[For a way to combat racism here at home, click here. For a recent post on global threats to democracy, click here.
Do Those Big White Trucks Mean War?
|By now it’s abundantly clear what Putin’s big white trucks—some of which are half-empty—are doing. They are gathering intelligence or military reconnaissance for Putin.
The fact that they rolled without even a fig leaf of authorization from Kiev is the tipoff. If the mission were truly humanitarian, Moscow could have waited for permission. No one, apparently, is starving in Donyetsk or Luhansk right at the moment.
Which kind of information Putin seeks makes a big difference. If my recent speculation is correct, Putin is now aware that the rebels and/or the Russian military faction that has been supplying and supporting them has been lying to him. He’s a smart guy, and he doesn’t want to do anything rash without good information.
The big question is whether he wants intelligence to recalibrate his Ukraine policy or military reconnaissance to plan an invasion, using the 45,000 troops now massed at the border. Putin is a good tactician. He may use the mess in Iraq, and our Yankee and European preoccupation with it, as a diversion and “cover” for a blitzkrieg invasion and annexation of the provinces of Donyetsk and Luhansk, or (depending upon the intelligence he gets) only the most Russian-leaning parts of them.
Kiev’s options are limited. It can’t fire on the trucks, any more than the Soviets could fire on our Yankee Berlin Airlift. That would start a major war and provide a pretext for an immediate invasion. But Kiev can do its best to make sure that what the observers, aka truck drivers and aid workers, see is accurate and useful to Kiev’s cause.
Two points should be obvious. First, Kiev should take every possible step to hide its checkpoints, military installations and military assets from the trucks and everyone in them. Second, it should make every effort to demonstrate how much the local population supports Kiev, and how much even the Russian-speaking civilians fear a civil war.
Now would be the time to get the terrified and cowed general population out on the streets, in full sight of the white trucks, demonstrating for peace, calm and the integrity of Ukraine’s territory. Except for its military positions and assets, Kiev should make sure what the observers see is complete and accurate, as much as is possible in a few days. What they see may determine when and whether those Russian tanks and troops roll across the border.
It goes without saying that, if the US and EU have any further sanctions left, now is the time to bring them to Putin’s attention. Sanctions are useless as punishment but may be useful as a deterrent. It also might be a good time to start arming Kiev’s forces with accurate weapons. Without them, a Russian invasion might be as quick and as painless for Russia as the one in Georgia. If Putin is planning an invasion, it might be just days away.|
“Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
Step outta line, the Man come and take you away.”
—Stephen Stills, for Buffalo Springfield (1967)
The results of the private autopsy
that Michael Brown’s parents commissioned make you wonder. There were four or five shots tracing their way up Brown’s right arm. Then there were two to the head. The official police autopsy confirmed the placement of shots and their number, within one.
The private-autopsy doctors opined, but couldn’t be sure, that the head shots came last. But how could it be otherwise? Would a rational, trained police officer continue to fire carefully and methodically at an arm after putting two shots in the victim’s head, killing him?
No, those shots tell a story, clearer than any eyewitness’. Apparently the officer was a good shot. He put at least four bullets right through the victim’s right arm, splattering flesh and splintering bone. Since the victim and his clothing had no powder residue, the consequently one-armed victim must have been more than two feet from the officer at that point.
For some inexplicable reason, the officer then decided to kill him.
Up to that point, there might have been a rational excuse. Maybe the officer thought he had seen a weapon in the victim’s right hand. But now the arm was disabled, and nothing had dropped.
Maybe the victim, although over two feet away, was still advancing. Maybe the much older officer was afraid of the younger man, even with a shot-up right arm. Maybe he didn’t want any witnesses to his tragic mistake. Maybe the hard logic of shooting just led to its tragic conclusion.
Police tout the need to make fatal decisions in a split second, at great personal risk. That’s often true.
But whatever was actually in the officer’s mind at the time will remain a mystery. Whatever he tells us now will be coached by lawyers and his own conscience, and the knowledge that what he did may put him in jail for a long time. His own mind may play tricks on him.
Yet the question raised by the autopsy still burns. Why kill the victim?
There were other options, at least for a lean officer well trained and in good shape. He could have backed up or rolled to the side, putting distance between himself and the victim, and giving himself more time to think and aim. He could have shot out a leg, making it hard for the victim to keep coming. He might even have said something. But the killing shots came instead.
Was all this necessary? Was the force excessive, even if the officer’s claim of some kind of altercation holds up?
The same questions arise with respect to this week’s St. Louis killing of an apparently deranged African-American man brandishing a knife and some convenience-store sundries. How much threat does a deranged man holding groceries and a knife really present to a trained officer with a firearm?
And what about the man in New York—also an African-American—recently killed with a choke hold after being arrested for selling cigarettes without a license? Do you have to be African-American to consider that use of force excessive?
Of course there are two problems. The first is excessive force. The second is profiling, which often motivates excessive force. Which should we tackle first? Which is easiest to correct?
Police profile the public. They do so unconsciously, ever hour of every day. How could they do otherwise? Their work and lives are on the line, all day every day. People don’t come with labels saying “criminal” or “honest citizen” tattooed on their foreheads. So police have to make snap judgments, sometimes in milliseconds, on which their careers, their health and their very lives may depend.
You can order them not to profile all you want. You can give them sensitivity and diversity training. But when push comes to shove and they stand alone in the field, they are going to rely on their instincts, all instruction and training notwithstanding.
When questioned later, they are going to make up some story to justify their profiling rationally. When they must act in split seconds at risk to themselves, they are going to use every clue that their senses give them, filtered by their own prejudices. That’s human nature.
So the best way to avoid incidents like the killings in Ferguson, St. Louis and New York is not, in my opinion, to try to stamp out racism, even among the police. That’s a laudable goal, but it will take another two generations at least.
The best way is to train police hard to use a minimum of absolutely necessary force always
, no matter whom they are facing. We must give them non-lethal weapons like Tasers and train them to prefer them over lethal ones. In short, we must train them to preserve the lives and health of all
citizens at all times, including suspects.
And we must hold them strictly accountable when they use excessive force, regardless of the provocation. If complete accountability drives otherwise good and courageous police from our streets, that will only improve community policing and bring civil peace more quickly.
I find it astonishing how many people still fantasize that we live in a “post-racial” society, just because we have a “black” President. Where have they been the last six years?
Bill Clinton infuriated his political enemies because, as a Rhodes Scholar, he was soooo smart, and he let people know it. He also had his little affair with a White House intern and then lied about it. So at least some of the mindless opposition to him had a rational explanation.
But Barack Obama is and did nothing of the kind. He’s infinitely patient, thoughtful and courteous. He never rubs his intelligence in anyone’s face. He never raises his voice. And his family life and personal behavior are exemplary.
Yet from the day he took office, a whole bunch of people have been dead set against him and his policies, no matter what he says. And the GOP, having absolutely no program of its own, has made significant political gains by bashing everything he does, unabashedly and relentlessly. (Hint: trying fifty-plus times—all unsuccessfully—to repeal someone else’s law, and criticizing his executive orders is not
I voted for the President every time because I believed (and still believe) he was the best candidate in the entire field, in both parties. But I also voted for him because I thought he could teach us something about race.
Little did I know. With his extraordinary thoughtfulness, empathy and restraint, and in the face of mindlessly adamant opposition, he has taught us how racist our nation still is, and how far we have to go to realize Dr. King’s Dream. The recent killings in Missouri are but a brief refresher lesson.
We will get there some day, I’m sure, but probably after I’m dead. In the meantime, the President and Attorney General Holder will maintain their infinite patience and professionalism, showing us all how much better off we could be if we could just put aside our prejudices and look at facts. In the process, these two consummately moderate men will show us just how much race still matters here at home.
Excessive force is a fact of life in many, but not all, of our cities. It’s a matter of training, police culture and style. It can be fixed with legal and administrative changes, plus some judicious culling of personnel. Fixing racism is a matter of national
culture that will take a lot longer.
While we try as hard as we can to fix both, let’s not confuse the two. It’s true, of course, that victims of racism are most often victims of excessive force. But you can cure the excessive force much more easily than the racism. Fixing racism and other forms of dangerous tribalism is a long-term project for our entire species, and not just here at home. Take a quick look at Syria, Iraq and Ukraine.
Curing Racism by Teaching Tolerance in our Schools
Eradicating racism in this country is not impossible. It’s just a work in progress. Far too many have assumed the job to be easy and near completion. It’s neither.
It’s a long-term project, and it begins with early education. The Catholic Church has long known how important early education is. Give me a child for the first five years, it reasoned, and the Church will have him forever.
That’s what we need to do with racism. We must inoculate our children against it from an early age. In spite of their parents’ prejudices, we must imbue them with our nation’s fundamental values.
Those values are not hard to find. “All men are created equal” is in our first Founding document. “E pluribus unum
”—from many, one—is on our Great Seal and the back of every dollar bill. (It’s on the right side, in the standard around the eagle’s head.) Every time you pull out a buck, you can see our Melting Pot expressed in Latin.
How can we make sure our kids learn those values before their minds can be poisoned by bitter elders?
One organization has had an answer for years. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC)
, headquartered in Montgomery, Alabama, has a complete curriculum entitled “Teaching Tolerance
.” It’s designed by experts and has been tested in real schools, on a voluntary basis, for years. We ought to make it a mandatory part of every kid’s grammar school experience.
SPLC is better known for fighting hate in the courts. It has closed down hate groups and taken their property by bringing civil suits against them.
In so doing so, SPLC has exploited the obscure but vitally important difference between the standard of proof in civil and criminal cases: “preponderance of the evidence,” or more likely than not, versus “beyond a reasonable doubt.” When criminal prosecutions of violent haters have failed for lack of evidence, or as a result of juries’ close calls, SPLC has put hate groups out of business and found compensation for their victims and families through civil suits.
So SPLC fights racism on two levels. It crushes hate groups economically, and it has a school curriculum to root out hate long term. If you want to help, don’t just wring your hands. Send SPLC a check. (I’ve been doing so for over thirty years.) They will use your money wisely and well. And some day maybe every grammar school will be “Teaching Tolerance.”