Flourishing Western Gateway

On August 10, way back when, the Roman who became St. Lawrence was martyred by roasting his naked body over an open fire.  Why? Because his refusal to conform to the religious cult practices and cultural norms of Roman society constituted a challenge to the existing Imperial order.  The Christian message asserted that all men –including slaves– were equal in the eyes of God, and that all could attain eternal life in salvation.  But Rome depended on slave labor, and the luxuries its 1% citizens enjoyed had long been furnished by millions of enslaved war captives.  So it shouldn’t be too surprising that the regime preservation functionaries of Imperial Rome feared this new Christian cult as an existential threat to the divinely-ordained Roman way of life.  Patrician and plebian citizens above, slaves below: thus had the hierarchy always been, and thus it must remain forever more.

credit: future Pulitzer Prize winner

credit: future Pulitzer Prize winner

More than a decade ago, I was in a project-planning meeting with a dozen or so members of the Praetorian Guard when a deeply unpopular high-ranking officer entered the room to provide “commander’s intent” for our project.  As part of his pep talk, seeking to create a bond of camaraderie that could overcome the atmosphere of distrust permeating the room, he remarked:

“You know, being a cop is the best job in the world.  There is no other profession in America where you can take another person’s life and not go to jail.”  He went on to say that being entrusted with protecting the lives of people in our community is a tremendous responsibility and something that we should all be proud of.

I heard another message –a subtext– behind his exhortation.  It was not just an admission, but actually a boast, that he had himself taken another person’s life “in the line of duty” and (obviously, given his rank) had suffered no consequences.  In some ways, it was also a threat: letting a roomful of hostile cops know that he had no compunctions about killing another human being.

This man is by no means unique in the profession.  Some people start out that way and others “grow” into the mindset.  Police training in the legal use of physical force emphasizes that deadly force is justified only when the officer is legitimately in fear for his/her life, or when the life of another person is in jeopardy.  When a rookie officer first graduates from the police academy, the mental bar against use of deadly force is relatively high.  But that threshold barrier of mortal fear can gradually begin to sink lower and lower, eroded by the frequent irritants, recurrent tension and repeated confrontation that inexorably accumulate during hours-days-weeks-months-years on patrol.

The fear is reinforced by “officer safety training” that reenacts scenarios from around the country –or around the globe– in which other cops have been attacked and killed.  Information-sharing “fusion centers” routinely disgorge a tainted torrent of effluvial threat warnings blended from unequal portions of fact, speculation, inaccuracies, and exaggeration.  Gradually, the officer forms a mental image –a schema– of his environment, one that is characterized by isolation, personal vulnerability, pervasive threats, and insidiously diverse adversary capability.  R = V + (C + I)

(Mis)Reading Intent

Which brings us to (hostile) intent, the mother of threat and thus the evil stepmother of mortal risk.

To a beleaguered cop who sees himself as just barely afloat in a raging sea of troubles, accurate evaluation of potential hostile intent is the crucial key to personal risk assessment.  The simplest heuristic for performing that evaluation is the “mirror test:”  if someone looks like me and behaves like me, he’s less likely to be hostile.  It’s a subconscious/unconscious cognitive process that most humans routinely employ on a daily basis, even in the least threatening environments.  This primitive IFF subroutine has been in continuous use by our species for a long, long time –and it’s probably not unique to the human race.  So, however much we might deplore its social and cultural consequences, the IFF mirror is often a significant component of many human interactions.

At this point, I could digress into a protracted discussion of the self and “the other” … and/or Foucault’s theory of policing as elaborated by any number of left-leaning French philosophers. Instead, it’s probably best to leave the last word(s) to America’s Finest New Source™, The Onion.  Their “Tips For Being An Unarmed Black Teen” include these gems:

  • Avoid swaggering or any other confident behavior that suggests you are not completely subjugated.
  • Try to see it from a police officer’s point of view: You may be unarmed, but you’re also black.
  • Revel in the fact that by merely existing, you exert a threatening presence [looming] over the nation’s police forces.



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One Response to “Flourishing Western Gateway”

  1. TwShiloh Says:

    Well done. I wasn’t at that meeting but suspect I’m familiar with the speaker, either in actual fact or a remarkable simulation from Central Casting.

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