Saturday, November 29, 2014

Ferguson--What is national security?

The ongoing conflicts regarding the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and the failure of a grand jury to indict Ferguson Police Department Officer Darren Wilson for any crime related to that shooting highlight a number of issues that call into question the very meaning of national security.  There is no serious dispute that the United States needs a strong set of national security institutions, but there is a wide debate regarding how those institutions should be used within the United States, and what the rights of citizens should be against those institutions.  When we say national security, what exactly do we mean as being secure?  The institutions and physical territory of the state?  Or the individual health and welfare of the citizens of that state?  The answer to these questions could shift the foundations of the entire debate relating to national security.

To recap events, Officer Darren Wilson shot 18 year old Mike Brown (who was unarmed) 6 times after a brief physical struggle on 9 August 2014 just after noon, killing him.  The exact sequence of events is still a matter of some dispute--the plausible scenarios run between approximately Mr. Brown being a rage fueled demonic lunatic who tried to grab away Officer Wilson's gun, to Officer Wilson being an arrogant jerk using his badge and gun to bully the citizens he should be serving, and killing Mr. Brown for failing to respect his authority.  The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle.

Protests began almost immediately: the erroneous belief that Mr. Brown had been shot in the back or with his hands up surrendering was immediately part of the popular sentiment.  This view was opposed by those who saw Mr. Brown as a thug who got what he deserved after stealing cigarettes from a convenience store and assaulting an officer.  Protests against the killing escalated into riots, which were met by police with what many claim to be unnecessarily heavy handed tactics, including the deployment of military grade hardware, arrests of journalists, and unnecessarily rough arrest procedures.  These protests were renewed, and spread to other cities, after a grand jury announced its decision not to indict Officer Wilson on any charges on 24 November.

American's history of racial oppression is of course the major backdrop to the conflict.  While it is true that Mike Brown had robbed a store earlier that day, his death is but one in a long string of black men or boys killed by law enforcement under questionable circumstances.  Other recent examples include the killings of John Crawford who was shot as he held a toy gun in Walmart (contrary to the 911 caller's statements, he had not used it aggressively) and 12 year old Tamir Rice who was shot as he played with a bb gun in a park.  In both cases, security footage seems to show that police fired immediately upon arrival, without any attempt at peacefully determining the true situation.

Protesters and others view this as part and parcel of a long history of violence against non-whites.  Many people on the more conservative end of the spectrum counter that Brown was a criminal, while mumbling uncertain platitudes that maybe there are a few bad cops when presented with the facts regarding other deaths including those of Crawford and Rice (or else inventing imaginary scenarios under which police actions in those cases might have been justified).  In essence, though, the position boils down to a belief that, in this case at least, order is more important than the safety of those confronted by the police.  This may be viewed as hypocritical in light of many of the same voices supporting white rancher Clive Bundy in his armed standoff against Federal agents over cattle grazing rights.

The actual danger presented in a police officer's job is also important to keep in mind.  While it is true that there are many jobs in America safer than being a police officer, there are also many which are more dangerous.  Police death and injury due to interpersonal violence on the job is much lower than is commonly perceived--far more police officers are killed or injured due to transportation incidents than violence.  If normalized for number of hours spent driving, the on the job death rate for police is almost identical to that of truck drivers (who have a total death rate about twice as high as police). Commercial fisherman and loggers, by contrast, have on the job death rates an order of magnitude higher than that of police.

So, which is more important?  Order, and the right of police officers to effect an arrest against a robbery suspect or potentially dangerous person reported to 911?  Or the health and safety of American citizens, especially black men, with a right to life and due process before the law?  This is essentially a question of values, and the final answer will be both malleable through time and a compromise between multiple viewpoints.  It is also an answer that is variable by national culture: in the UK, for example, despite violent crime rates by some measures four times higher than in the US, death by police action is 100 times less common and most police officers don't regularly carry firearms.  It is true that murder rates and especially firearms crimes are lower in Britain than in America, but when considered rationally, few people suggest that cops should not be allowed to use firearms to defend themselves when fired upon (as was the case in the killing of Vonderitt Myers on Shaw Blvd in St. Louis in October) or attacked with a deadly weapon such as a knife.

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