Yesterday I had lunch with a prominent business leader. I was interviewing him on how to build more effective public-private collaboration in homeland security.
My luncheon host told me story after story of unfortunate and sometimes surreal encounters with local uniformed police officers.
Given the nature of his business, this individual works with a number of other law enforcement agencies. He summarized the difference, “They’re all tough, but the local cops don’t recognize I’m human. They treat me and my people as threats or impediments.”
This was not the only time I had heard this complaint during a week of interviews.
Four hours later, about six blocks from where I had lunch, I asked another business leader about his relationship with the local police force. “Fantastic,” he quickly replied.
Both men are in their fifties or early sixties, affluent, white and their businesses, while not identical, interact with law enforcement for similar purposes. What my line-of-inquiry finally uncovered is that three of the second man’s senior colleagues are married to local police.
The first business leader is limited to official channels. The second business leader almost never uses official channels.
The piece Chris Bellavita posted yesterday, Once (or more) upon a time in America, had more readers than any single post in the last three months, more than double our typical daily readership.
The quotes Chris provides share a common character. The immigration suspects are treated as something other than human. Even if their citizenship was suspect, their humanity should not have been in question.
Insiders are reporting that Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is “furious,” “disgusted,””dumbfounded,” and absolutely committed to, in the words of one denizen of the E ring, “helping our soldiers reclaim their own souls.”
The confidential memo written by Mullen — and purposefully leaked — is more careful in its language. “Somehow, despite our best efforts, a misguided and misled few have managed to tarnish that reputation and breach the very trust we have worked so hard to earn… I am appalled by even the suggestion that someone in an American uniform would behave in such a way. We haven’t all absorbed or applied all the lessons of Abu Ghraib. The stress of combat, however real, is a poor excuse for casting aside our values… The message to our people must be clear: the mistreatment of detainees in any way will not be tolerated under any circumstances. It is essential to who we are as a fighting force that we get this right. We are better than what I saw in those pictures. We must prove it.”
A half century ago Martin Buber suggested that everyday in every encounter, I face a choice: will I engage the other as “you” or “it”?
Is the cop on the corner a human being or a thug in uniform? Is the loud homeless person wearing a Santa hat in July a full person or just an annoyance or even a threat? Is the suspected terrorist — or even the convicted terrorist — due a minimum of human dignity or something considerably less?
Do we meet the other — here at this blog, on the street, or in our imagination — as a thing to be manipulated or a fellow human being with whom we are to be in dialogue?
Every time I reduce another person to an “it,” to the very same degree I reduce myself to the same condition. The terrorists have reduced me to a Zionist Crusader. Will I join them in this dehumanization?
I have sometimes done so. When I do so, that’s when the terrorists have truly won.
UPDATE: Several weekend news reports seem relevant to Buber’s insight as to whether we perceive another as a you or it.
Oppression and violence — or not-so-simple neglect — is much easier when we are confident of our own rectitude and dismissive of others. This is a trap that seems to entice almost everyone across political, philosophical, and other divisions. Practical solutions are much easier to find when cultivated with a modicum of restraint, self-criticism, listening, and recognizing what we fundamentally share with others.