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?



Causal Analysis, Moral Culpability, And Gaza

If X causes Y, and Y causes Z, then surely X is the cause of Z? So goes the intuition–very roughly–that the causal relation is transitive. It thus often underwrites arguments about moral culpability and responsibility–sometimes even in legal settings. If I am the cause for your actions, then I am culpable, by one reckoning, for the effects of your actions.  (Again, very roughly, for there are very interesting interactions with moral agency here.) The skeptical have, for a long time, pointed to a possible W, the cause of X, which might be dragged into this business, thus endlessly postponing the business of causal ascription as the chain of causes is extended backwards to the origins of the universe. The distinction between distal and proximal causation in legal contexts is sometimes taken to clarify the confusion that might result if this causal chain were to be so extended.

As most pragmatically inclined folks never tire of pointing out, causal ascription is an inherently interest-laden enterprise; our identification of causes is driven not so much by metaphysical clarity about the necessary and sufficient conditions for causation as it is by our desire to be able to produce certain effects and not others, to assign blame and responsibility at some points in the causal chain and not at others. Some parts of the causal chain appear more amenable to our influence than others and thus influence our causal ascriptions in legal and moral analysis. We cannot, for instance, do much about the chemical properties of water and its effect on human lungs when it comes to preventing deaths by drowning, but we can certainly offer swimming lessons and put up warning signs around large bodies of water. (The distinction between distal and proximal causation is a related pragmatic aspect of causal analysis; see too, my little pointer to moral agency above.) And of course, our identification of points in which culpability originates are driven very much by our–sometimes overt, sometimes concealed–motives and interests. What ends are we interested in bringing about? Where might our sympathies lie?

I was reminded of some of these considerations during a discussion on Facebook,  where the following question was asked, in relation to the assignment of responsibility and culpability for the deaths of civilians in Gaza: .

What…is Israel supposed to do? What’s the right response to having a country on your border that sponsors – rather openly – rocket attacks on your territory, and has built a network of tunnels under the border and a whole terror infrastructure from which its operatives can enter the territory and attack your citizens?…I can’t get my mind around the notion that anyone other than Hamas bears the responsibility for this horror. 

Here, Hamas bears moral culpability for civilian deaths: they fire rockets (or kidnap teenagers), which provoke Israeli retaliation, which causes the deaths of Gazan civilians.

In one of my responses, I asked:

Is your general claim that any cross-“border” violence is an invitation to massive, violent retaliation that might involve as an unfortunate side-effect eighty percent civilian casualties?

This was responded to with:

If some crazed Canadian drug lord starts firing mortars into Buffalo NY I wouldn’t recommend massive, violent retaliation. If the Canadian government refused to recognize the US and armed fighters to attack across the border, and refused to assist in their capture … different story. It’s an act of war ON HAMAS’ PART, and when Israel responds with additional acts of war, I don’t think they are culpable.

I then responded with:

As for culpability, is Hamas also responsible when Israel is told by independent relief agencies that children are sheltering in a particular venue and still bombs them anyway?

And then, to bring us to the subject matter of this post, I wrote:

To grant your point about culpability is to do no more than to stop the analysis of the causal chain at a point that suits the thesis you want to establish: that Israel is not morally responsible for the deaths of innocents.

And I then asked the rhetorical question:

You’ve studied proximal causation in legal theory. Who is culpable here?

This discussion, I think, illustrates quite well, the points raised in my preliminary discussion above. Note too, that one response to the Israeli claim that Hamas is culpable for the current deaths of civilians–because of rocket attacks, or the kidnappings of Israeli teenagers–always has been: What about the occupation?

The NYPD and Israeli Police: Perfect Together

As my writings on this blog will show, I am not terribly fond of the New York City Police Department. Among other things, it is excessively militarized and has a very poor record on civil liberties. (I am not going to go into an exhaustive listing here, but a quick perusal of the link above should help the curious reader.) New York City residents are by now used to opening the morning newspaper and reading of yet another shenanigan, another abuse, another report on operational incompetence. Sometimes these are deadly, as today’s story about a bodega worker being shot dead by the Finest indicates. What is truly bizarre about this appalling record of general malfeasance is the contrast with the NYPD’s self-image: strutting, cock of the walk swaggering international terrorist fighters, keepers of the peace.  For one of the worst things about the aftermath of 9/11 has been the elevation of the NYPD to a fleet of Batmans in Blue. (And like Batman, they often find themselves ranged against those that might disturb the tranquility of the city’s banking operations.) As such, the NYPD thinks a great deal of itself. It aspires to be more than just a silly city police force; that’s for folks who aim low. No, it aspires to be an Interpol, FBI and Mossad rolled into one.

The latest story then, about the NYPD opening a ‘branch’ in Israel should come as no surprise, but it still manages to evoke wonder. Why is a ‘branch’ of a city’s local police force being opened in another part of the world? I think of banks, department stores, gyms and fast-food chains opening branches, but a police force? How does this improve New York City’s policing?

Unfortunately, I know the NYPD’s answer to that last question and it terrifies me. Presumably, they are there to ‘learn’, to ‘study local tactics,’ to share ‘methods and techniques for enforcing law and order.’ Unfortunately, their choice of locale and their partners in this enterprise are precisely the wrong ones for us citizens who will soon have to bear the brunt of this wondrous exchange of knowledge. Because if you want to co-operate with a police force, you might want to find one that is not associated with a nation that is engaged in illegal occupation, a business that, as an Israeli friend of mine once remarked, ‘is a national sickness, one that renders every national institution corrupt and complicit.’

Perhaps the NYPD will learn how to put up checkpoints, conduct grossly invasive searches–sorry, on that one, they will presumably teach the Israeli police a thing or two or three–and send themselves even further down the path of the militarization that they so obviously adore. Perhaps they will learn new interrogation techniques, especially refined and honed for dealing with a population viewed as the Other. The Black and Latino population of New York City trembles in anticipation; it’s bad enough to be Walking While Black in this city, but imagine what would happen if policing in this city induced a wholly new sensation for a select portion of this city’s population: What it feels like to be a Palestinian at a West Bank roadblock.