack heads with a nightstick, or shoot a young unarmed man. I really should bite my tongue when I see soldiers harass and humiliate naked, cowering, and helpless prisoners.
I dunno. I don’t have a pass to the White House or the Oval Office. I’m not privy to all the deliberations of the executive branch of the US government; I’m not invited to sit in on the meetings of the councils of power and take minutes. Yet I find myself criticizing its members’ actions all the time–with passion and fervor. Certainly, many of those who would like criticism of the police or the military to be tempered and attenuated and channeled into more ‘constructive’ forms and venues have no problems in doing so either.
I feel free to offer such criticism because the effects of the actions taken by those I criticize are real, visibly tangible, and affect the lives of humans in wide-ranging ways. Sometimes it’s because I feel my critique should feature in the decision-making process that the powerful employ. Perhaps those in power should keep my perspective front and center when they begin some course of action.
The imbalance of power runs only one way in this relationship: my critique attempts to redress it.
The note of caution, the command to seek a broader and more synoptic perspective, directed at me, is misplaced. It should be directed instead at those who wear uniforms, carry guns, deploy deadly force; its passion should be channeled toward those who can imprison, torture, kill; it should stay the hands of those who can end the lives of considerably less powerful humans thanks to their flawed, made-on-the-basis-of-incomplete-information decision-making. How about if the police, in their interactions with citizenry, strive to achieve some understanding of, some empathy with, those whose lives they regulate and discipline and punish?
There is always some problem with critiquing the powerful: you didn’t understand their perspective, you know not what they do, you didn’t protest the right way.
Every argument that urges the weak, the less powerful, the subjects of often deadly state and penal power, to understand and integrate and internalize the perspectives of those with greater power, is a dangerous diversion, a sham, a participation in, and propagation of, an ideology that glorifies and valorizes the political structures that oppress us.