Are Americans Too Passive?

Ben Carson and the Cult of First Responders

Dr. Ben Carson rocked the presidential campaign TV circus by suggesting the victims of the Roseburg, Oregon, shooting were too passive in responding to the lunatic gunman who shot and killed his writing professor and eight classmates. Carson received derision from the left and from liberals like Chris Matthews; on the right, he was defended by Bill O’Reilly and others.

This came in the midst of a growing national political struggle between a Black Lives Matter movement and a Blue Lives Matter movement. Given this struggle and the fact Carson is African American, his comments on passivity in the face of outrage and violence raises some interesting questions.

Does Carson have a point concerning citizen passivity in the Oregon shooting? Does our addiction to infotainment media and fantasy encourage passivity among American citizens in the real world? Have we as a people become too soft and too reliant on the police, their SWAT teams and all their military equipment and tactics? In Amsterdam, a port city where marijuana and prostitution are legal and where there’s a long history of dealing with exotic temptations, a Dutch psychiatrist once told me that the Dutch mother teaches her child that he or she has an interior locus of control to engage with all the temptation. In this light, do Americans more and more rely on the various exterior loci of control, like police, courts and prison? In the post-911 climate of demagogic fear we live in, have ordinary citizens handed over too much power and authority to what has become deceptively known as “first responders”?

What exactly does the term first responder mean? The men on United Flight 93 over Pennsylvania who shared glances and signals and said “Let’s roll!” were not cops or military. They were the real first responders, citizens who chose to respond instead of sitting passively in their seats accepting their fates. The same for the three Americans on the French train; they chose to take a risk and to act. (Note: Michel Chossudovsky claims the United 93 incident never happened, since what we supposedly know of the “Let’s roll!” story hinged on cellphone contact with the plane in the air, and such connections were spotty in 2001. He argues it was a propaganda narrative to inspire the War On Terror.)

When people refer these days to first responders, they’re talking about men and women in uniform. Semantically, the term has come to mean public, institutional employees of the state tasked to respond to emergencies, especially crime, terrorist acts and lunatic gunmen. Firemen are first responders in this sense. So are ambulance medics.

But what about the person who uses a garden hose to put out the flames in the early stages of a house fire or the good Samaritan who applies a tourniquet to an accident victim or does CPR on a citizen down on the sidewalk whose heart has stopped? These are true first responders.

Ben Carson, of course, was talking about something much more risky and frightening than helping an accident victim. He was talking about what a Vietnam vet infantryman friend of mine liked to say: “When he hears gunfire, the sane person will run the other away. The infantryman, on the other hand, is trained to run toward the gunfire.” Carson would have us assume some of this infantryman’s code. Or there’s the mythic infantry sergeant who drives his men forward by hollering, “C’mon! You wanna live forever?” Carson concedes that in the horrific confusion of a small classroom setting rushing the gunman would likely mean someone would be shot, maybe die — but the larger group could not be systematically executed and lives would be saved. No one, not even Dr. Carson, can predict what they would do in such a situation. Also, in the Oregon shooting, an Iraq vet named Chris Mintz did, indeed, rush the shooter. But no one followed him, and he was shot seven times. On the floor riddled with bullets, he reportedly said up to the gunman: “It’s my son’s birthday.” He miraculously lived to tell of it.

                Surgeons as Top Guns

I recently had emergency gall bladder removal surgery. During my four-days in the hospital, I realized that surgeons are the top guns of the hospital. Internal medicine specialists do great detective work figuring out what one’s problem is, but there’s always a lot of ambiguity: “Well, it could be this, but, then, it might be that. We’ll know more when we do more tests. Then we’ll decide whether to do this — or we could do that.” For the surgeon, there is no ambiguity: a surgeon cuts to the chase, pun intended. Once the decision to operate is made, a cool head and precision become the name of the game.

My surgeon, an immigrant from India, spent an hour looking around in my gut with his nifty laparoscopic equipment. As he told me later, there was too much biological muck obstructing the camera for real accuracy. If instead of the duct from the gall bladder, he snipped one of three ducts from the liver, he would have given me a life-threatening problem. So he gave up on the fancy gear and reverted to the tried-and-true six-inch scalpel incision. This allowed him clear visual access, a better degree of certainty and a chance to irrigate and clean out some of the biological “sludge.” Such are the acting-in-the-moment, life-and-death decisions a surgeon must make. The good ones deserve the greatest respect. The surgeon of a friend of mine insisted on using the laparoscopic method to the end, snipped the wrong thing and sent her into a cascading episode of problems. So making precise decisions doesn’t mean making the correct decision.

The Oregon shooting, Ben Carson and a large officer brutally takes down a young black girl over a cellphoneThe Oregon shooting, Ben Carson and a large officer brutally takes down a young black girl over a cellphone

Carson is apparently a master of neurosurgery. That credibility, however, doesn’t mean much when it comes to politics, which is a realm rife with ambiguity and paradox. His rush-the-shooter scenario raises, for me, a whole Pandora’s Box of problems, some of them involving the police. There’s no issue with honorable, compassionate and reasonable cops. We need good cops. The problem is poor training and inadequate supervision, loosing pumped-up narcissists with outsized egos on the public and the institutional encouragement of adrenaline-based lunatic behavior. Then, of course, there’s personal and institutional racism.

One of the troubling aspects of the manhunt for the Boston marathon bombers was the way some SWAT cops felt a need to bellow abusively — in Iraq, it was called fear-up — at citizens ordered from their homes with hands-up. If people lowered their arms lackadaisically, they were screamed at. We must assume this is so, under the influence of fear and adrenaline, these SWAT cops don’t shoot innocent civilians. But what they’re doing is treating everyone as the enemy until proven otherwise. That’s arguably quite understandable. The problem comes when this becomes a habitual posture toward all citizens not wearing Blue, leading to the poor-beleaguered-cop syndrome.

For gun-lovers who claim they want to protect us all by arming schools teachers and college students, the adrenaline-intoxicated SWAT phenomenon is the most potent argument against arming such people. In the Virginia Tech massacre, a student carrying a pistol considered going on his own manhunt for the gunman but prudently chose not to: He figured a man lurking the halls with a pistol had a very good chance of being gunned down by SWAT cops.

As an African American, Carson should know what it means to be black in American history. Under slavery and Jim Crow, the individual and collective agency to respond against violence — a posture he would have mass shooting victims assume — was violently suppressed. Slave insurrections were dealt with severely. Still, Carson says preposterous things like if slaves had been allowed to own guns, they could have revolted. He’s also said if Jews had been armed in Nazi Germany they might have risen up against the Nazis. You have to wonder how such a brilliant surgeon can be so historically and politically obtuse. Is he trying to fool us or is he just fooling himself? Such thinking is fantastical; but, then, Republicans would have no platform without fantasy thinking. It shows how deeply indoctrinated he is in Christian, right-wing ideologies. In the struggle between Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter, Carson is more “blue” than “black.”

               People Power and The Man With the Gun

Here’s where Carson’s call for aggressive citizen first-responding to violence becomes tricky. What if the perpetrator of violence is a police officer? In too many instances these days acts of questionable or inexcusable violence are carried out by our men and women in Blue.

(Time out: For anyone so inclined, let’s be clear: I am not advocating assaulting the police. As a professional “shooter” with a camera, what I am advocating is a political variant of Carson’s rush the shooter rule: I’d like to see more impromptu, collective civil disobedience, especially with cameras, in the face of police violence.)

The recent case of a beefed-up school police officer in Columbia, SC, brutalizing a 16-year-old black girl over a cell phone is a good example. Employing a variant of the Carson Rule of response, all the students in the class could have stood up and made their displeasure known. The officer would be expected to make threats of arrest or further brutality. He might even hurt someone else. But logic suggests numbers would make him change his attitude and give him some humility. In the end, the officer was fired. The county sheriff decided, maybe reluctantly, that in this case Black Lives trumped Blue Lives.

Confrontation at a Brazilian gold pit-mine, by Sebastiao SalgadoConfrontation at a Brazilian gold pit-mine, by Sebastiao Salgado

Sebastiao Salgado, the famous Brazilian documentary photographer, captured this kind of tense power equation in an incredible photograph. It’s at a massive gold pit-mine in Brazil, and an armed, threatening police officer or security guard is checked by human numbers. A worker has hold of the barrel of the gunman’s rifle. He could shoot the guy, but he knows he would be quickly overwhelmed, beaten and tossed into the pit to his death. You can see it in his eyes, in his body language. As the master Henri Cartier-Bresson defined it, Salgado has photographically captured a decisive moment. A record of 1/500th of a second in time, the image expresses volumes about the shifting politics of a single man with a gun at odds with a collective of determined individuals willing to take a bullet (or some lesser suffering) for the good of the group.

The struggle between the Black Lives Matter movement and the Blue Lives Matter movement is heating up. Reactionary voices are weighing in on the Blue side. Bill O’Reilly and other Fox commentators, FBI Director James Comey and presidential candidate Governor Chris Christie have all expressed the Blue Lives Matter line, which distills down to a plea that society is focusing too much on the shortcomings and crimes of the police, that beleaguered thin blue line that separates us from anarchy. But, then, that state of envisioned anarchy too often involves the demonization of poor and African American people living in rotten conditions with little hope. It’s a tragically circular struggle. Bill O’Reilly, for example, rails almost every night against the Black Lives Matter movement and about “the real problem” — ie. blacks killing blacks in places like Chicago. His solution: Send in more cops! He never considers there could be a larger, historical social dysfunction that might be addressed to improve the situation.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates makes eloquently clear in his book Between the World and Me, there’s no going back to the days of passivity when historic black anger was tamped down by police oppression. It’s telling that the police station in Cleveland where the white cops who shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice were headquartered was called a Forward Operations Base or FOB — a term developed by US military occupiers in hostile neighborhoods in Iraq. More people need to realize the Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter struggle is a conversation — not a war.

That a brilliant African American neurosurgeon with simple-minded, “know nothing” politics is leading the Republican candidate pack only shows how absurd and novelty-based US politics has become. If Carson is good for anything, he’s someone unafraid to say controversial things. Whether or not he meant it metaphorically, his idea that citizens should stop being so passive when confronted with violence opens up a lot of room for discussion.