The death of George Floyd while in police custody was so gut-wrenching to watch for most Americans that it set off what has begun to resemble a cultural and possibly political revolution. The spectacle videoed by a bystander was the closest thing to a Roman crucifixion modern society has managed to produce outside of Hollywood. Its timing — lasting nearly nine excruciating minutes while observers helplessly shouted their horror at those responsible — turned the kind of relatively banal event that is usually reported as a nasty incident into an unforgettable epic narrative.
Now that the revolution is already underway, the fatal shooting this past weekend of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, Georgia — a scene awkwardly scripted and improvisationally executed by a pair of police officers — reads like the subplot of a Shakespeare tragedy, mirroring with contrasting details the central drama that took place in Minneapolis on May 25. Whereas Floyd committed the capital crime of paying for cigarettes with a forged $20 bill, Brooks was guilty of falling into an apparently inebriated slumber while sitting in his immobile car in a parking lot. Both men were obviously subject to the aggravating circumstance of being black in America.
Democrats and Americans Fall to Their Knees
The impact of such events alongside many others — sometimes less brutal but equally dramatic featured on a nearly daily basis on YouTube — has created heightened awareness of a situation that the media and politicians have muzzled for years by treating each one as an isolated incident. After each such incident, the media calls for a debate on the appropriate form of legislation that might reduce the frequency of such occurrences. The debate routinely lasts for a few days until it becomes clear that the legislative process is too complex to achieve anything that might have a lasting effect on a culture that fatally spawns such events.
Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, commenting on the killing of Brooks, declared on NBC that the “video of the encounter … ‘is disturbing to watch, but I’m not sure that it’s as clear as what we’ve seen around the country.’”
Here is the senator’s 3D definition of the day:
Difficult to witness for the public but, for people like myself who understand the reality of power, not as bad as others may think
Scott is the only black Republican in the US Senate, which defines him as something of a cultural oddity. In December 2012, Nikki Haley, the governor at the time, selected the former businessman to fill a vacant senate seat. Scott was subsequently reelected to a full term in 2016. In other words, Scott identifies with a political family that is inclined to align on all issues with the Republican Party and the Trump administration.
That helps to explain why a black man like Scott calls it “disturbing” when certain acts of the police, which include killing an innocent, unarmed black man, cast a bad light on the forces of law and order. It disturbs his and establishment Republicans’ worldview that sees the police as a force for order.
Others may feel that qualifying an event leading to the extinction of a human life as disturbing is in itself deeply disturbing on a broader moral level. It calls attention to a fundamental but neglected problem relating to the attitude behind policing. None of these incidents would turn into tragic drama if the police and the society they serve didn’t see the black community as a group of people to be policed and the white community as a group of people to be protected.
Senator Scott himself probably identifies with both sides. As a successful businessman co-opted by the political elite, he belongs to the community that both depends on the police for its protection and decides how that protection affects people’s lives in real neighborhoods. As a black man, he hails from the community that is deemed to need policing, if only because the majority of that community is excluded by circumstance from participating in the lifestyle and decision-making of the elite.
With his experience of politics, Scott is lucid to the point of sounding cynical. He understands the complexity of the legislative process. He thus expresses his skepticism of achieving anything truly effective. But he continues to believe the solution can only come through legislation. “There are millions of scenarios that play out,” he told NBC. “It’s one of the reasons why what we have tried to achieve through the legislation is finding the best practices of use of force around the country, and then provide that clarity and guidance for those departments who may need to have a better perspective on use of force.”
As Scott said, “we have tried.” What he doesn’t say is that, in light of recent events, this can only mean that we have failed. He insists on the fact that they are still trying. “So we’re getting at it, but I’m not sure we’re going to ever codify in law a use of force standard,” he added. Once again, he is suggesting they will not succeed. Shouldn’t we find this state of affairs “disturbing”?
The police are traditionally called “officers of the peace.” This implies that their role is to promote and ensure social peace. It also implies that the notion of peace both defines their ultimate goal and guides their individual actions. In moral terms, that means that when any ambiguity exists, the agent should systematically prefer the peaceful alternative to the aggressive one.
Most European nations have integrated that idea and created a policing culture consistent with it. At the same time, in some more than others, a tradition of mismanaged race relations following centuries of colonialism has compromised that commitment. In minority neighborhoods, French police, for example, have felt it necessary to apply not just the law, but also the authority of the ruling class over marginal individuals and sometimes even entire marginal communities.
In the history of policing in the US, the ethos of law enforcement long ago abandoned the idea of managing social peace. Rather than reflecting an ideal of social harmony, the idea of peace came to mean simply the absence of war or social conflict. Inside American cities, war has become the norm over time. The police were at war with the mobs, who were at war with each other. And different ethnic groups competing for recognition were engaged in a permanent economic and cultural struggle amongst themselves as well as with the police.
As the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter observed, the US, from its very beginnings, was driven by a belief in what he called entrepreneurial “creative destruction,” seen as the key to industrial and economic success. Economic progress became the only imaginable form of social progress. And, despite its ethos of competition, it was seen as the basis of social cohesion.
The idea of stability no longer derived its meaning from the idea of protecting the existing state of social harmony. Instead, it reflected the need to ensure the protection of the forces and the classes that enable economic development. When the digital economy took over from the traditional industrial economy at the end of the 20th century, Schumpeter’s creative destruction morphed into Clayton Christensen’s disruptive innovation, put forward as the new obligatory strategic ideal for a modern enterprise.
US culture thus attributes a highly positive moral value to the ideas of destruction (Schumpeter) and disruption (Christensen). In contrast, when Tim Scott calls police action resulting in the fatal shooting of an unarmed man “disturbing” to watch, the idea of disturbance carries a negative connotation while, at the same time, minimizing the importance of the act. The idea of disturbing connotes a minor, annoying challenge to the established order. But that order has adopted, as its declared goal, destruction and disruption.
This contradiction in what might be called moral perception — abhorring disturbance but idealizing disruption — has become a central feature of contemporary US culture. It means that the social order is constantly on the tipping point toward chaotic decline. The death of George Floyd seems to illustrate this trend. Until recently, the decline has been progressive, but any new event or an accumulation of similar events could provoke social chaos. That should disturb a few who are now in power.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Click here to read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.