Tags: Police | Funeral

A Police Funeral

Thursday, 21 February 2002 12:00 AM

The officer had been a Marine in Somalia, where he was wounded protecting his comrades. He survived Somalia but not Los Angeles.

Next morning, a talk show was aired. Surprisingly, most callers criticized the paper for printing the photo. They felt that the boy was "exploited" or "manipulated," though the photo was taken with the grandparents' permission.

One caller complained that relatives had coached the boy to act like a "little Marine," which the caller obviously found repugnant.

Callers recognized that the boy's grief was real and that he was the most genuine person there, yet they objected to the photo. Why? There are several possible reasons:

But the earlier portion that showed King lunging at the officers was shown only at the live TV coverage of their trial. Had I not been home that day, I never would have seen it. Even well-informed persons were unaware the early part of the tape existed. Some of the 52 deaths and the billions in damage caused by the Los Angeles riot may have resulted from this selective reporting.

Of course, the media would never recognize their responsibility. Their concept of freedom of the press is a right unattached to any responsibility. The idea that rights can exist free of any accompanying responsibilities is a common but dangerous fallacy.

Rights cannot exist in a vacuum. They must be exercised judiciously, or, like muscles, they wither away. Those who expect to enjoy freedom of the press, or any freedom, without responsibility are deceiving themselves.

But whether hostility toward the police is based on media images or personal experience, it should be expressed toward the individuals involved, not toward police in general, and certainly not toward officers killed in the line of duty.

Blaming a whole group for the misdeeds of a few individuals is the essence of prejudice. This is true whether the group is defined by skin color or blue uniforms. Pointing out wrongdoers and trying to right the wrongs is one thing; blaming entire groups is quite another.

Even assuming this man is innocent, what is the connection? This recalls the argument of Alan Dershowitz before the House Judiciary Committee, in which he maintained that we should not punish Bill Clinton for perjury unless we also punish all the police officers who, he claimed, lie in court throughout the nation.

That is, we need not feel sorrow for one who dies, or anger at one who lies, unless we do so for all those deserving of sorrow or anger everywhere in the nation. We are absolved from doing anything anywhere, because we are unable to do everything everywhere. How convenient for the lazy and indifferent. But how destructive for a free nation.

Another caller stated that the slain officer was no more deserving of honor than those killed by police – apparently including one of the suspects who had murdered the officer. This caller was unable to distinguish between a public servant who dies trying to protect innocent people, and a criminal who dies trying to kill innocent people.

The caller had been given his moral compass at home, at school or in church. Parents, teachers and clergy who hand out broken moral compasses are beneath contempt.

But officers die defending us. Watching news clips of funerals of police officers – while we munch snacks safe at home – may produce guilt feelings. After all, we are safe in our homes precisely because these people are willing to risk their lives for us.

In some, this guilt evokes sympathy for the mourners and for police in general. In others, it evokes anti-police sentiments. The easiest way to remove guilt feelings on seeing police funerals is to turn our backs and criticize police.

This obviates any need to pass stronger laws, or provide more police or better equipment, or even to change our anti-police attitudes. Of course, since no one is perfect, this type of thinking removes any need to feel sad about the suffering of anyone anywhere.

Specifically, we need not feel guilty for tolerating the system that had released this officer's murderer after only a few years in prison, where he was sent for shooting a 14-year-old in the head and leaving him for dead. That this violent criminal was turned loose on innocent people is a disgrace for which we are all jointly responsible.

Lawyers tell us that it is better that 99 guilty persons go free than that one innocent person is convicted. This might be true if the 99 guilty persons went free on Pluto. But the revolving door of the justice system opens onto our planet.

However, the revolving door does not necessarily open onto our street. Most violent criminals are not released into upscale neighborhoods or suburbs where lawyers, judges and politicians tend to live. No, they are released into neighborhoods where many poor people and minorities live.

Of course, we feel no responsibility for that as well. We tolerate the system, then denigrate the cops who must clean up the mess the system leaves. Those who produce large amounts of trash are in no position to look down on garbage collectors.

In short, we release violent criminals into areas where the underprivileged live, then congratulate ourselves for being "humanitarians." This is similar to dumping my garbage in front of a poor person's house, then calling myself an "environmentalist."

Interview shows on TV provide an endless procession of self-proclaimed victims. Politicians profess outrage, pretend sympathy, quiver their lips in mock grief, and bow their heads in feigned contrition. But we remain unaffected because we sense they are faking.

Similarly, when Bill Clinton prayed with clergy in the White House or was photographed carrying an enormous Bible, even the staunchest advocates of church-state separation did not object, because they suspected he wasn't serious.

But let one grief-stricken, courageous little boy confront us, and we are distressed by his genuine emotion. We have become adept at feigning the outward signs of emotion, but we often lack the depth and commitment of real emotion, and when we see it we grow uneasy.

There is an old saying that still waters run deep. The reverse is also true – noisy waters tend to be shallow. We are confusing the readiness to weep and bare our secrets in front of a TV camera with real emotion, which is often too deep to express easily.

But eventually, reality intrudes into our pleasant fantasies. Regardless of real or imagined misdeeds, police are absolutely necessary for any society to survive. Moral judgments are necessary if we wish to behave morally. Taking responsibility is what free people must do if they hope to remain free. Recognizing genuine emotion is the only way to protect ourselves from fakers who try to take advantage of us. Accepting rules is the price of civilization.

Despite the criticism, the paper should be proud of its decision to print the photo of the little boy saluting his father's coffin. Perhaps it reminded us of what we should have known all along – that freedom has a price, one that was paid by Officer Brown, and is being paid by his son.

Perhaps, if we recall the price, we may value the freedom more highly. That would indeed be a fitting memorial for the fallen officer.

[NOTE: To find the photo referred to, go to http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/latimes/ and search for "Dylan Brown" and "Brian Brown" from Dec. 1 to 31, 1998.]

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The officer had been a Marine in Somalia, where he was wounded protecting his comrades. He survived Somalia but not Los Angeles. Next morning, a talk show was aired. Surprisingly, most callers criticized the paper for printing the photo. They felt that the boy was ...
Thursday, 21 February 2002 12:00 AM
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