Over the coming days, Providence will publish a series of pieces exploring the multiple dimensions of police brutality, race, political responsibility, justice, dissent, and the violent social upheaval that have convulsed our nation the last week. I want to talk mostly about courage.
In the wake of the horrific killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, David French tweeted a link to a National Review essay of his from a couple years back in which he reflects on a series of police shootings—including the killings of Philando Castile, Daniel Shaver, Walter Scott, and the then-recent slaying of Stephen Clark. French describes what he saw—rightly—as the police’s unjustified lack of restraint in each case. Such a lack of restraint, he observes, was of a caliber that would have been shocking to even the amped-up tension and violence of the Middle East warzones.
French’s essay is, essentially, a call for our nation’s police officers to exercise at least the same amount of restraint as warfighters typically exhibit. Downrange, French asserts, four factors enable this martial discipline: a recognition that the mission comes before personal safety, a comprehensive understanding of what that mission is, a realization that prudent rules of engagement should shift as the specific context shifts, and, finally, a grasp that fear must always be subject to reason.
Looking to our hometown streets, the mission of a police officer, in nuce, is to preserve the community’s safety, security, and liberty—even at considerable personal risk. Therefore, while every encounter between the police and the public is potentially dangerous, each must be set within the context of this mission and with the awareness that dealing with a suspect of a non-violent crime is, likely, going to be different than dealing with a violent criminal hellbent on resisting. Except, of course, when it isn’t. Even then, while officers have a right—even a duty—to protect themselves, it is not a limitless right. In all cases, prudent risks must be taken in deference to the circumstances and to the fact that even the, say, alleged forger is a member of the public whom the officer swore to protect and serve justly. This is an argument for discrimination and proportionality of force.
Looking at this through a Christian realist lens, we see that the police officer’s mission closely corresponds to the just war aim of promoting the order, justice, and peace of the political community. Under the influence of just war tradition, commanders establish rules of engagement based on a three-pronged set of commitments: to force protection, non-combatant immunity, and mission effectiveness. Context determines how much stress each commitment is given. This might change not simply from mission to mission but at any given moment within any given mission. There are times when the mission is relatively non-essential, and a commander might willingly abandon it—willingly taking a fail—if the danger to his forces or non-combatants is incommensurately severe. At other times, the mission might well be so essential that a commander will willingly—though regretfully—spend the lives of all her forces to secure victory or greatly endanger the lives of the innocent.
The just war moral framework enables warfighters to balance and promote the critical considerations of restraint and resolve—it both catalyzes as well as limits violence.
Let’s consider two concrete examples of what the lack and the presence, respectively, of restraint in a context of mission effectiveness, force protection, and non-combatant immunity would look like.
The first is found in Veterans Affairs psychiatrist Jonathon Shay’s groundbreaking book Achilles in Vietnam. Shay relates a story told by a morally wounded combat veteran about a nighttime patrol that encountered suspected enemy activity. While patrolling near the waterline of the South China Sea, the American soldiers observed three boats that came into shore, beached, and began to unload. Given the late hour, they suspected it was a weapons delivery and radioed into headquarters for instruction. The patrol was ordered to move in and engage the targets. The veteran explains:
It was about ten o’clock at night. We moved down…along the beach line, and it took us [until] about three or four o’clock in the morning to get on line while these people are unloading their boats. And we opened up on them… And the fucking firepower was unreal, the firepower that we put into the boats. It was just a constant, constant firepower. It seemed like no one ever ran out of ammo. Daylight came [long pause], and we found out we killed a lot of fishermen and kids.
It was an honest mistake, even, in the circumstances, one reasonable enough to make. French’s essay, however, gives us the second, quite different, story involving a mission he was on during his deployment to Iraq:
It was a terrible night in late winter, 2008. An IED had hit one of our Humvees, injuring two soldiers and killing one. While the medevac chopper was inbound, our guys spotted a small group of what looked like men lying in the prone position in a ditch. From that vantage point it appeared they could engage the helicopter before it could land. No weapons were immediately visible.
The question was simple: shoot or don’t shoot? French lays out the options:
Fire and you neutralize the possible threat, making sure that the medevac helicopter can complete its mission. But if you hit civilians, though the medevac will still complete its mission, you have endangered the squadron’s larger objectives of securing the village and recruiting allies to join friendly militias.
Dissatisfied with their options, these Americans chose a middle course. “We asked our men,” French writes, “to emerge from cover and move to investigate and perhaps detain the suspicious men.” The dismounted cavalry troops cautiously advanced and discovered not men but a group of unarmed boys. French explains, “They’d heard the ‘boom’ of the IED, ran out to investigate, and then took cover when they saw American troops swarming around.”
The law of armed conflict would have allowed the Americans to open fire while still in possession of the element of surprise. In their attempt only to hide, the poor boys were inadvertently lying as if in ambush, in a position of tactical advantage over US troops well within range of small arms fire. So why didn’t the Americans take the safe route and open fire?
First, as French points out, the Americans knew that the repercussions of killing children—however unintentionally—could have been immense. It would have harmed the greater mission.
A second reason, that French leaves unspoken, is surely the presence of capable commanders who, themselves, grasped the essence of the mission and knew that calculated risks could be made to give that mission the best chance of success.
But implied in this second reason is a third—the presence of courage. The commanders displayed courage—including moral courage—by putting the lives of their soldiers at increased risk and possibly facing reprimand or censure if things went south. The advancing soldiers themselves, obviously, displayed courage in closing with possible enemy combatants.
Turning to the killing of George Floyd, we see these factors seemingly fall away. Four officers were involved in restraining Floyd. Two of them, Thomas Lane and his partner J.A. Kueng, were rookies—Lane was hired by the Minneapolis Police Department in February 2019 and graduated as a police cadet a month later. The two other officers, including Derek Chauvin—who at present is the only officer charged with the murder of Floyd—were veterans. Three of the officers knelt on Floyd over the nine minutes in which he slowly died. Importantly, according to the complaint against Chauvin, Lane, who was kneeling on Floyd’s legs, at one point questioned Chauvin’s actions. Lane asked, “Should we roll him on his side?” Chauvin replied, “No, staying put where we got him.” Lane pressed again, “I am worried about excited delirium or whatever.” Chauvin dismissed this worry, saying, “That’s why we have him on his stomach.” Over the course of the nine minutes, none of the three officers moved from their positions.
While command failures are clearly present—and may extend back to the officers’ training, there is also what appears to be a lack of courage. Lane to his credit, it would appear, sensed or realized that something was wrong. He arguably attempted to stop Chauvin but, to his discredit, he deferred—or cowered—to Chauvin’s orders or seniority. We do not know what Lane believed was occurring, but if he believed he needed to intervene on Floyd’s behalf, he did not do enough. In those circumstances, we can admit it would have taken a remarkable degree of courage to intervene sufficiently to stop Chauvin. But it is, in fact, in precisely such circumstances that we ask our officers to be remarkably courageous.
It has been pointed out that Floyd was a big man—over six feet tall and more than 200 pounds. Moreover, Floyd was non-compliant; he refused to get into the back of the police vehicle. Perhaps the officers were afraid? Here is where French’s demand that fear but subject to reason comes into play. Floyd was already in handcuffs. This means he had already been searched for weapons. He might not have been exactly submissive, but neither did he appear to be fighting, and in any case, he could hardly be believed to pose a significant threat. Four officers, armed with pepper spray, batons, tasers, and—if necessary—service weapons could not possibly have doubted their ability to subdue even an aggressive Floyd. They could have risked less-extreme measures.
That they did not points possibly to either malice and ill-intent or a lack of confidence in their training. As to whether there might be a link between confident training and courage, I want to refer to a magnificent talk given Vice Admiral Walter “Ted” Carter at the 2019 McCain Conference at the US Naval Academy’s Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership. In his musings about the virtues, including fortitude—or courage—Admiral Carter shared an anecdote from his flying days in an F-4 Phantom in April 1985—the height of the Cold War. Carter’s pilot was Lieutenant Rory Banks, and together Carter and Banks regularly intercepted Soviet bomber aircraft throughout the Pacific. Carter tells the story that occurred one unusual day:
As we launched off Midway doing a typical training mission, some hundred miles away we got a tipper that there were Soviet fighter jets taking off out of Cam Ranh Bay. We didn’t normally get to see these guys… As we vectored toward Cam Ranh Bay, these guys did something even more unusual: they turned south and started coming to us. So now this is really interesting. We got two F-4 Phantoms, nobody over the age of 28 in both cockpits, I’m in the backseat of the lead airplane with Rory Banks. We are just recently graduated from Top Gun, we got all this knowledge, all this training, all this education, and we are going up against two small, fast-moving targets.
We make a nice offset so we can get a little bit of an angle on these guys and kind of see who they are. As they come to us…we realize these are MiGs. As we are approaching them, I take the opportunity to put a radar-lock on the lead MiG, which we knew, based on our training, that they would see that in their cockpit. That is the first indication that we are ready to deploy a missile against them. As we get closer and my pilot gets a visual on the lead MiG, he says, “Something just came off his airplane.” Based on our training, we knew that these MiGs had tanks underneath their wings and for them to maneuver with us they would have to blow those tanks off.
By the rules of engagement that we had at the time, their maneuvering to come see us implied hostile intent and by them blowing their tanks off we now had a hostile act. We were technically cleared to shoot, fire, and take those MiGs down.
Carter describes how, falling back on their training, they were able to maneuver behind the Soviet fighters’ wing line very quickly. Over the course of the swirling 35-second or so engagement, it became clear the enemy were incapable of outmaneuvering the Americans. Carter recalls that Banks told him, “These guys are the junior varsity.” Still on the Soviet’s wing lines, Banks and Carter were now faced with the question: Do we take the shot? Carter concludes, “It was a short conversation. Rory said, ‘there’s no one gonna die here to today.’” Carter muses that while they had every legal right to take that shot, they simply concluded that not shooting was the right thing to do.
One element of Carter’s story germane to this discussion is his constant referencing to his training. Banks and Carter were hotshot aviators straight out of Top Gun. They knew what they could do against the Soviet JV. They knew that they could reasonably risk not taking the initial shot, and should the Soviets attempt to reengage, they could again outmaneuver them and make the kill. My point is that exemplary training augments courage.
On the other hand, there are few things so scary as a coward with a gun—or one with three partners and a heavy knee. A highly trained and confident ninja who wants to restrain you without causing permanent damage has a better chance of doing so than someone who doesn’t know what they are doing and is terrified. Lesser-skilled pilots would have been under greater obligation to take the otherwise unnecessary shot at those MiGs.
Of course, this can cut both ways. Highly trained police officers with great confidence in their skill are still human beings and, as such, remain disposed toward sin and a lust to dominate others. We see it in the excessive force being used by some officers and national guardsmen over the last week. There is no substitute for virtue. Happily, the vast majority of our nation’s police officers appear capable of meeting the terms of their pledge to protect and serve. Media scrutiny and the prevalence of cellphone cameras might lead us to believe otherwise because we seem to hear about every significant misstep. But the vast majority of police-initiated contacts with the public (27.5 million in 2015) do not involve an excess of force, nor are such police-initiated contacts specific to any particular racial group. What is involved in every single one of those police and public interactions, especially the tenser ones, is some dimension of courage, most often displayed in quotidian expressions of simple restraint.
But restraint isn’t the only expression of courage. Just war tradition, and the facts of law enforcement, counsel that resolve, too, is sometimes the necessary manifestation of courage. The restoration of order on American streets is essential and ought to be the first priority of law enforcement. I wrote over Memorial Day that just war morality is grounded in the importance of the vindication of justice. What happened to George Floyd matters because George Floyd matters. No one who suffers an unjust injury can be ignored, because to ignore the suffering is to say that the victim does not matter—that he or she is not correct in claiming to possess human dignity. The resolve to bring his killers to justice is one small way that Floyd’s dignity can be affirmed.
That what happened to Floyd sends shockwaves across the black community is understandable. That all blacks feel victimized by Floyd’s victimization is to be expected. And where the crime against Floyd has to do with his being black, then his blackness must also be vindicated. It’s dignity—as but one expression of the wondrous variety of the image of God—must be affirmed as well.
But victims, too, have responsibilities. And one of them is to not repay moral evil with moral evil. I will not try to adjudicate here who or what groups are responsible for the burning of American cities. It seems clear that extremist groups have coopted dimensions of these protests with the intent to sow only destruction. What is unequivocally clear is that when citizens fail in their responsibilities not to burn things down, then American law enforcement is responsible for keeping them from being burned.
This means confrontation. Friends of mine, retired Minneapolis police officers and their active duty brothers and sisters, insist authorities were wrong in having police stand down and abandon the Third Precinct Building in the south of the city and in withdrawing from large swathes of the metropolitan area. In Minneapolis and elsewhere, when the police retreat, the destruction gets worse and the possibility of escalation increases. Mob violence must be met with overwhelming lawful force. This is why I think Providence contributor Joe Carter is partially wrong in his insistence to guardsmen that if President Donald Trump orders them to shoot looters they have a legal and moral duty to disobey. Now, I am not arguing what Trump meant when he said, “looting leads to shooting.” I wouldn’t put anything past him, and I haven’t in the past. If guardsmen are ordered to walk into a Target and start blowing away looters, then of course they should refuse to follow such orders. But if the order is to insert themselves between rioters and commercial properties, then it is appropriate for them to use escalating levels of force—up to lethal force in the last resort—to stop rioters hellbent on breaking through their lines. As Joe points out, the law against shooting looters is governed by the same principle that says you don’t shoot fleeing suspects of non-violent crimes when their escape poses no real risk to anyone. It doesn’t apply to those who would initiate a violent encounter to get at those things you’re protecting. This isn’t putting televisions and sportswear over people’s lives. It is about recognizing the importance of civic peace.
The Hebraic tradition asserts that justice is that which defends, restores, and promotes the peace of the community. When the streets are burning, and livelihoods and communities are in peril, justice is that which rescues, delivers, and vindicates those under threat. It is a basic tenet of just war tradition that applies as well to moments such as these—if you want peace, sometimes you need to be resolved to fight it out.
The much-quoted comment by Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. that “riots are the language of the unheard” must, because contexts and motives vary, be amended to can be the language of the unheard. But in the present moment, the injustice against George Floyd is being heard. The wheels of justice are turning. We must give them the time to turn properly so that proper justice can be done. Those who seek the so-called justice of the mob would do well to know what else Reverend King said about riots—that they are “self-defeating and socially destructive.” As such, he called them also “impractical and immoral.”