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Explaining the Ferguson Killing: Five Factors

Why does killing a disrespectful teenager seem “right”?

Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, may have been reacting in expected ways for those who hold the beliefs I describe below. Michael Brown did not follow his orders to walk on the sidewalk and the officer escalated the situation by driving his car backwards into the path of the teens, scaring them and making the encounter physical instead of just verbal. Why would an officer increase stress and tension, escalating the siutation. Why does killing a disrespectful teenager seem “right” to the officer and others who saw no injustice? Here are several overlapping explanations.

Stress-reactive disposition. When one’s stress response is activated, it shifts blood flow away from higher order thinking and compassion and toward “flight-flight-freeze-or-faint”. Wise adults avoid escalating stressful situations with their charges. They know that stress makes them stupid. They let things cool down and wait till the stress response has passed in themselves and in their charges.

From a moral or ethical perspective the stress response moves you into a one-up (aggress) or one-down (withdraw) mode to try to get back to a sense of safety. In stress reactivity, you have little flexibility in getting along with others, and will following strict scripts that you have used before.

If you are dispositionally stress-reactive, you will have a habit of shifting into a self-protective mode and think this paranoid attitude is normal. You will have limited social skills to charm others into cooperating. You may have limited emotional presence and respect for anyone that is unfamiliar. And you are likely to adopt a zero-sum orientation to social life. You will feel it “right” to punish anyone who steps out of line.

The officer's escalation of tensions put everyone into the stress response.

Dangerous ideas. Roy Eidelson has pointed out five dangerous ideas that lead to violence: (sense of) superiority, distrust, vulnerability, injustice, and helplessness). When the stress response is activated, you flip into distrust and vulnerability.

Culture of honor. According to a culture of honor which presumably emerged from herding societies (Nisbett & Cohen, 1996), it is appropriate to use force to keep hierarchy in place. The culture of honor places (white, historically) males at the top of the heap, with sanctions to use violence against violators because it feels “unjust” that they misbehave. Those at the top feel superior and have a sense of justice in putting in place those who are not respectful of the system.

History of violence. The USA is notorious internationally for being imbued with aggression throughout the society (whether media, discourse, parenting, policing, gun laws, family policies, etc.). This is not a surprise if you recall that the USA has never addressed its violent roots--how it was built on aggression towards the millions of indigenous already living here (see Indian Removal) and on slavery for economic development.

Laws that condone killing. According to Amnesty International, excessive force by US police is commonplace. Amnesty International published a report about the Ferguson situation. The legally-easy killing of Michael Brown by a police officer does not conform with international laws about human rights

Notice how different the international standard is from laws in many USA states, including Missouri's where police can use deadly force to prevent escape (from the AI report):

“international standards provide that law enforcement officers should only use force as a last resort and that the amount of force must be proportionate to the threat encountered and designed to minimize damage and injury. Officers may only use firearms when strictly necessary to protect themselves or others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury. Even then, the intentional lethal use of firearms is justified only when "’strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.’"

Amnesty International continues:

“The shooting of Michael Brown highlighted on a national level the persistent and widespread pattern of racially discriminatory treatment by law enforcement officers across the United States, including unjustified stops and searches, ill treatment and excessive, and sometimes lethal, use of force.”

We must not forget that racial discrimination is an ongoing problem in the USA. Among other things, it emerges from widespread stress reactivity from misraising of children, dangerous ideas that are perpetuated by media and leaders, the culture of honor, the unresolved violent beginnings and laws that condone killing.

For more on these ideas, see my new book, Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom.

More from Darcia F. Narvaez Ph.D.
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