A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
Reflections on Policing in America
Back in the sixties, the Beatles and their kindred spirits told us that all we need is love. And if that didn’t clinch it, they admonished us to give peace a chance. These were noble sentiments, because love is a fine and necessary thing. Without it, human existence is sterile and meaningless. This is common knowledge. But the fact remains that when people feel victimized, when they harbor feelings of fear and hatred in their hearts, they cannot adopt a loving attitude toward their adversaries, real or imagined. So before we get to love, I think, Americans need to infuse our national conversation about police culture, police oversight and police reform with more prosaic values, such as honesty, realism and enlightened self-interest. Why? Because at the national level, this evolving discussion is being undermined by extremists on both sides, and because all sectors of civil society, including the various branches of law enforcement, have a strong stake in seeing that this trend doesn’t distort the conversation permanently – that extremists don’t have the final word.
Before I get to the substance of my remarks, I must point out that, I was born in Naharia, Israel in 1954, to parents who were passionately committed creating a homeland for the Jewish people. Like many Middle East observers – including many who, unlike me, don’t have friends and family members living tin he line of fire – I have seen the peace process in the Middle East unravel numerous times; the hopes of moderates on both sides dashed, as their proposals and programs were discredited or rendered obsolete by the developing “facts on the ground.” In almost every case, peace talks failed because neither side trusted the other, and because impassioned and influential ideologues on both sides were fundamentally opposed to concessions or to compromise, rendering it impossible for the leadership on both sides to finally clinch a deal.
Worse still, with each new failure of the peace process, the mutual mistrust of Arabs and Jews deepened dramatically, and the rhetoric on both sides became increasingly envenomed and adversarial, promoting the kind of polarized, dichotomous thinking that psychologists like myself associate with an authoritarian mindset – one which embraces a narrative of collective victimization, absolves one’s own reference group of any responsibility for the conflict at hand, and tolerates no criticism of one’s own group, no matter how constructive, realistic or well intended that criticism is, or how heinous the misdeeds that partisans on one’s own side have committed, or continue to commit, sometimes routinely.
Now, many of us think we see this process clearly enough on the Palestinian side, where corruption is rampant, and where terrorism and random acts of violence against Israelis and Jews generally are praised routinely in the Arab media. But sadly, we avert our eyes when precisely the same thing occurs amongst Israelis, even when headlines remind us daily that corruption is now rampant among the Israeli elite, and that Israeli civilians are terrorizing and murdering Israel’s Arab citizens and innocent Palestinians with unprecedented frequency and vehemence.
Sound familiar? Perhaps so, but it wasn’t always this way. Twenty five years ago, brutal acts of terror by Israelis were still quite rare, and punished severely by the courts. Moreover, in 1992, the Israeli public elected Yitzhak Rabin, a former general, on a peace platform. Rabin was a former hawk, who realized belatedly that Israel could not remain an occupying power without undermining its own democratic norms and institutions, and becoming more isolated in the court of world opinion. He realized that Israel’s militarism and vigilance, which had sustained it thus far, were not sustainable in the long run. At the insistence of President Clinton, Rabin famously shook hands with his old adversary, Yasser Arafat, at Camp David, and came perilously close to concluding a peace settlement with the Palestinians when his life was cut short by an assassin named Yigal Amir on November 4, 1995 – an event that rocked Israel as profoundly as the assassination of President Kennedy shook the United States.
Why does this matter? At the time of his death, Rabin was mourned by the majority of Israelis as a patriot and a pragmatist; a man who loved his country, and made the ultimate sacrifice to protect it. Nowadays, merely two decades later, his assassin, Yigal Amir, has more admirers in Israel that Rabin, and Israelis who still give voice to Rabin’s critique of the occupation of the West Bank are routinely dismissed and vilified in the media and the Knesset, not to mention on the Israeli street. As a result, almost any Israeli who criticizes the Occupation of the West Bank, the ongoing annexation of Palestinian lands, and the steady and alarming erosion of basic human rights for Israel’s Arab citizens, the growth of racism and xenophobia among the general population, is labelled a traitor.
So we are witnessing a massive cultural shift in Israel; one which seems to preclude the possibility of a two-state solution any time in the foreseeable future, and one which Israelis like me – who are now in the minority, accounting for less than 20% of the electorate – greet with shame, incredulity and horror. As mentioned a moment ago, psychologists and political scientists describe this emerging state of affairs as a product of an encroaching authoritarian mindset, which is becoming more and more prevalent at all levels of Israeli society, and threatens to inflict even more grievous harm on all the region’s inhabitants, even though it is invoked in the name of “security.”
Now, reasoning by analogy is often fraught with risks, and always imprecise. But I see some striking parallels between the situation in the Middle East and the current stand-off between police organizations and communities of color in the United States. In both cases, we have two groups that are riddled with mutual mistrust, who feel profoundly victimized by the other group, and are apt to defend the actions and utterances of their own group members, even when they are quite extreme. Indeed, they frequently resort to secrecy and deception to defend their own, acting on the mistaken assumption that an attack on one is an attack on all, and that there are no standards of decency or accountability that transcend the demands of group loyalty. This authoritarian attitude can be summed up in the following statements: The other side is always wrong, or must be seen to be wrong, even when they are right. And conversely we are always right, or must be seen to be right, even when some of us are wrong – profoundly wrong. But of course, we cannot admit to that fact publicly, and any real concession to the other side is an act of betrayal, rather than an affirmation of basic human rights and human dignity, regardless of circumstances.
There is another interesting parallel between the Middle East situation and the current confrontations between police and communities of color in America. While neither side really feels safe with the other outside of certain carefully protected enclaves, which are increasingly permeable to terror of various kinds, there is also a profound a-symmetry of power at work here; so much so, in fact, that many residents of poor communities like Ferguson, Missouri experience the police presence in their communities as a kind of occupying power, whose job it is to abuse, humiliate and exploit them; a perception that was ratified resoundingly by the Department of Justice’s inquiry into the Ferguson police department in the wake of the riots in November, 2014. I wonder how many policemen recognize the tragic repercussions that this state of affairs has for the country as a whole, and how profoundly the behavior of individual police officers can contribute to changing or maintaining it? Frankly, I have no idea. But thanks to the efforts of Black Lives Matter, I do know that communities of color generally regard the police with profound and lingering mistrust, rather than seeing them as partners or protectors. Of this there is no doubt.
Now, according to international law, an occupying power has an ethical obligation not to trample on the rights of the local population, and reasoning by analogy, the police, as the more powerful party, should work diligently to building trust and shifting public perceptions of their roles and responsibilities. But let’s not delude ourselves. Human nature being what it is, we will always need police officers, because no matter what steps we take to reduce poverty, racism and gun violence in America, we may never eliminate crime completely. But we can do a great deal more than we are currently to reduce crime this way, and in so doing, help police officers, as well as minorities, feel safer and more respected – rather than feared and hated – as they make their way through our streets. And when communities of color – black, Hispanic, Asian and Muslim – finally perceive the police as their partners and protectors, and not as bullies or thugs in uniform, we’ll be inhabiting a radically new cultural landscape – one we can all be proud of, even if violent crime persists. But this will not happen overnight, and in the meantime, we need to be vigilant and clear sighted, and find ways to work together towards this common goal. Those of us who elect not to engage responsibly with this issue, whether from indifference or intransigence, are not merely abdicating their individual responsibilities as American citizens. They are effectively giving up on American democracy; the as yet unrealized dream, of a society based on justice, equality and the rule of law. And if we go that route, God only knows what Orwellian nightmares await us and our children in the next few decades.
Copyright 2016 Daniel Burston. These remarks were delivered on March 15. 2016 at the second annual Day of Learning and Speaking Out at Duquesne University.