Teachable Tragedy

On the American home front, there were two big events last week.

First, a 63-year-old man killed himself for no good reason.  And second, a police officer killed an 18-year-old kid for no good reason.

The former is newsworthy because the man was beloved actor and comedian Robin Williams.  The latter is newsworthy because the officer was white and the kid was black (and unarmed), and because of the subsequent uproar in the town of Ferguson, Missouri, where the killing occurred.

If the official narratives are to be believed, both deaths came about through mental illness.  Williams was a victim of depression, while the kid, Michael Brown, was a victim of racism.

In fact, we don’t know for sure whether either of those assertions is true.  Williams apparently did not leave a suicide note, and there are crucial details about the shooting of Brown of which we remain ignorant.

But that’s not the point.  These two incidents were tragedies—both incalculably unjust and unnecessary and preventable—and we, the human race, have made it our duty to make sense of them, regardless of the facts.  To explain things that are inexplicable.  To transform a tragedy into a “teachable moment.”  To shape individual deaths into symbols of broader crises in our society, in order that we might prevent such misery in the future.

There is scarcely anything wrong with this impulse, as such.  While it would be nice for us—particularly our representatives in Congress—to address all the injustices in the world all the time without any prodding, certain practical considerations prevent it.  There just aren’t enough hours in the day.

Accordingly, we often depend on specific, isolated moments to remind us of the issues that especially deserve our attention, and which had perhaps been neglected up until then.  Hence the emphasis on gun control legislation following a school shooting (or three), or on climate change policy in the aftermath of a destructive hurricane.

So it is understandable that the suicide of an admired celebrity with a history of depression and drug abuse would lead to an outpouring of public interest in suicide, depression and drug abuse.  They are real and serious problems—as are the stigmas attached to them—and if it takes the loss of Robin Williams to examine them closely, so be it.

But the situation in Ferguson is exceptional, owing to the sheer number of “national conversations” that have arisen in its wake, some of which not necessarily having much to do with each other.

There is, for starters, the question of whether outfitting local police forces with military-style tanks and weapons might carry unintended consequences.  And whether dispersing non-violent protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets ultimately does more harm than good—both in terms of maintaining order and establishing trust.

As well, there are the matters of suppressing freedom of the press and the right to peaceably assemble that have come into question amidst the public response to the Brown shooting, along with the media’s tendency to perpetuate clichés and prejudices as to who the “heroes” and “villains” are, long before all the facts are known.

But this is all mere window dressing around the central concern of black and white. 

First is the assumption that Michael Brown is dead because he was black and the officer who shot him, Darren Wilson, is white—in other words, that racism itself, be it latent or blatant, is the primary culprit. 

Second, that the near-uniform whiteness of the Ferguson police force in a town that is two-thirds black is at least partly to blame for all the mayhem that has occurred there in the past week and a half.

Third is the long history of racial tensions in the greater St. Louis vicinity, illustrated and exacerbated by the way that black people there tend to be overrepresented in number but underrepresented in power—a fact partly, but by no means entirely, explained by politics.

This is but a partial list of the topics that have suddenly sprung to the nation’s lips, and they are all due to a single incident that—at the risk of repeating myself—we know practically nothing about.

This year marks the centenary of World War I, whose very existence still baffles us 100 years hence.  To this day, much of the world is still trying to fathom how a single, seemingly random incident—namely, the assassination of the Archduke of Austria by a 17-year-old Serb—could possibly throw every great empire on Earth into conflict.  How could so much come from so little?

In light of the events in Ferguson, I am beginning better to understand.

The answer, in both cases, is that the commencement of hostilities did not, in fact, come from nowhere.  Rather, such tensions had been simmering, lying in wait for many years, until some triggering event forced them to the surface, allowing the aggrieved parties to have it out once and for all.

This at least explains the readiness of virtually every person on Twitter to attribute the Brown shooting itself to racial prejudice.

In point of fact, we do not know what was inside Darren White’s head when he decided that shooting an unarmed 18-year-old six times was a good idea, just as we do not know what was inside Robin Williams’.  White hasn’t yet appeared in public, and thus hasn’t uttered a word in his own defense.  We have been provided several eyewitness accounts, and they do not agree on all points.

The shooting of Brown might well have been motivated by racism in one form or another; perhaps one day we will know for sure, although we shouldn’t hold our breaths.

The broader point, though, is how convenient it would be for our national narrative about race relations if it were.  If Darren White considered Michael Brown threatening purely (or even partly) because he was black, it would confirm all our suspicions about racial bias in our police forces.  And if White is ultimately exonerated, it would confirm similar biases in our justice system.

It’s not as if we require any such confirmation at this point in the game.  As no less than Senator Rand Paul put it, “Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention.”  The statistics speak for themselves.

Nonetheless, it would greatly serve the purpose of noticing and ultimately rectifying the problem of racial prejudice in America if the shooting of Michael Brown could, indeed, be categorized as just such an incident.  What is more, it would save us the discomfort in considering that the shooting had no basis at all.  That it was a senseless act from which nothing meaningful can be learned.

No, it is much better always to have a moral to the story.  To not let the facts get in the way of the truth.

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