When a nation goes to war, it is a common practice to dehumanize the enemy. When I was a young man and World War II was still a recent memory, I spent time in Paris and Normandy. I remember the vehemence with which French people my parents’ age spoke about “les Boches,” a disparaging term for Germans.
Americans held similar attitudes during that war. The U.S. Army produced crude posters about how to identify “Japs,” and even encouraged recycling with phrases like “Give scrap to kill a Jap.”
Perhaps this kind of ethnic reductionism serves a purpose. When we ask people to make great sacrifices, as we do in wars, it helps to eliminate moral ambiguity. Wartime propaganda shows our side as good and the enemy as evil.
Sometimes, though, I wonder whether we aren’t making the mistake of importing martial attitudes into the morally more complex work of policing. I don’t just mean the use of military-style equipment, but the very idea of police work as a version of war.
President Lyndon Johnson declared a “war on crime” in 1966. President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” in 1971. President George W. Bush declared a “war on terror” after 9/11. And as President Barack Obama winds down an overseas war, something the Department of Defense calls the “1033 program” is delivering billions in surplus military equipment to local police departments.
The thing is, the people of Ferguson, Missouri; Staten Island, New York; and Cleveland are not the enemy. A few are bad actors who belong in jail, but even they are not the enemy. They are citizens of the same community as the police. They don’t wear uniforms that mark them as lawful combatants. Even when caught red-handed, they are entitled to due process of law.
This is why I worry about crime fighters becoming war fighters. It’s also why I think African-Americans see more significance in the recent shootings than most whites do. Warriors take a different view of the people they are fighting. If we tell our police they are fighting a war, they are likely to act as soldiers generally do. They will design quick and dirty ways of identifying and dealing with the enemy.
I’m not sure the recent police killings exhibit racism of the old-fashioned kind — a belief in the inferiority of other people based on their ancestry. But in a world where we treat policing as war, race combined with youth and social class, maybe dress and attitude, can be the way police identify the enemy in certain neighborhoods. And because combatants in war are fair game, the cops will be just a bit quicker to draw and fire.
We can help the police by changing their way of thinking about the job. Policing is not war. It is harder, because it entails a similar risk of death but demands more deliberation and prudence.
On the battlefield, there are only two kinds of soldiers — the quick and the dead. On our city streets, we ask the men and women who keep us safe to pause over the trigger and make judgments one person at a time because the people they meet there, even the ones they suspect of crime, are not the enemy.
Garvey is the president of The Catholic University of America in Washington.
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