Thou Shalt Know All Before Offering Critique (Of The Police)

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.

Drop The Whistle; Shoot A Black Kid Instead (or Torture Prisoners)

Chelsea Manning has been sentenced to jail for thirty-five years for committing the heinous crime of whistleblowing. Manning knows that she didn’t just commit a crime, she committed the wrong sort of crime:

Manning spoke to reporters after the hearing, to admit his disappointment at the sentence, telling those gathered, “I look back to that fateful day and wish I’d just left those files on my computer and gone out and shot a black kid instead….my life would be a lot less complicated if I’d only taken the life of a young person from a different ethnic background, instead of sending some documents to a website.”

Legal experts have expressed support for the 35 year sentence given to Manning, by explaining that members of the public don’t actually understand how the law works. Former lawyer Simon Williams explained, “Illegally taking information you don’t have the right to access, and using it for your own purposes is only ‘properly’ illegal if you’re not a government agency. Governments can do what they like with information they’re not allowed to have – if nothing else, Prism has taught us that.  Whereas absolutely anyone can shoot a black teenager to death, obviously.”

Manning has learnt these simple facts the hard way but that doesn’t mean that those young folks who have been following her trial have to as well.  They will, in particular, have hopefully internalized the following facts about the system of justice prevalent in this great nation of ours.

First, a career in high finance can ensure the penalty-free satisfaction of desires, even if their fulfillment runs afoul of ethical and legal consideration. If unbridled earning with no regard for the immiseration of others is your thing, then young folks will do well to pay attention to the so-called financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath.  Giddy, reckless speculation, irresponsible and unregulated banking will never, ever get you sent to jail. This career option is best for those seeking to maximize income, while not being unduly worried about penalties. Indeed, this might earn you the admiring sobriquet of ‘indispensable’ by government officials.

Second, if finance seems dull, and big bucks seem passé, and your taste in pleasures are influenced by Sade, then consider a career in law-enforcement or counter-intelligence instead. Brutal interrogations, torture, and unchecked surveillance can induce sufficient frisson to satisfy even the most jaded. As before, there will be little fear of moral disapproval or legal penalty. This career choice, while not as lucrative as banking, does provide admiration from those who will regard you as a defender of their liberties and a fighter for freedom everywhere.

Lastly, if your career options are settled and you are looking for easy entertainment, then as Manning indicates, consider shooting black teenagers instead, especially those that wear clothes which, despite being worn by countless white teenagers, will always be regarded as symbols of black criminality. This course of action might even net you a book deal, or a moonlighting gig as spokesperson for the National Rifle Association.

Parents would do well to inculcate these principles early in their children.

Note: I have edited this post to use Manning’s name and pronouns of choice. Good luck to her.

Girl, Napalm, and ?

So what did you fill in the blanks? Vietnam, I’m guessing ((Chrome’s autofill suggests “photo” and “attack” when I begin typing in “girl napalm”). And the reason for that in all likelihood is Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the subject of Nick Ut’s iconic, Pulitzer-prize-winning image of the Vietnam war.

That straightforward association of “girl” and “napalm” with “Vietnam” came to me as I read The Gangster We Are All Looking For, the 2003 novelistic debut of Vietnamese-American author lê thi diem thúy. In particular, it happened as I turned to page 86 and read the narrator of the novel, a young girl, displaced after the war to the US, tell us about one of her mother’s memories:

She had heard a story about a girl in a neighboring town who was killed during a napalm bombing. The bombing happened on an especially hot night, when this girl had walked to the beach to cool her feet in the water. They found her floating on the sea. The phosphorus from the napalm made her body glow like a lantern.

As I read the lines I thought about Ut’s photograph; precisely the association lê thi diem thúy wanted me to make. To work in a direct reference to Phan Kim Thi Phuc would be clumsy given the novel’s structure, so the most perspicuous way to bring the reader to her–in a quasi-autobiographical book written by an author whose identity as a refugee from the Vietnam war is known to the reader, whose narrator is a refugee and so on–is to simply use “girl”, “napalm”, “bombing” and “village” together. It worked. (I cast my mind back to the time I first saw the photo in an anthology of Life‘s photographs in my school library; I was a sixth or seventh-grader then, and my notion of a wartime photo was restricted to explosions, fireballs, mushroom clouds, gleaming weaponry, and strong, grimy men in martial poses. A young, naked, helpless girl in pain didn’t fit in well. More to the point, in my dim understanding of the war, it was the US v. Someone Or The Other and the thought that the US–strictly speaking, a South Vietnamese plane and pilot–was responsible for her defenceless, agonizingly painful state of being was jarring.)

That straightforward reaction was followed rather quickly by a sense of disbelief that more than a decade after the launch of the Afghan war (on 7th October 2001), I cannot think of a single, classic, enduring photograph associated with that continuing conflict. (In the case of the Iraq war, the Abu Ghraib photographs now aspire to the status of “iconic”). Somehow, despite the multiple documentaries made on the war (including the excellent Restrepo), and despite the enduring presence of “Pakistan” and “Taliban” in American geopolitical discourse, Afghanistan has once again managed to stage a forgotten war.

But it has been aided and abetted in that trick by the pernicious combination of a forgetful polity and successive administrations determined to reinforce that not-so-benign neglect with the always-powerful machinery of bluster and obfuscation about war aims, strategies and objectives. Forgetfulness, in this case, seems to be almost effortlessly associated with pointlessness.