Over the past few weeks, those reading the news in the United States have been confronted with two entirely different accounts of events in Ferguson, Missouri. In the first version, an unarmed man with his hands up was shot by police. In the second, a large, domineering man physically struck a smaller police officer until the officer, in fear for his life, shot his attacker.
Two such narratives can only take hold in an environment in which authority is not trusted. And indeed, in some countries the legal authorities have little to do with any actual justice. The Torah tells us, in this week’s reading, both that laws must be enforced rather than simply existing in a book, and that the leaders of a city must be dedicated to the welfare of each individual.
Our reading begins: “Judges and officers you shall put in all your gates” [Deut. 16:18], referring to each city. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki says that the officers are not mere bureaucrats, but must use “rods and straps” as necessary to force people to accept the judgment of the judges. This, of course, could be a recipe for tyranny.
The counterbalance is found at the end of our reading this week. There we learn that the elders of the city are obligated to look out for the welfare of every individual, even a visitor. When a person is found dead outside a city, its elders must come to the site and declare “our hands did not spill this blood, and our eyes did not see [him]” [21:7]. Rashi asks, “could we imagine that the elders of the court are murderers? Rather, [this means that] ‘we did not see him and let him leave without food and without escort.'”
Ferguson is the result of a breakdown in trust between the authorities and the people whom they are supposed to serve, a breakdown which is sadly replicated across the country. A veteran police officer (and Professor of Homeland Security) from Los Angeles touched off a firestorm of criticism when he dared to say that the middle of a violent riot is not the ideal time to confront a police officer, and that approaching an officer aggressively is a bad idea. Despite acknowledging that officers can engage in bullying and even criminal behavior — and saying that these should be challenged via appropriate channels — he was widely characterized as an advocate for dictatorship, a police state.
What his critics do not realize is that denying officers any authority “on site” is advocating for anarchy. Officers in Ferguson did not show up in armored vehicles because they wanted to play with their overgrown toys, but because stores were being looted, cars were being burned, and they were facing bottles, Molotov cocktails and even bullets. The public order is not preserved by letting every miscreant have his way.
There must be a balance. The leaders of a city must be interested in the public good, and every individual must respect the law, or expect to face “rods and straps” until he does. That is the lesson of our reading, and as current events demonstrate, it is every bit as apt today as it was when the Torah was given. Human nature has not changed.
We are fortunate today to live, for the most part, in countries where the leaders of each city and nation are elected, and can be voted out if they do not serve the public interest. In such a system, appropriate legal methods exist to challenge and correct abuses when they happen. It is the obligation of every individual to observe the law, use the law to challenge its abuses, and try to change it where necessary — not to “take matters into our own hands” or encourage the anarchists among us.
I agree with your message. But the reality is that all local police have been armed with military equipment. (as well at the post office, NASA, and other people we don’t normally think of as police/military organizations.) Why is the real question. I think the answer is that they are looking to provoke the common man into starting something and also that they know that as they continue to take away freedoms and act like dictators, that sooner rather than later there will be citizens in the streets greatly objecting to the way things are going. A lot of prayer and guidence needed, especially for Jews. America has been great, but historically, the more we rise and prosper, the greater the fall and destruction. Everyone should be aware of what is going on around them and make plans for safety. Remember the foggy reality of Germany and the results. Shalom
I find this useful but unnecessarily equivocal. African Americans, and young males in particular, are not safe from rogue law enforcement in this country. No “appropriate legal methods” exist to protect the specific real young man on the street. It is far more dangerous to be black in America than to be anything else. And anarchy is not a fair description of the political process which includes taking to the streets under such circumstances.
Unfortunately, it’s not really so simple anymore. Military equipment purchased with Homeland Security grants and a U.S. Department of Defense program provides police departments with “free” armored personnel carriers, flash bang grenades and other incendiary devices, military-grade weapons, and military clothing. Throughout the country, police have become militarized. Once known as “peace” officers, they walked a beat in their light blue uniforms, making their rounds, interacting with people in the local community. Today, the color of their uniforms is dark blue or black, which in human psychology connotes authority and force; more commanding and less friendly. Now they are known as “law enforcement” officers. The change in terms is telling.
Where the old municipal police mission was to protect and serve the public, the new attitude regards the public as wild and dangerous; potential enemies who may harm the police. This is the mindset of the soldier on the battlefield. In the military, the mission is to kill or capture the enemy, not to serve and protect. Militarizing the police has changed the institution. Police protection is now paramount, and the police are much more trigger-happy in response to any threat they perceive to themselves. Peaceful protests can quickly escalate into violent riots when the police perceive a threat to themselves and bring out the artillery.
The nature of policing has changed. “Victimless” crimes, those not involving any actual victim, consume more and more of their time. Unlike traditional crime, in which a real victim comes forward â€” a person who has been defrauded, or robbed, or assaulted â€” there are no victims in victimless crimes. And if the “victims” won’t present themselves, then their “assailants” must be hunted down in some other way. That “other way” necessarily involves entrapment, paid informants, spying and monitoring, profiling, and the like.
Not trusting authority? A breakdown in trust? Whatever you wish to call it, enforcing bad laws with warrior cops is unlikely to promote social peace and harmony.
Remember the spiders of Jericho….
Thank you for your thoughts on this very sad occurrence. My thought that I would like to share is this: since the young man involved has been killed, only the policeman involved knows the truth. WHY has he not been made to share the truth of this matter with us? Why do we waste countless hours and emotions trying to figure out ‘who dunnit’, when the police officer and whomever was with him could relate the facts. Surely police officers would not lie. Yes, all need to obey our laws, but I am concerned that there is police brutality and it is almost always with the African American people. This is what needs to stop.
Thank you rabbi. So true: leave Torah instruction, create chaos. Hashem’s rules can’t be bent without seriuos consequences. Ruth Nussbaum
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