It scares me when I hear people say, “I would never do that.”
Here’s what I mean. Friends and I were talking about Officer Ray Tensing shooting Samuel DuBose in the head during a routine traffic stop in Cincinnati on July 19. “Crazy,” said one of my friends. “Shooting a guy in the head when the cop’s body camera didn’t show any belligerence, no disrespect, nothing that would provoke getting arrested, let alone getting executed.”
My friend’s tone communicated, “I can’t understand how anyone would shoot an unarmed guy in the head [or in the back while he’s running away]. I would never do a thing like that.”
I suppose most of us would say that about the possibility of committing a violent act, yet I wonder. One out of four females, I’m told, is abused sometime in her life. That means a lot of guys have, at some point, lost control enough to hurt someone, usually someone we say we love.
Have you never lost control to the point where it scared you? Have you never participated in something you thought was a good thing at the time, and later on, to your chagrin, you had to admit that it was hurtful? Fraternity pranks, for example, or the hurtful teasing of the kid who didn’t fit in, which most of us participated in in school.
I think we are kidding ourselves if we say, “I would never do that.”
Given the right time and place, given the right amount of stress and emotional/spiritual vulnerability, most of us are capable of doing most anything. Read Lord of the Flies again. Talk to people who supported Hitler, if you can find any.
I’m German. I’ve been to Germany. As an ethnic group, we’re no better or worse than any other, but between 1939 and 1945 “we” — and I use that word intentionally — either actively or passively murdered a whole lot of unarmed people.
I wasn’t even born until 1947, so technically I’m not to blame for the Holocaust, and I’ve never pointed a gun at another human being and pulled the trigger. But I have to wonder what I would have done if I had been 19 years old and living in Berlin in 1939, feeling the shame of having been blamed for being the bad guys in World War I, having to pay reparations for a war we had not started, and feeling the hopelessness of being out of a job because of a worldwide economic depression. I’m not so sure I could say, “I would never do that.”
I’m not trying to paint a picture that says we’re all living in a dystopia, that the world is slowly going to hell. What I’m trying to say is that admitting “I might do that” given the right (or wrong) set of circumstances is perhaps the first and most important step in making sure that we don’t.
My friends in AA stay away from drinking by, paradoxically, admitting on a daily basis that they are alcoholics. I know guys who haven’t had a drink in 20 years who begin every day by reciting the First Step, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.”
David Brooks in The Road to Character calls it “this perversity in our nature,” this susceptibility, this potential we all have to lose control and hurt another person. Brooks contends that we are living in a culture that can see the dark side in others but not in ourselves. He writes that we hear the message everywhere, “You are special. Trust yourself. Be true to yourself.” He calls the message “the gospel of self-trust.”
What he wants to cultivate instead is what he calls a “moral ecology,” which encourages all of us “to be more skeptical of their desires, more aware of their own weaknesses, more intent on combating the flaws in their own natures.”
Police officers are no better or worse than the rest of us. What makes them different from most of us is that they are armed, so when they lose control of themselves, some unarmed somebody could get shot in the head.
We all, victim and perpetrator alike, share what Brooks calls “a dual nature.”
“We have a side to our nature that is sinful,” he writes, “but we have another side to our nature that is in God’s image.” So when we read about Doctors Without Borders going to Liberia to treat Ebola patients, we can say, “I recognize a part of me that is capable of virtuous self-sacrifice.” At the same time, Brooks declares, “The inner struggle against one’s own weaknesses is the central drama of life.”
All of us should get either angry or depressed — take your pick, they’re two sides of the same coin — in response to what Ray Tensing did to Samuel DuBose. But we should also read it as a cautionary tale. We ourselves, given the right circumstances, are capable of doing the same thing.
So go ahead, tell your children and your grandchildren that they are special, but also teach them about this perverse something we all have that can get us in deep trouble, especially if we deny it’s there. Recovering alcoholics feel better when they name the demon that is getting them in trouble. It’s the first step in busting out of denial into mature freedom.
It didn’t do the king any good for everyone to tell him he did have clothes on when he was buck naked. Neither does it do us any good to try to convince ourselves that we don’t have that “perverse something” inside each of us. When we see reality clearly, we have the best chance of making the best of it.