I am reading What It Is Like To Go To War, by Karl Marlantes.* Marlantes is a Vietnam veteran, and he looks deeply at the requirements and costs of being a soldier. He explores topics such as Loyalty, Heroism, Killing, Numbness and Violence. Each of these take on positive or negative attributes depending on their context. Killing, for example, is taboo in civilian society but expected in combat. Both are about saving lives. Combat is an environment where killing becomes a matter of survival, for yourself and for those around you. But killing in combat becomes wrong when it is an expression of spite or sport. It’s all about context.
Marlantes shows that the inherent drive to violence and self-protection is part of being human, and resides in all of us. The military exploits those drives. Civilian society suppresses them.
I was thinking about those themes this week, when the Hennepin County Attorney announced that there would be no murder charges against white police officers in involved in the killing of an unarmed black man last November. This is an emotionally-charged situation. It is forcing the discussion of violence and its roots out into the open.
I feel for those police officers, thrown suddenly into a volatile situation in the dark of night, surrounded by a screaming crowd and charged with protecting the safety of both themselves and others. It’s a tough job. It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to do this kind of work. Thank goodness someone does.
Law enforcement needs to gain control of violent situations. They accomplish this by showing strength and demanding compliance. How we react to those demands depends on our context. Have you had positive experiences with police in the past? Do you, and other people of your skin color, have reasonable hope that you will be treated with fairness and justice? Did a history of oppression force you to be born into a crime-filled community of poverty, where fighting back or running is how you learn to survive? Personal and community history can create situations where people fight back or run from police even though they may be innocent. They are gunned down.
According to the investigation, Jamar Clark wrestled with the police officers last November, and when told to either let go of a gun holster or be shot, he replied “I’m ready to die”. How does a 24-year-old get to this point in his life? My own son is the same age as Jamar. I feel for Jamar’s family. His young life ended in a terrible way. They will never have him back. His community is outraged at yet another tragic loss of young life. They want the larger community of humans to address the cultural context that creates these violent situations. So far, we seem to be struggling with even seeing them.
*(Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011)