The recent national uprising up of anger and anguish stemming from Ferguson and Staten Island–the killings by police of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the failure of grand juries to indict the officers responsible– might suggest the beginning of a national debate on police and race and even the possibilities of a new civil rights era. But we wouldn’t want to hold our breaths.
As has been more than once pointed out (e.g. here and here) the way things stand in the U.S. the police have almost complete impunity when it comes to interpreting when they are at risk, and then responding with deadly force. The issue of life and death is decided in a matter of seconds and it is almost inevitable it will be that way.
The U.S. runs on violence. Best guesses of how many guns there are in private ownership is one for every man, woman and child. Roughly 350 million. The US has been continually at war from year one of the 21st century, on top of the ongoing trauma from the 20th century’s two world wars, plus Korea and Vietnam, and prior to that the prolonged war against the Native American peoples across the continent. There are well over 200 U.S. military bases in foreign countries across the world, to say nothing of those on home soil. There are fabulously wealthy people in this country who do not feel they have any responsibility to the poor and marginal, unless perhaps it comes as largesse not justice. (See estimate of the Economist, that 160, 000 families, 0.1 % of the nation, own 22% of the wealth, an average of $73 million each, almost equal to the bottom 90% entire, the disparity between rich and poor a little shy of the all-time gulf immediately before the 1929 crash.) The central narrative of our time is controlled by a media which cannot step back an instant from the constant back-answering of argument and hostility between polarized commentators. The despairing assertion that the truth somehow lies in the middle is itself an illusion: the resolution of the antagonisms displayed between so-called right and left is so off the charts of the existential reality of either side, on whatever issue, as to be another kind of world altogether. It is the antagonism itself which motivates our news cycle of information and meaning, and it is this condition which is now the specific character of the 21st century. If “the war to end all wars” kicked off the 20th, permanent war grips the 21st.
Beginning with Augustine of Hippo we have been trained to see violence in a moralized and legalized way, as discrete, separate actions each evaluated according to a rational calculus of “justified” and “unjustified”. The courts and political rulers are supremely equipped to make this calculus.
Since Rene’ Girard that has changed. Violence can never be discrete because it is mimetic. It is a plasma of imitation which runs between people at the speed of electricity and will continue to grow exponentially until it is discharged in at least one victim. The courts and political rulers are just as much in its field of force as all other individuals. In the past sacrificial rituals, including war itself, served to keep the plasma in check, discharging it in organized fashion. But today the anti-sacrificial narrative of innocence is so universally recognized and used–against the secret sacred function of violence, but not against violence itself–any discharge is almost immediately rendered ineffective. And the plasma floods back into society and the body politic.
The police are one of the front lines in this anarchic situation. By the very nature of their job and the weapons they carry their fingers are swift on the trigger to squeeze out a sacrificial solution. They don’t even think about it, don’t even know it, but mimetic theory says it is so. However, even though they may kill with impunity the solution fails at once. Even though the bullets fly they re-enter the collective reality at once and cannot terminate the victim. The situation is always worse.
The media is another front line. Except its members are now aware that the plasma itself is the news. Everywhere it shows up, from a video phone recording of a police killing, to one political commentator slapping down another, that’s network news! Not so much information as Ultimate Fighting!
And what about racism? So much of the historical plasma in the US converges on people of color and it does not want to let go. There was a Civil War over the issue, but really it did not resolve it, because the plasma cannot be contained. It continues to seek out places where it has previously been institutionally comfortable. As has been noted by some, these killings of black men, especially Eric Garner, are contemporary lynchings.
But the radical issue is not racism, rather the plasma of violence itself. If Christians and Christian pastors wish to make a difference around the memories of Brown and Garner and others like them, they will want to shift their message into transformation rather than transaction. From a Jesus who pays a price so we can get to heaven and the-devil-take-the-hindermost, to a Jesus who seeks to change our human condition itself and who sets us free from the “devil,” the age-old system of the “adversary”, once and for all.