The Soldier And The Policeman’s Trained Attention And Its Pathologies

In the chapter ‘Focus’ in his book of essays,The Examined Life, Robert Nozick writes:

The ability and opportunity to focus our attention, to choose what we will pay attention to, is an important component of our autonomy. [p.122]

In a footnote appended to this sentence, Nozick continues:

What we presently focus upon is affected by what we are like, yet over the long run a person is molded by where his or her attention continually dwells. Hence the great importance of what your occupation requires you to be sensitive to and what it ignores de jure or de facto, for its pattern of sensitivities and insensitivities–unless a continuing effort is made to counterbalance this–will eventually become your own.

Consider then, the soldier and the policeman, and the pathologies that are said to famously exist within these professions (each of which has been reckoned a pinnacle of masculinity in some dimension or the other): trauma, anomie, depression, rage, anxiety.

The soldier and the policeman are required to constantly detect danger, manifest in person and place and situation and object; they are taught to respond with hostility, with armed and dangerous bodies. (Some soldiers, if they are unlucky enough, work as policemen in occupied territories; counterinsurgency work and such patrolling and policing must surely count among the ‘dirtiest’ occupations of all.) They are finely tuned to turn their attention persistently and consistently in these directions; they return from tours of duty of urban spaces and warzones with their danger-and-hostility detectors turned on. They are on edge, irritable and tense and taut, filled with rage and fear, all easily manifest in domestic violence and suicide. They bring older selves to their professions and return with newer ones created in the crucible of their new work, where their focus and attention has been systematically diverted and focused, as it had been taught to, in the academy, in advanced training. There, they had been taught, repeatedly, to ignore many human qualities–for instance, the humanity of those they kill on the battlefield or those they capture, interrogate, handcuff, or imprison. It is, indeed, one of their ‘core competencies,’ the hallmark of their profession, and one they must perfect through practice over the course of their careers. They must be competent, at finding targets and perps, who are now not humans any more, but ‘enemies’ and ‘criminals.’ (On a related note, consider the anecdotal reports that oncologists are notoriously unsympathetic doctors. They might well be; after all, they are exposed to death all too often; all too many of their patients simply do not survive. This could result in greater sensitivity to death, but their work would be too onerously affected were they to let it affect them in deeper, more emotional ways.)

It should not surprise us that soldiers and policemen are ‘damaged’ thus by their work. Their ‘patterns of sensitivities and insensitivities’ have been altered, with little effort to ‘counterbalance’ them. Sometimes their enemies and opponents suffer the brunt of this; unfortunately, on many other occasions, it is their family, their neighbors, and friends and loved ones that do. We, as their parent society, bear some measure of responsibility for those we have so created and trained. A different society might eschew the need for such professions; till then, we remain with the pathologies we have set in motion.

The Deadly Self-Pity Of The Police

In 1997, as a graduate teaching fellow, I began teaching two introductory classes in philosophy at the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Many of my students were training for careers in criminology and law enforcement. Some hoped to join the FBI, yet others, the New York City police force. And, as I had been told (warned?) some of my students were serving NYPD officers, perhaps hoping to become detectives, gain added educational qualifications and so on. In my first semester, I did not meet any of these worthies.

A few weeks into my second semester, soon after I had finished teaching for the night, a student walked up to me, asked me a couple of questions about the material I had just covered and then introduced himself. He was a serving officer in the NYPD, working in a Brooklyn precinct. We chatted for a bit, and then as I headed out to the subway station to take a train home, he accompanied me. At the station he indicated he could wave me through with his card, but feeling uneasy, I politely declined and said I would use a subway token instead. Shortly thereafter we said goodnight. From that night on, after the end of class, he would sometimes accompany me to the station; we would chat about his educational plans and of course, his work at the precinct.

1997 was the year that Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, had been assaulted and sodomized with a broken-off broom handle by the NYPD after being arrested outside Club Rendezvous in East Flatbush. That incident had sparked angry demonstrations and the same old calls for reform of the NYPD, for an inquiry into race relations in New York City. (Incredibly enough, the officers who assaulted Louima would go on to serve time.)  That fall, that incident was something my new ‘friend’ returned to again and again. It made him ‘unhappy.’

Not because he felt for Louima. Not because he sympathized with a man who had been beaten and raped by the police. Not because he felt for the mothers of the black and Latino men who had been shot dead or assaulted by the NYPD. Not because he thought that communities of color were unjustly targeted by the police. None of that that bothered him. What bothered him was something else altogether. Now, the people of the borough didn’t ‘respect the police’. They were ‘disrespectful.’ They walked by the precinct waving broom handles at the police, shouting angry slogans, reminding the police of the night that another  broom handle had been used to commit sexual assault on someone like them. It was so ‘hurtful’ to see that kind of contempt, that kind of language directed at policemen, who were after all, only trying to ‘do their jobs.’

I was talking to a man who seemed curiously consumed by self-pity. He was not happy his profession was being maligned, but he didn’t seem to think it had anything to do with the way his colleagues–other than a few bad apples, who he wanted to disown all too quickly–behaved with the communities they policed. The police were the real victims here, unfairly made to bear the brunt of a community’s wrath. Louima might have suffered one night, but all the agitators and demonstrators–sometimes folks who didn’t even live in Brooklyn!–were now making life oh-so-difficult for the rest of the police, forced to deal with this daily reminder of their brutality.

What makes policemen really dangerous, I think, is that their implements of destruction do not end with the deadly firearms that they discharge so easily and so carelessly. They carry around too, a toxic mix of self-pity, righteousness, and resentment at a deliberately obtuse world. When they walk the streets, they do not see a ‘community’ around them; they see the sullen, non-compliant subjects of their policing. They are convinced of the rightness of their actions; if they are ever subjected to critique then it must be flawed, infected with an ignorance of the nature of police work. They are mystified and angry. They seek to bring ‘these people’ law and order; why don’t they encounter more welcoming behavior? My ‘friend’ was caught up in this mystery. He could not fathom how the folks who said the police were ‘pigs’ could not separate out the good from the bad, how they could not exercise a discrimination finer than the one they put on display.

In this attitude, urban police forces in America today are very much like occupying and colonial forces elsewhere: they are puzzled why the occupied are not more grateful for the benefactions of the armed forces that stride through their neighborhoods, stopping and frisking, getting young men up against the wall, stamping out ‘disorder’, showing by their body language and their voices that they are armed and dangerous and will not tolerate dissent in any form. And just like those forces the police  ask again and again: Why do they make us hurt them so? Why do they make us do the things we do?

Is there anything more deadly than self-pity, the conviction that you have been sinned against, and the right to use arms?