I guess it was inevitable that the discussion over Michael Brown's death in Ferguson would at some point become a debate on whether Brown needed killing.
Since the shooting, we've heard that the 18-year-old allegedly stole cigarillos from a local store, smoked pot, drank and sang "vulgar" rap lyrics (according to the New York Times
). How any of this is relevant to a police officer gunning Brown down on the street eludes me.
Okay, it doesn't really. People like to believe in a just world, a world where good people don't have to worry about getting shot down for shoplifting or walking in the middle of the street (according to different versions of the police department's constantly changing story). If Brown was a Bad Person, well, then the rest of us don't have to worry, right?
Of course, there's no definition of "just" that covers a death sentence for shoplifting or underage drinking. Hell, if there were, every high school in America would be a charnel house. But at least those little flaws give us something, some proof that Brown wasn't "innocent." And if he wasn't innocent, well the cops probably had to do it, right? If Brown had been good at heart, everything would have been fine.
It's a variation of the logic by which so many people rush to judgment on rape victims. Was she a virgin? Was her clothing too sexy? Did she not fight hard enough? Prove she was at fault and the failure of prosecutors or college authorities to act against the rapist because completely understandable. We can sleep peacefully at night, our faith in justice and authority preserved.
David Rieff describes a similar reaction among humanitarian workers overseas in A Bed for the Night
. Working at a camp for Rwandan refugees, the relief workers were horrified to learn some of the victims fled Rwanda because they participated in the genocide there and the survivors wanted payback. Rieff said the idea of a non-innocent victim confounded people.
The truth is, as the writer Willa Cather once said, even the wicked suffer more than they deserve. Even if Brown had been a horrible person (and there's no evidence he was), that wouldn't justify being shot without cause (and there's definitely evidence showing that may have happened). An unjustified shooting isn't redeemed if the victim turns out to be a bad person. The killing isn't karma, it doesn't balance the scales. It's injustice, pure and simple.
Consider the 3,000 people killed on 9/11. With that many dead, it's quite possible a few of them were embezzling from their employer or abusing their spouses. That doesn't make 9/11 any less of a tragedy. The death of bad people doesn't mean that "well, at least some good came out of this."
You can say the same about most of history's prior horrors--pogroms, religious wars, Stalin's purges, genocide. Undoubtedly some of the people who died were bad, but that doesn't excuse their killers. The people who commit genocide, tyranny and war crimes aren't delivering justice, or not anything a decent human being would identify as justice. The killers didn't give a damn what their victims were like, or how morally upright or fallen they were, only that they were the wrong race or religion or church or political party. There's no redeeming that.
The idea a victim is either an innocent angel or deserving of his fate is not only wrong, it skews the debate in favor of power and authority. If someone blew up the police station in Ferguson, I doubt the newspapers would discuss whether any of the cops smoked dope off the job, downloaded porn at home or listened to rap. The Times wouldn't inform us, as it did with Brown, that the cops were "no angels."
There are stockbrokers and bankers who've stolen and scammed millions, but if a cop shot one of them in an argument, I doubt the focus would be on the victim's business ethics (of course, cops don't gun down people who steal millions. That's for petty thieves). We'll cut people in power some slack, but the poor, the non-white, the powerless? Their claim to being victimized is often suspect.
Whatever the truth of Ferguson, discussing Brown's taste in music won't reveal it.