Thursday, August 14, 2014

What cops ought to fear more than young black men: young white men

The situation in Ferguson, Missouri continues to simmer. But with Michael Brown's funeral scheduled for this weekend, it is far from over. I anticipate it will get worse before it gets better, and even then "better" will only be a relative term. Much ado has been made of the police response to crowds of black citizens gathering in the streets. It's obvious that Ferguson law enforcement is extremely hostile to the town's black residents. In the videos and photos I've seen, I cannot say that this hostility is bred of fear, at least of physical harm. If anything, the police are afraid of losing their sense of control and dominance. It's almost like some kind of territorial animal. If they back down in the face of these demonstrations, they'll be perceived as weak. You have to watch how they carry themselves and speak to others as they go about their business, but it's evident. Indeed, this attitude is apparent even at the organizational level. The closure of airspace, the blockades preventing people from entering the town and the handling of journalists show that there is an institutional sense of invincibility in the Ferguson Police Department. And against the disorganized, unarmed and unarmored groups of people in town, they are. Police south of the Mason-Dixon have been dealing with angry black people for decades. They became very good at it during the 1960's, and it is eerie how culturally indoctrinated racism have given these sorts of tactics the same shelf life of weaponized plutonium.

However, what is being overlooked is the Ferguson and St. Louis governments' impotence against another threat. Since Tuesday, hacktivists from Anonymous have pulled the original audio from the police transmissions at the time of Brown's death, potentially obtained the identity of the officer that shot him, and released the personal information of several public officials, including the mayor and police chief of Ferguson. Local government networks, to include phones, have been disrupted or completely shut down.

This is nothing new for Anonymous. The group has gone against national government agencies around the world, and been very successful. What is glaringly important here is the racial dynamics. Anonymous is primarily made up of computer-savvy men in their early 20's to 30's. They are reasonably educated, come from a middle class background, and are politically active. In short, they have very little in common with the people most abused by cops in Ferguson and America at large. Yet they have become involved because they feel common cause with the people there.

This is an extraordinary turning point. There have been numerous cases of police excesses in the last year. Far worse than the death of Eric Garner in New York City earlier this month are the egregious practices of the Albuquerque PD. Yet anonymous, and white people in general, have not involved themselves. The conflict was couched predominantly in ethnic terms. Police have problems dealing with minorities. Whites aren't in the minority. Therefore it's not a white people problem. And people of all colors tend to avoid being part of the solution if the problem doesn't affect them. Watch YouTube or social media long enough, and you see the difference in how people regard their local law enforcement. White people's biggest concern is that a cop will shoot their dog. Black people's biggest fear is that a cop will shoot their son.

That is now changing. Ferguson could become to American policing what the Alamo was to Santa Anna. Anonymous is, if nothing else, a group of idealists (I'm not sure you can call it an idealistic group) and they are acting on the basis of conscience, not interest. There are other groups like that in America. But instead of keyboards they tend to use assault weapons. The pro-gun, anti-government militias of the United States are, like Anonymous, predominantly white. But their membership has a wider age range and from an economic and educational background more similar to the people of Ferguson. The biggest thing the Montana prairie militias have in common with the inner city demonstrators is that they believe the government and the police are the enemy. Their biggest difference is that they are much better prepared to kill people. You are welcome to have whatever views you like about the April standoff between Cliven Bundy's militia supporters and the federal government, but the tactical assessment is not up for debate. Barring a peaceful resolution, lots of people were going to get shot and killed. You don't have to look at the Hutaree plot of 2010 in great detail to realize that it would have been highly successful if they hadn't been caught beforehand. The group was tactically proficient. If their marksmanship had been as good as their fieldcraft, they would have chewed a SWAT team to pieces.

There are two conclusions from this that we must acknowledge. First, that American police are brutally efficient at suppressing and terrorizing our minorities. Second, that American police are woefully unprepared to deal with substantial backlash from organized anti-government groups. If American cops think angry black people are a threat to their sense of territorial dominance, then they should be utterly terrified of crazy white people. Let's allow ourselves the worst stereotypes possible for a moment. Young black men deal cocaine, rape women, rob convenience stores and steal cars. Young white men blow up federal buildings, go on shooting rampages, steal billions of online identities and spew terabytes of top secret intelligence data out into the world. If anything, cops are shooting the wrong people.

And at the rate cops are becoming more indiscriminate, it's not going to be long before a cop somewhere shoots the wrong white kid instead of the wrong black kid. Somewhere where there are a lot of unemployed people who don't know how to hack a government website, but spent a year or two learning how to fight in an urban environment. Somewhere where everyone stays in town after they graduate high school, where everyone knows each other, and where your fondest childhood memories are going out into the woods every weekend during deer season. Somewhere where they still take rifles into the woods on weekends, but they're not practicing shooting at deer anymore.

It's a horrible truth that passive racism has kept the greater American population from confronting the issue of police brutality. The hubris of American police is chiseling through that barrier, abuse by abuse. Right now the backlash from white America is coming in the form of newspaper editors and computer hackers. But those who discount the possibility that it will come in more violent forms ignore the fact that white America's legacy of using deadly force against authority extends just as far as its racism. Commentators have opined that cops in military gear give some people the impression that they're an occupying force rather than public servants. What kind of message does it send to the people who already thought the police were occupiers?

Thursday, June 19, 2014

On educating my son in less than 1,000 words

My wife and I are considering entering my son into a private school. Part of the application requires an essay from the parents on why they want their child to attend the school. It's been a long time since I wrote an essay to get into a school and I wasn't sure I'd warm up to the task, but as I wrote I considered just why I feel this is a good choice. This is what I came up with.

As a stay-at-home father who was educated as an engineer and works as a writer, I have taken an active interest in Ethan's education with a careful view of what it means to educate. I was the valedictorian of my high school class and graduated from the United States Air Force Academy, and more than twelve years after departing the latter institution, I find that I very much sympathize with Erica Goldson, the high school valedictorian who declared in her graduation speech that she felt like a slave of an institutional process. She famously confessed that she felt terrified because the education she'd attained was wholly inadequate in preparing her to deal with the chaos of the world she was about to enter. One of my greatest fears for Ethan-- both as his father and teacher-- is that he will be subjected to that same institutionalism. I am also acutely aware that I could potentially become that kind of institution as easily as any school. My greatest hope for him is that he will be able to discover just how large and filled with opportunity the world is at a much younger age than I did, and consequently find the path of greatest enlightenment and happiness for himself before he feels he's become a fixture along its wayside.

To that end, I am delighted to tell you that I don't know all of Ethan's strengths and weaknesses. I do not presume to have him figured out. As convenient as that would be to my parental dominion on a day-to-day basis, it would also mean that I've become the worst sort of educational institution I so fear. I can tell you some of the things he knows. He knows how to read quite well (better than an average first-grader, I'd warrant). He knows how to add and subtract. He knows who Yo Yo Ma is and he knows that he prefers to listen to 'Gangnam Style.' He can spell words and write them in his own hand. He knows that fire is hot and knives are sharp and that we shouldn't touch them. But he also knows that clone troopers and Jedi knights have exciting adventures with bombs and light sabers. He knows the names of all the planets, that the sun rises and sets every day because the earth spins, and that gravity is a force. He also knows that, as a result of these astronomical arrangements, daddy will make him have lessons every morning and insist that he pedal his bike back up the hill after he rides it down. He knows that sunsets are pretty and that it's important to observe them. He knows the Legos can be used to build a monster truck. He knows that getting them to actually assemble into the monster truck requires patience and concentration. He is still learning patience and concentration, but I can attest that he has mastered diligence and perseverance.

As with his strengths, I am just as unfamiliar with his weaknesses. I can tell you what he doesn't know and what confuses him. He doesn't know that the "good guys" sometimes lose. He would be surprised to know that the good guys aren't always actually good. He has no concept of treating a person differently because of the way they look. He doesn't understand why so many people on television are hitting and shooting each other or why tanks and soldiers are all around the place where he currently attends daycare, and yet mommy and daddy tell him that it's bad to hit or shoot people. He doesn't know what a war is. Sometimes he doesn't understand certain household rules. Sometimes he doesn't understand why he's the only one who has to follow them. Sometimes he doesn't understand what sense there is in my rules or what power invested the authority in me to make them in the first place.

 And I must confess that I am also confused by a great many of these things. I am certainly at a loss to articulate what I would believe to be an irrefutable explanation of them. This is why I seek to enter him into the Radford School. I could home school him. I could teach him calculus by ten, walk him through Plato's The Republic by thirteen and have him fluent in Mandarin Chinese and HTML by sixteen. I know he and I could do it because many other parents and children have done it. But the question on which everything hinges is to what end? Would that constitute a good education? More important than the skills and knowledge he acquires is how he will use them. Will he be a good and decent person? Will he be happy? Will he even know how to determine what it is to lead a good life, and will he possess the intellectual agency to effect the necessary changes to achieve one?

I believe that our modern society has nominally tried to settle the moral-intellectual education dialectic in public schools by method of partition-- the parent teaches right from wrong and the school teaches fact from fiction. I believe the relationship should exist on a continuum. I could teach him myself. I could also hand him over to the public education system and let them do it. Neither option gets the best results, because both of them inevitably lead to one kind of institutionalism or another. I want a third option. I want my son to attend a school where he and I are welcomed as part of the process, and where it is understood that the standard by which the quality of the final product is measured will change as a result of the influences exerted on it. Because in the end, there is only one person who will be able to tell us if Ethan received a good education. And that's Ethan.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

What veterans can learn from Michael Corleone

Wikimedia Commons

My recent essay on Tom Ricks' "The Best Defense" providing ten reasons not to vote for a veteran-turned-politician was meant to be equal parts modest proposal and friendly warning to fellow vets. Based on reader comments, it's obvious that the majority of people aren't familiar with Thomas Paine or the idea of a friendly warning. Maybe using a movie analogy will get the point across.

There are movies that every red-blooded American male ought to see. "The Outlaw Josey Wales," "True Grit," "Tombstone," "The Goonies." The one-liners alone are essential to the American man's survival in society. "The Godfather" is a cornerstone of that heritage. It's a heartwarming coming-of-age story in the best traditions of "The Lion King," except the horses don't make out so well. But there is one particular scene that explains the thrust of my essay and the crisis American veterans are bringing upon themselves.

The setup is this: Al Pacino plays Michael Corleone, the son of the Godfather. Specifically, the youngest son. As the youngest male child, he carries special status in the mafia families. The unspoken rule is that Michael will never take part in the family's criminal business activities. In exchange, he gets immunity. He can never be held for ransom or harmed as an act of revenge against the Godfather. It's every mob boss's assurance that at least one of his children will live long enough to join AARP. Early in the movie, the Godfather is shot and taken to the hospital on the brink of death. The mob wants to get revenge against the mobster who planned the hit and the corrupt police chief who helped him. Michael volunteers to do it. He is able to use his special status to schedule the meeting and get close enough to the men to kill them.

The specific scene involves one of the Corleone mobsters helping Michael prepare for the hit. They go over the plot and take a few practice shots with the gun. As a combat vet himself (he picked up a Navy Cross as a Marine during WWII), Michael cracks wise and looks very comfortable with what he's preparing to do. But he does ask one question: How bad do you think it's going to be?

He's referring to the consequences of his actions. It's a foregone conclusion that there will be a mob war after this. He will have to go into exile in order to avoid being assassinated in retaliation. He'll become a murderer in the eyes of the law. His immunity in the mob world will disappear. In other words, he is crossing a line and there is no going back. For the rest of his life, every time he tries to get out, they'll always pull him back in. Spoiler alert: he kills them anyway.

Michael has no confusion about that. He walks into that restaurant with the mobster and the police chief with eyes wide open. And when he walks out, he leaves behind all hope of a conflict-free life (he also forgets to take the cannolis).

Therein lies the point of my original essay for American veterans when it comes to politics, and in most other aspects of our post-uniformed life. Being a veteran is just like being the Godfather's youngest kid: there's an exchange at work, and lines you don't cross. If you go into a restaurant and someone happens to finds out you served in Afghanistan, they might buy you a beer because they feel the urge to personally show you a little gratitude for your service. You go, they buy. It's an exchange. But you don't start your meal by climbing on the table, holding up your DD-214 and asking people to pick up your tab. That's crossing the line.

Veterans in politics, both democrat and republican, fail to obey those rules all the time. When you run for political office, it's not just the public's right to scrutinize you, it's their duty. There are certain things that deserve special immunity in politics. A candidate's children ought to be hands-off. If Tammy Duckworth had not wanted to discuss the trauma she experienced as a result of her injuries, or if John McCain doesn't want to relive his experiences in Hanoi on Meet the Press, they have that right to compassionate sensitivity. But if they put a photo of themselves in uniform in a campaign commercial, or say that they would make a better governmental leader because of their military experience, then it all becomes fair game. They cross the line, and there's no going back.

Politics is only one dimension of society. At present, American military members and veterans enjoy an unprecedented level of public support. It's a reputation that's been earned through thirteen long years of war. It's in the military and veteran communities' vital interest to maintain an acute awareness that reputations are hard to earn and easy to diminish. Whether it's in politics, business, or your local bowling league (as so eloquently demonstrated in another American "dude" flick), veteran status is not a get out of criticism free card. No one will ever respect you more than you respect yourself, so the saying goes. There's a huge difference between using your veteran reputation as a personal shield and making yourself one of its public ambassadors. That difference is defined by which side of it you want to stand on, and whether you're prepared to cross that line.