Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A tale of two beatings, a question of motives.

Kelly Thomas was severely beaten by police officers on July 5th, 2011. He died of his injuries five days later. More details, along with videos related to the incident, can be found here and here. Fair warning - the images and video are NSFS (not safe for soul).

It's natural to wonder how something like this could happen. It's also natural to conclude that the officers involved are terrible people. What they did was inexcusable, and they should be held accountable. But I don't think the core problem is that the officers are terrible people. I think the problem was that they were police officers.

Maybe I should clarify that a bit. Lord Acton's statement that "power tends to corrupt" isn't limited to just statesmen. Police officers have power too, and the people who enter the police force are no less prone to corruption than anyone else. Had they never entered the police force, and instead taken up careers as dental hygienists, they likely would have gone their whole lives without engaging in any activity more violent than working on cavities.

I doubt that these men were evil people who joined the police force because they wanted to lord over their fellow man. I think we all overestimate how well we would behave in such circumstances. The Stanford prison experiment comes to mind. In his excellent book The Lucifer Effect, Phil Zimbardo makes an interesting observation about the students who participated in the experiment. Before it began, they were interviewed and asked if they would prefer to be one of the prisoners, or one of the guards. Every single one of them preferred the role of prisoner. They were all hippies, anti-authoritarians who held police in disdain. But, somebody had to play the role of prison guard. And when you gave these anti-authority hippies a fake uniform and tell them they are in charge of a fake prison, they quickly became so cruel and sadistic to their fellow students that the planned two week experiment had to be cut short after six days.

We all tell ourselves that of course we would be the exception. So did those hippie kids. For one, I know that I wouldn't be an exception - a most unpleasant bit of self-awareness.

None of what I've said should be interpreted to be a defense for the officers who killed Kelly Thomas. The fact that it's so easy for people in authority to behave so brutally makes it more important to hold them accountable, not less.

Still, I think most people would resist this explanation. It's easier to assign specific defects to the character of those involved, rather than see this as something we might all be capable of doing. Some motives are easy to assign to other people. The video of Kelly Thomas can't help but bring to mind the infamous beating of Rodney King. As soon as that video hit the news, everybody knew what the motive was for the police who beat King - racism. Period.

Recount in your head again all the details of the death of Kelly Thomas. Now, imagine one detail was different - that Thomas was black. Do you have any doubt what the public response would be? The news and video that police beat a mentally ill, homeless black man to death without anything like provocation would lead people to an obvious conclusion - the cops were racists. People would just know they were - what other explanation could there be?

I can see why people would prefer that explanation. The idea that the problem is just particular bad guys, with a particular bad views, presents us with a specific target we can battle against. It means that the flaws are in the individual, not an inherent part of the system. The alternate idea that the problem is an ubiquitous defect in human nature - one to which we might all succumb, no less - nobody wants to think that. But there's good reason to believe it's true.

Blimey, this post was depressing. I'll try to find something more fun to talk about next time.

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