A Swim in Denial

What we can't think about and how it shapes us.

Little Red Riding Hound

What do cops, dead dogs, and moral aggression tell us about us?

Let's start with the basics:

<< In 2009 Randal Lockwood of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that he sees 250 to 300 incidents per year in media reports, and he estimates that another 1,000 aren't reported. The Indianapolis Star reported that between 2000 and 2002 police in that city shot 44 dogs. A recent lawsuit filed by the Milwaukee owner of a dog killed by cops found that police in that city killed 434 dogs over a nine-year period, or about one every seven and a half days.>>

The figures don't clarify how many of the dogs were threatening as opposed to innocent pets. <<What is clear is that police are almost always cleared of any wrongdoing in these shootings. An officer's word that he felt a dog posed a threat to his safety is generally all it takes. Whether or not the officer's fear was legitimate doesn't seem to matter. Thanks to smart phones and surveillance cameras, a growing batch of these incidents have been caught on video have shown that officers' claims that the dog was threatening often aren't matched by the dog's body language. In recent years, police officers have shot and killed Chihuahuas, golden retrievers, labs, miniature dachshunds, Wheaton terriers, and Jack Russell terriers. In 2012 a California police officer shot and killed a boxer puppy and pregnant Chihuahua, claiming the boxer had threatened him. The Chihuahua, he said, got caught in the crossfire. Police officers have also recently shot dogs that were chained, tied, or leashed, going so far as to kill pets while merely questioning neighbors about a crime in the area, cutting across private property while in pursuit of a suspect, and after responding to false burglar alarms.>> —Radley Balko

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Just to be clear: some people do keep ferocious dogs as weapons. And of course not every cop is gunning for Fido. We're talking here about a symptom rather than a canine holocaust. But symptoms can be instructive. Let's peek at some concepts that bark for our attention: 

For starters, the dead dogs are what the military calls "collateral damage." This is striking because police in the US have become increasingly paramilitary: armed with combat weapons, heavily armored and regimented like Roman legions in crackdowns on demonstrators. In some locales emergency SWAT "teams" are regularly used in raids on suspected gamblers and illegal immigrants. Through clever technicalities, they can dispense with court warrants and probable cause the way the US dispensed with legal niceties invading Iraq. 

When innocent people or pets are killed in the process, cops invariably claim they felt threatened, and the "lapses" are forgiven. This is true also when soldiers massacre civilians, as in Vietnam and Iraq, when police kill a dentist gambling on football scores, or a vigilante Zimmerman shoots an unarmed kid. Feeling threatened—fear of death—justifies aggression. This is the mentality behind dangerous "stand your ground" laws. When the circumstances are ambiguous, the mentality usually exonerates the shooter as law-enforcer. 

This is moral aggression: an overreaction that signals other than practical motives are at work. It occurs most often in situations of stressful ambiguity. The trigger-finger brings closure, right or wrong. And the closure reflects one of our core creaturely motives: the nervous system's "fight or flight" wiring for survival.

The tragic problem of course is that your nervous system is also your "nerves" and shaped by your personal and cultural makeup. We're psychosomatic and psychocultural creatures, which compounds our already ambiguous motives.

We're physiologically programmed to be scared of danger and death. But danger and death have to be interpreted. Is the kid with his hand in his pocket fingering a pistol or a yo-yo? Does he trust you or fear you? Love you or hate you? 

If you misinterpret the kid, he or you may die. The logical course would be to disarm and defuse the encounter, and to wait for more information. But soldiers, cops, and Zimmermen are morally pumped up. They want closure to split the world into clear good and bad so they can feel "good." If their culture supports their interpretation, sharing the shooter's assumptions, right or wrong, everyone feels "good." 

This is what makes moral aggression as powerful and addictive as any drug.

It's the force behind lynching, in which a group, like the cop, acts as prosecutor, judge, and executioner in order to feel "good." Usually we think about moral aggression as a moral *issue.* Is abortion or gay sex or racial profiling, say, right or wrong?  But let's open up the frame by looking at it as behavior. 

Feeling "good" is an expression of self-esteem. From birth, mum, dad, and your culture invest you with "what is right." It's physiological as well as mental. The process sorts the world into "good" or "bad"—things associated with more life or (ugh) death. Food, love, sex, babies, and protection are good and hence the venerable roles of mum, lover, hunter, and warrior, all of whom resist and rescue us from death. These are heroic roles, but *all* behaviors that promise more life are potentially heroic and therefore good for self-esteem. The lifelong process of sorting out "what is right" is implicitly a sort of policing that "arrests" death and fosters more life. No wonder cop shows dramatize officers' personal struggles and intimate family lives. The plots are our struggles writ large.

The tragic glitch is that eventually all heroic projects are imperfect, since everybody dies. What's more, if everything could be equally ideal, then the ideal would be meaningless. That means heroic striving and self-esteem are always provisional, imperfect, and competitive. In turn, living has to play out as criticism, sorting and resorting experience, and there are bound to be misjudgments. The kid looked suspicious. The dog sounded menacing. The ambiguity is fatal. And lest we forget, the converse can be equally lethal if you misjudge a genuine predator, whether a mugger or a millionaire banker. In one of the day's crueler ironies, government is punishing Bradley Manning for revealing, among other things, footage of a US helicopter crew machine-gunning Iraqi civilians and gloating over it. Since 9/11 the government's excuse for its use of torture and judicial execution (as in drones) has been a version of "I felt threatened." 

Policing, again, is concentrated heroism. If you're trying to arrest evil in the name of the law, and its elusive, you may be tempted to relieve your frustration, fears, and fears of failure by settling for a substitute criminal: a stand-in for things tainted by death—a scapegoat. Minorities make opportune scapegoats (they're "different" and they can't fight back). So do dogs, as in familiar insults such as "dog," "dirty dog." and "bitch." Dogs who protest against police intrusion by growling may seem not scared but hostile—like invaded Iraqis or black neighbors who resist "stop and frisk" bullying.

And dogs? Well, as the ambiguously tamed wolf, Fido objectifies our ambivalence about heroism. Puppies are infantile alter egos: we lavish love on them and forgive them their chewing and peeing as we do babies. They grow up to be Man's Best Friend," Lassie, rescuing us all from death. At the same time, as pit bulls, say, dogs can also be incarnations of the wolf, infamous in fairy tales as "big, bad" and ravenous. With his rack of fangs, the Big Bad Wolf is death ready to devour life—not only Grandma but also pubescent Red Riding Hood, who society is counting on to bring new life and insure our survival. 

Like St George's dragon and the wolf, this face of the dog mirrors our own greed for life. We too live by killing and digesting other life, and dressing up as Grandma to disguise our aggression. Sometimes we imagine we can overcome death by heroic, bountiful killing, as in crime and warfare. Although civilization promises to tame the wolf in us, sometimes it tolerates or even encourages vicious behavior. Some nations rationalize militarism, embracing the "dogs of war," just as some groups reduce all social life to threat display, flaunting the invisible logo Beware of the Dog.

But there's another form of creaturely motives at work too. The police are paramilitary in a "war" on drugs or crime, but also they play the role of hunter. The hunter tracks and kills game to feed the tribe. The manhunter "arrests" or kills the outlaw and brings home loot, security, and energizing "good" self-esteem. You can see a failed version of this role in George Zimmerman's clownish stalking of Trayvon Martin. In this context , the scapegoat Rover is a trophy like antlers on a wall, and in excusing the pathetic substitution, admiring the canine rug on the floor, society is uncomfortably playing along with the fantasy: like the cop, saying "We felt threatened, but we've overcome death." 

Moral aggression, then, doesn't just act out somebody's belief, an abstract principle. As an expression of "what is right," it also is you. It's a gut feeling or "gut instinct" in the service of self-esteem, even when it's destructive. It deserves our attention because it's so central to our experience that we see right through it (we can't see the forest for the trees), and also because it takes such a bewildering variety of disguises. We are moral creatures, organized around moral operating systems, however flawed. And morality fosters comedy and joy when it isn't killing the neighbors and their bratty Chihuahua.

These days the US is struggling, as humans must, to renew forms of heroism that foster well-being. That means sorting out life-giving behavior from vicious facsimiles. The project is underway everywhere, in families and school and on TV no less than in church, courtroom, and politics. It's challenging because the world is endlessly complex. But it's especially a challenge for high-strung creatures who love life and need courage and compassion to admit that even heroes die: that we are each only one spark of awareness among six billion others, living in a mystifying blink of time without a frame. That's a strong reason to think twice before putting finger to trigger and Rover's head on the wall next to the antlers.

 

 

Further Reading:

 

 Radley Balko, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces (2013).

Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil (1973)

Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power

Kirby Farrell, "Rage for Order," in Berserk Style in American Culture.

 ——, "Moral Aggression and Abandon,"

<<http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/swim-in-denial/201307/moral-aggression-and-abandon

 Robert Reich, "Why the Anger?" Robert Reich's Blog (8.13.13):

            <<http://robertreich.org/post/58082787864

 

Kirby Farrell, Ph.D.'s most recent book is Berserk Style in American Culture.

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