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Racial Sensitivity Can Be Deadly By: Bruce S. Thornton
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, July 16, 2002

Last week's videotape of an LA cop slamming a black teenager onto the hood of the patrol car reminded me of something I saw in Washington DC a few years ago.

Some colleagues and I were sitting in a cab in front of Union Station, waiting for the cab in front of us to leave. The other cab's driver, a West African judging by his accent, was arguing with three black teenagers. Apparently the cabbie had no intention of taking these kids anywhere.

Within a few moments two black DC cops appeared. I didn't catch what the kid said, or what kind of attitude he gave the cop, but within seconds the officer had grabbed him and slammed him, very hard, against the cab. Then he jerked the kid upright and gave him some tough, unprintable advice about where he should hang out. Union Station wasn't one of the venues.

After this happened, our cabbie, another West African, turned to us and began explaining why the cops had to act that way. He assumed that we were typical sentimental yuppies with no clue about the hard Darwinian world the cops and cabbies had to negotiate every day.

That world is one where thugs, punks, hustlers, and crazies abound. The laws and protocols of civilized society, the respect for rules and authority, the fear of shame and guilt, the respect for other people cut little ice with such predators. They manage their world through force or the threat of force, preying on the weak and vulnerable. Perhaps some can be prayed or hugged or educated out of their barbarism, but first they must be prevented from harming the majority of people who aren't like them. Most of the time, that prevention will come down to force or the credible threat of force, the only currency recognized by such people.

And sometimes the threat of force, to be credible, must be made with a toughness that might offend the more tender-hearted middle-class. But as my cabbie in DC showed, the victims of thugs approve of such toughness. The fact is, the primary victims of thugs and punks are not white suburbanites, who pay money to buy rap CD's and watch movies glorifying such criminals. The victims are the decent, hard-working folks who live in the thugs' own neighborhoods. People like the West African immigrant cabbies who work seventy hours a week chasing the American dream for themselves and their families. They want to survive, and so they make rational decisions about risk based on their experience. If you've been repeatedly robbed and assaulted by young black men, then you'll racially profile your prospective customers. If cabbies were repeatedly assaulted by seven-foot redheads, then Bill Walton couldn't get a cab either.

The point is that turning such incidents into a simplistic racial melodrama obscures the dangerous world policemen have to deal with, one in which the wrong decision, the second of hesitation, the misreading of intention and risk can mean a widowed wife and orphaned children or a life-long disability. Consider what happened to policeman Richard Herzog in Seattle a months ago. Herzog was trying to restrain a naked black man who was running wild in traffic, a man with a long history of violent assaults against cops. Herzog used his pepper spray, but was knocked to the ground and shot to death with his own gun.

To understand this tragedy fully, though, you have to realize that the Seattle police has been the object of continual protests the past year because of the shooting of two black men by white cops. Some critics of the police faulted their tactics, suggesting that police should rely more on less lethal weapons such as pepper spray.

So the question everyone is asking is whether Officer Herzog hesitated to use pull his gun because he feared becoming the object of a racial inquisition. The black County Executive, Ron Sims, thinks so: "There's no question race probably had an inhibiting effect" on Herzog's decision.

Obviously, no one is arguing that cops should be given carte blanche. Of course police must be trained to act and react with restraint. Recruiting must work at weeding out the impulsive and the angry, the bigot and the thug. Being granted by society the power of lethal force is an awesome responsibility, and those who are given that responsibility must get the best training possible and be held to the highest standards of conduct. And those who abuse that trust must be held accountable and severely disciplined.

Yet we must realize that there are violent, vicious people in the world who will harm others if not stopped, and that often force or the threat of force is the only way to stop them. At that moment of conflict, the why's and wherefore's of the thug's evil isn't relevant. What counts is protecting the innocent. No one should expect a policeman to value the life of a thug or a nut more than his own, or to have superhuman judgement and control when his and others' lives are threatened.

So let the LA cop be investigated and seriously disciplined if it is determined that he lost control and overreacted. But let's not reduce such incidents to race-industry cliches about racial oppression by the "man." After all, how many of us work in a world where every day, one wrong judgment can cost us our lives?

Bruce Thornton is the author of Greek Ways and Decline and Fall: Europe’s Slow-Motion Suicide (Encounter Book}. He is 2009-2010 National Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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