I ran across a video on a friend’s Facebook time-line about some recent shooting, I do not recall which (which is itself problematic). The issue raised and passionately discussed with the issue of racism and policing – the seemingly overly common situation in which a Black man (or child) is shot for a minor reason or for no reason at all. This is followed by the usual internal investigation, paid leave, policy was followed, we have decided not to indict, thoughts and prayers for the family, and life goes on as usual.
As I watched the video it occurred to me that though race and racism are key to understanding the problematic situation the United States faces in relation to all too frequent police shootings, there is a more fundamental problem with policing that goes deeper than the colour of skin. That problem is one of the foundational and enduring cultural myths of America: I call it The Myth of the Barbarous Other.
THE BARBAROUS OTHER
The idea of the barbarous other has deep roots in Euro-Western civilization – too deep to get into in this brief essay. But in short, it is the idea that civilization lies within and without is rank barbarity. Barbarity must be kept at bay by any means necessary, violence being the first and not the last option. The United States in its founding and history typifies this cultural ideal. Within that historical context, the American colonies, later the United States, were founded as outposts of European civilization. The villages, cities, and towns spread along the eastern seaboard were islands of civility hemmed about by the great darkened woods beyond – the realm of the barbarous.
THE BARBAROUS OUTSIDE
The first of the Barbarous Others against whom civilized society must be defended (according to this mythology) is the Barbarous Outside – the Red Indian. He was the wild, untamed, savage of the woods. While he might at best be a subordinate ally, he was, at worst and most commonly, a villain ready at any moment to strike in the heart of civilization, do his malevolent work, and then melt, unhindered, back into the dark woods beyond.
To tame him, the wilderness that sheltered him must be tamed. The frontier must be pushed. He himself – the wild Red Indian – cannot be tamed, so he must be contained. Hemmed in by rugged frontiersmen and brave frontier women who with their long rifles standing in front of the log cabin, were the necessary vanguard of civilization; they were sentinels minding the frontier until civilization could catch up. Ultimately this untamed Barbarous Other was hemmed in – restricted to concentration camps reservations where he would be rendered harmless – a curiosity, like a defanged lion in a circus show.
THE BARBAROUS INSIDE
The second of the Barbarous Others was more problematic, because they were more numerous and much closer. While the Red Indian could be considered the Barbarous Outside, the Black man was the Barbarous Inside.
These men and women were not untamed savages, but semi-human brutes. Imported for their raw strength – a necessary evil to subdue the land vacated by the Barbarous outside. His supposed lack of intelligence was made up for by his sheer propensity for violence – violence and the threat of violence that must of necessity be met by greater violence in order to contain it. The threat of the Barbarous Insider was not that he would strike and slink away, as the Red Indian. That, at least, was exotic and could be romanticized. No, his barbarity was more perverse and thoroughly unromantic – the barbarity of the unrestrained animal, and yet riskier because he could by his proximity pass on the ‘infection’ of his barbarity to others – through his degraded and barbarous culture at best, or through sexual liaison with civilised women at worst. And so he was treated as one – beaten, chained, castrated, sexually violated, sold individually or severally, and when his behavior became too much, he was simply killed – sometimes just as an example to the others, to prevent any notion of freedom ever being seriously entertained.
THE BARBAROUS FOREIGNER
The last category is the least distinct, because it is also the most malleable. It is the Barbarous Foreigner. His barbarity is the one which is in many ways, the least barbarous because he, at least, can symbolically ‘lose’ his barbarian status – something like the purchase of Roman citizenship (but I was born a citizen St. Paul said).
This barbarian is barbarous only insofar as he remains a cultural alien and his barbarity is thus provisional. IF he is willing to cast off any trappings of his previous self, shed and shred his previous identity, deny any validity in it (excepting perhaps the food and the occasional cultural event), he can become civilized. This is, after all, the path trod by many before him – the Irish, the Pole, the Czech, the Ruthene – you name them. Cease to be those things and your barbarity will be lifted. We will treat you as a full citizen with only the occasional teasing about a hard to pronounce surname.
The Barbarous Foreigners used to all be Whites of European extraction and there was quite a debate as to whether certain of those barbarians would ever make the cut. They did. The barbarous foreigners now are mostly East and South Asians, Latinos, and, to a lesser extent, those of Islamic faith. Mostly these groups straddle the symbolically white line – their civilized status provisional. That is for those already within the country. For those outside, they are less provisional, and their barbarity is kept at bay with the combined force of the military of the United States. We try our best to only allow the ‘good ones’ in (but how can you tell?)
THE PROBLEM WITH POLICING
The problem of all this, and it intersection of it with policing, is that by and large, the Barbarous Others have always been contained by extreme violence. This is what we expect. That is why it is unsurprising that the barbarous ones, particularly that Barbarous Insiders, are treated with such violence by our police forces. (The Barbarous Outsiders are too, but because we kept that violence safely hidden away on reserves, it is less noticeable.)
The problem of our policing is that it is fundamentally not about crime control – it is about defending the bounds of civilization – which is why people speak of a thin blue line – the line which is the supposed defense against all the hell that will break lose if we stop the constant violence or threat of violence against the Barbarous Other. The problem of policing is that certain people literally embody the idea of the Barbarous Other – they cannot be anything other than threat by their very being. They are never provisionally civilized – they are the eternally barbarous other and if they are not kept down, beaten down, or at least threatened with that possibility – barbarity will ensue.
That is why the standard of police killing non-police comes to something like ‘did the police have a reasonable fear’ – which of course is easy to demonstrate. When you are met with the barbarian, the only and best response is fear – fear that necessitates a violent response because you don’t know what the animal might do. After all, no one questions if you are met by a lion or a bear on the road if you are fearful – of course you are. And not one will condemn you if you kill it. It is a bear. It is a lion. It is a barbarian and there isn’t much difference.
The problems we have with policing and police violence go well beyond a police officer or police department, most of whom are fine people trying to do fine work.
The problem is embedded in the culture that says we must maintain a line against the barbarous other else we’ll be obliterated.
It is not only a myth – it is a lie.
It is a lie that permits politicians to conscript resources from the citizenry that would be better spent on education, or housing, or health care, or virtually anything and put it to use strengthening the line of defense against the Barbarous Other.
It is a lie that allows police to be placed in a separate category of justice – much as we do for those at war – because it is perceived as a war – a constant ongoing and relentless struggle against barbarity and we can never afford to lower our guard. Therefore if the police officer shoots, it is presumed to be justified until proven otherwise which is quite the opposite of what happens for the rest of us.
It is a lie that makes us not only tolerate, but celebrate, brutality in defense of liberty, even if it means our own liberty is in fact an illusion. We are not really free when the citizenry lives in fear of the police — and let us be honest — that is the reality, even for those who are not the Barbarous Other. Our freedom is at best experiences contingently – we are suffered to live freely so long as they permit us.
In my current context, I have seen policing done differently, and though I cannot attest entirely to the ethics of the police service in Ghana, one thing is certain – they are not treated as people apart. It is an interesting thing to be from the “Land of the Free” to see truly free citizens arguing with police about whether or not they were right to stop them, to see police on their way to work boarding public transport like everyone else, to see them treat and be treated mostly as ordinary people who are enforcers of law but are not considered above it. Land of the Free? Hahahahahaha