Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

July 24, 2009

You, me, I, it, terrorism and humanity

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on July 24, 2009

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.

Yesterday Chris linked the immigration stories to the arrest of Henry Louis Gates.  Today I offer a connection to recent abuse of prisoners by US forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

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.

Racist posts traced to Homeland Security

DHS employee sues over immigration search

Seeing arrest in black and white

Bush weighed using military in arrests

Whistleblower tells of America’s healthcare nightmare

An abortion battle: Fought to the death

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.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

July 24, 2009 @ 11:33 am

Great post! I noticed WAPO had almost 3000 comments on its version of the event with the Cop and the Prof.

Hey, seeing people as fellow human beings is tough if you are told and trained that they are all out there trying to kill you. Militarization of the police in the US (SWATIZING?) has occurred since the riots and civil disorders of the 60’s. Why? For one thing many former military are given new careers as police. Both are separate cultures. Since the modern policing started with the BOBBY (Lord Robert Peales invention) for LONDON the world has often seen variants of the unarmed well trained well disciplined BOBBY. But even they have undergone changes including armament since the 70’s. Okay so how to approach this? If you are a researcher you will never get a second stipend if you argue something culturally in error about the police or the military. That is one reason both are so insulated from society. How to break this insularity down don’t know? But I too would worry if my partner/wife/husband/son/daughter was venturing out on a potentially lethal incident daily. Fear and stress are corrosive over time and sometimes does not take that long. The result is that we have to be very careful as to what ends up in the senior command positions. Sounds like we are lucky to have Mullen!hwve b

Comment by Mark Chubb

July 24, 2009 @ 4:18 pm

I too have paused to reflect on the Gates Affair. Having worked closely with cops throughout my career, I have consistently found them committed and often excessively cynical.

Clearly, both Gates and Crowley were operating under some stressful conditions when they encountered one another. Nevertheless, Crowley had a moral and legal obligation to respect the liberty of an individual to express his exhaustion, frustration, and even his anger in his own home, even if it was directed toward a police officer acting upon a reasonable and well-founded belief that a crime might have been committed. Who was threatened by Gates’s conduct? What purpose did his arrest serve beyond embarrassing both the officer and the academic.

President Obama’s decision to call Crowley today and apologize for the altogether too-candid but nonetheless probably correct legal opinion he expressed concerning the arrest during this week’s health reform press conference reflects the kind of leadership Crowley and Gates should both now demonstrate themselves.

As for the parallels between this incident and the country’s recent experiences in immigration and terrorism cases, I do not consider it too much of a stretch to think that cynicism has played far to great a role in the decisions of those responsible for carrying out and justifying these policies. Admiral Mullen’s expression of frustration, indeed disgust, at these actions is a start at raising the right issues, but I am not sure it does so in the right way. The President modeled the response he expects of Gates and Crowley by apologizing for the offence his words caused despite the fact he intended nothing untoward by expressing them. On the other hand, Mullen’s frustration may do little more than amplify the emotions of those whose conduct concerns him. Unless these men and women see an alternative that does indeed allow them to reclaim their souls, the abuses are bound to repeat themselves, as they are a byproduct of imprudent and intemperate policies, whose effect has infected those responsible for implementing them while merely inspiring those at whom they were originally intended to defeat.

Comment by Terry O'Sullivan

July 28, 2009 @ 9:26 am

Good points about the Gates-gate affair. The dehumanization process is always behind such incidents in their on-the-ground manifestations.

But what Adm. Mullen clearly failed to do was place appropriate blame on the higher-ups — both military and civilian — who clearly cultivated that broader culture of dehumanization and encouragement of “enhanced” anything-goes standard operating procedures. It’s ridiculous to say that it was a few bad apples, when the evidence from all quarters indicates the Bush White House, and its generals in charge, were responsible for those lower rank military personnel misbehaving as they did.

If the Pentagon wants to help the rank-and-file military “reclaim their souls,” placing responsibility where it should lie, and not scape-goating the soldiers on the ground, would be the more appropriate start.

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