This is my third post in a series of ruminations about lethal force. Part 1 discussed the basics of what might or might not be self defense, and in Part 2 I discussed how participants and witnesses report and distort what happens, and in this part, I’ll be exploring how the news gets out, and what we do with it.
In most cases of lethal force, not only do we not know what happened, we don’t even have access to anyone who knows what happened. All we get are accounts passed to us by news reporters, editorial writers, bloggers, and acquaintances. As I’ve tried to show, these incidents can get very complicated once you take into account the ethics of lethal force, subjective perceptions, and the possibility that people are lying. Meanwhile, news stories necessarily have to economize on detail, because there’s limited space and limited time to write. Therefore it’s highly unlikely that any of our sources of information will pass along every detail we need to know.
Furthermore, the people telling the story are also subject to all the same distorting influences as the witnesses: They could make mistakes interpreting witness accounts, they could misremember witness accounts, or they could spin the story (or outright lie) to serve their own agenda. Even if they try to keep everything straight, they’re bound to make mistakes, and they’re bound to distort the account based on their own interpretation.
The same thing will happen all over again when people read these stories and pass them on, comment on them, or write blog posts about them (and don’t even get me started on Twitter). It ends up being like a game of telephone, except that instead of passing the message along in a line, from one person to the next, it’s more like something happens to people in the center and information about it radiates outward along multiple interweaving paths. Each person in the information flow receives different stories from different people at different times.
Further, as they receive each piece, they can either adjust their mental model of what happened to accommodate the new information, or they can reject the new information because it seems unlikely to be true, based on the model they have so far. In this way, everybody comes to believe a different version of the story, and they will interpret new information based on the framework established by that story.
That we all have different ideas of what really happened is a big problem when we start to argue about what it means. It’s hard to have a discussion about right and wrong, crime and punishment, when we don’t agree on the facts. It’s doubly hard when we don’t realize that we’re all working from different mental models of the main incident.
I first noticed this several decades ago, back before the internet was everyone’s source of news, as I watched the story of one such incident dribble out in a series of small revelations. I can’t remember enough details to look it up, so I’m certainly misremembering it, but I’m offering it as an example of a phenomenon, not to discuss the specifics of the incident. The series of revelations, in the order I encountered them, went something like this:
- A drunk guy visiting a friend late at night accidentally went to the wrong house and was yelling and pounding on the back door when the homeowner shot and killed him. To me, it was hard to see how the homeowner could possibly be in reasonable fear for his life, so this sounded like some kind of murder.
- The homeowner said he thought the guy was trying to break in. Burglary is not a reason to kill someone, but a guy breaking into the house while you’re there might justify lethal force. However, it was difficult to agree with the homeowner’s perception, since pounding and yelling aren’t really a break-in.
- Before pounding and yelling on the back door, the guy had rung the front doorbell. Presumably he thought his friend was asleep, so after the doorbell didn’t work, he went around back to try to get his attention. Some people argued that burglars never do that, but I had heard that ringing the doorbell was a great way to find out if a house is unoccupied without doing anything clearly illegal. If the homeowner answers, just say you must have the wrong address and walk away. Or if you’re the violent type, ringing the bell gets the homeowner to open the door for you, so you don’t have to risk attracting attention by breaking in. This information seemed to cut either way in terms of fault.
- The most damning detail to come out was that the homeowner shot the guy through the back door. This seems indefensible. You’re never supposed to shoot without identifying your target, and you have no idea what’s on the other side of the door — what if a neighbor came over to investigate the noise and was standing behind the guy? What if the guy knocking had a child with him? You just don’t know. Shooting through the door was terribly reckless and made it seem more like a murder of some kind.
- At least until it came out that the back door was a screen door. The homeowner heard noises from the back of the house and went to investigate. He didn’t just find someone pounding and kicking the door. He found someone punching and kicking through the screen into the house, while he was standing there with the gun in his hand. No wonder he shot.
This was actually a fairly simple story, and yet many of the people discussing this story, including the news media, weren’t used to thinking about the issues involved in lethal force, and they had missed a bunch of important points, including the final detail that changed everything. And as these points came out, arguments kept erupting over the incident, often between people working from different versions of what happened.
Laura hears that Alice shot Bob after he broke into her house in the middle of the night, and based on that, Laura concludes that Alice justifiably shot Bob in self-defense and should not be charged with a crime. Natalie hears that Alice shot Bob after inviting him over, and based on that, Natalie concludes that Alice murdered Bob and deserves to go to jail. They have both reached reasonable yet incompatible conclusions based on what they know.
It seems like a simple misunderstanding that could be cleared up with a little discussion, but it’s simple human nature that once we have staked out our positions, we become resistant to considering alternatives, even if the evidence for them is pretty good. Confirmation bias and other phenomenon make us resistant to changing out minds and accepting new evidence, even if the evidence from which we formed our initial opinion is proving increasingly shaky. Further, the strength of our belief makes it difficult to consider that other people may have reasonably interpreted the situation very differently.
When these people get into arguments with each other over the incident, the difference in conclusions is simple and obvious, but people’s internal mental models of what happened are hidden, so folks on each side have trouble understanding how people on the other side could reach a different conclusion, and they often misattribute those conclusions to ignorance, prejudice, or anti-social values rather than recognizing that different assumptions are in play.
If Laura and Natalie hear each other’s conclusions without hearing the reasons for them, they’ll conclude bad things about each other. Laura will be appalled that Natalie wants Alice to go to jail for shooting a home invader — she may accuse Natalie of coddling criminals or believing men should be able to attack women without consequences. Natalie, on the other hand, will be appalled that Laura believes that murderers like Alice should go free — she may accuse Laura of coddling criminals or believing that women should be able to gun down men without consequences.
We’ve seen this sort of thing happen in Ferguson, with the shooting of Mike Brown by Darren Wilson. Some people see an unarmed black kid gunned down by a white policeman and conclude that anyone who doesn’t think the cop belongs in jail must be a black-hating racist who thinks it’s okay for cops to gun down black people in the streets. They want justice for Mike Brown.
While there are certainly some racists who feel that way, I think it’s safe to say that many of Wilson’s supporters simply don’t believe that narrative about the encounter. They think Mike Brown viciously attacked Darren Wilson and tried to grab his gun, presumably to kill him, and then when Darren Wilson tried to arrest him, Brown attacked again and Wilson shot to defend himself. They think Brown’s supporters are just white-hating racists making excuses for black violence, or attention-seekers trying to drum up trouble out of ulterior motives. And while there are certainly some people doing just that, I think it’s safe to say that many of Brown’s supporters simply don’t think he attacked Officer Wilson.
It’s hard to understand other people’s arguments when you don’t realize you’re not arguing about the same thing.
Interlude: The Police
Shootings by police officers have been in the news a lot lately, and they’ve touched off a lot of controversy, especially when the police shoot unarmed black males. For the most part, I think we should analyze police shootings the same as any other, but there are a few special considerations.
For one thing, police get a lot of training in how to handle potentially violent encounters, and this training affects their perceptions and the conditions under which they fear for their lives. For example, a police officer may have been trained that an assailant with a knife who is within 20 feet can stab him faster than he can draw a gun, so he’s likely to regard someone 15 feet away with a knife as a deadly threat, and he can likely point to his training as the reason he was in fear for his life.
Also, police follow a departmental use-of-force policy, which specifies when and how officers can use different degrees of force, up to and including deadly force. So officers may escalate their level of violence according to training or departmental policy rather than according to what a reasonable non-police-officer would do.
In addition, we expect police to actively fight crime. This means that we expect them to look for trouble, and when they find it, we expect them to stand their ground rather than try to run away. That would be suspicious or troublesome in an ordinary citizen, but for a police officer, that’s the job. We actually expect police to make arrests. This necessarily involves laying hands on people. It’s a violent act that would be called battery and kidnapping if anyone else did it. As a society, we want police to do this violence to protect us from bad people who would harm us, so acts that would cause other people to lose their right of self defense are often acceptable when done by a police officer.
On the other hand, just because police are carrying out a public service mission in accordance with their societal role, training, and departmental policy doesn’t magically eliminate the social costs of what they do. Having people with guns who are looking for trouble, standing their ground, and grabbing people off the street to lock them up in cages is still a form of harm to the people they are doing it to, even if they are criminals.
When police officers hurt people according to departmental guidelines, that doesn’t mean that it’s okay. It just changes the discussion from a question of personal ethics to a question of public policy. Instead of asking if the cops are bad people, we need to ask if the cops are following bad policies.
Just because the cops were doing what they were told doesn’t mean the policy, the mission, and the training aren’t wrongheaded, unethical, or downright evil. Just because police departments theoretically serve the needs of the society they’re embedded in doesn’t mean they aren’t up to no good. Like all institutions, they will serve their own needs, which may conflict with the public good.
For example, police conduct tens of thousands of drug raids every year, and on some of those raids the officers mistakenly kill an innocent person. The mistakes may be honest mistakes — the police thought they saw a gun, or they thought they were taking fire — so we might conclude that the officer did nothing deserving punishment, nothing that we’d call evil. At the same time, we might also conclude that staging a series of drug raids that carry the risk of killing innocent people is a policy that does more harm than good.
I’m almost done with this subject, but I think I have one more post in me.