Friday, August 16, 2019

The Active Shooter in Philadelphia and Our Rear Window Minds

Jimmy Stewart from Rear Window, 1954
Recently, there was an incident, in Philadelphia, in which there was an active shooter in a house surrounded by police. You can read about the details readily enough, elsewhere. But what was most disturbing (oddly) was that the civilian crowd in North Philly (a predominantly African American area) was taunting and cursing and posturing at the police (who are mostly white in the video) even as those police were trying to remove the threat. 

This is outrageous to me, too, but as my friends are arguing either about "blue lives" mattering and about what "animals" the crowd are; and, as others are arguing that the police are "getting what they deserve" for being an intrinsically racist institution, something more in the core of our national (international?) problems worries me.

What I thought, as I watched and re-watched a video of the crowd taunting the police, is that we live in a society (and this has always been so) in which we allow the occasional or the rare or the sensational to dictate our advice and evaluations in all common situations.

For example, when I was a kid, there was an urban legend that kids who played Dungeons and Dragons were, in an attempt to imitate the game, were going into sewers ("dungeons") and dying or getting bitten by rats. The conclusion D&D was a source of evil; something one shouldn't allow one's kids to play. Maybe it did happen once...maybe not; but this was enough for some parents to ban the game, completely. 

We let the rare and sensational incident shape our thinking about the bigger picture in this country and we always have. It's driven by fear, which we know we can't eliminate, but we can always reason through it.

Imagine, now, how much worse this fear-driven problem is with lightning-fast communication like the Internet. If a woman gets raped by her Uber driver, Uber is either determined to be unsafe and a thing to be avoided or we get bombarded by a paralyzing list of conditions for those using Uber. But should one awful incident really shape policy and procedure? It all depends whether we lead with our emotions or our reasoning.

Still, we are affected.

Back to the crowd at the standoff: As I watched the video, several times, I realized that this was a similar situation of seeing the bigger picture in the rare; the sensational. Yes, there are a ton of people gathered around the police, but most of them are video-recording it; still more are watching nervously, with the involuntary smiles and shifting feet of children who find themselves in a naughty situation they can't quite evaluate. A key few are really taunting the police and jumping at them and cursing at them. But those few are not "the crowd."

This is not to say that I don't think the whole bunch of them oughtn't to have been chased off or arrested for impeding upon the police who were there to stop a threat; but I do believe that majority of those people were not "animals" or "the problem." (But they sure as heck made the problem look bigger.)

What happens now is that the takeaway is a bonanza for racists and even non-racists who are staunch police supporters. "Look at these animals," they can say. Inevitably, though, what happens in the minds of the weak, is that the bad ones become, for them, the whole reality and they conclude that black people and not just the aggressors, are bad people.

Again, the smaller is seen to represent the larger picture.

We need to get a handle on this, in all areas. It makes us, at least, cowards and, at worst, a nation of prejudiced thinkers. If Internet reports say that four out of a million dogs wind up in the pet ER with wood in their stomachs, that doesn't mean you should keep your dogs inside twenty four hours a day. If a kid in Toledo got tetanus from a sliding board and died, that is not a reason to avoid playgrounds with your kids. The awful reality of sex-traffickers doesn't mean young girls should never travel.

All of the above scenarios give us things to consider; but they shouldn't be off-switches as to how we handle our daily lives. And, similarly, the behavior of one crowd (much less a few individuals in one crowd) should not lead us to conclusions about whole groups.

To be clear about my personal feelings about the incident: I think the particular aggressors were behaving like animals and I would have no problem having seen them tazered or arrested. And I really don't want to hear arguments about "institutional racism;" not as a defense of that behavior at that time.

Protest is a powerful and, to me, nearly sacred right in America, but not during the unfolding of an event in which the public are (or recently were) in grave danger. To do what they did was to show a total disregard for the safety of their neighbors and to display the common theme in our current world: the belief that free speech is the right to say whatever they want, however they want, to whomever they want, whenever they want. There was no excuse for it.

At the same time, I am not going to judge the state of humanity or of the Nation or of the City of Philadelphia or of the neighborhood based on the tantrums of a few jerks.

My son, who was very emotional as a young boy, was once depressed on a trip to Cape Cod. He claimed that the source of his mood was they they had started construction across the street from his room. He could see it through the window. I asked him what was on the left of the house. "The woods," he said. Then I asked what was on the right. "The woods and walking paths where we take Krimpet (the dog) for walks." Then I asked what was behind us. "The lake," he said. I pointed out that we were surrounded by beauty but he was letting the only window he had sum up the whole place.

For many of us, the Internet is that window. It's noisy construction sites our only evidence of reality.

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