Death Breeds Death in July of 2016

Guns at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, Photo by Amy Cools May 2014I’m sitting here tonight with a heart that’s sinking lower and lower. Two young men needlessly died this week, and it appears that one at least died with no real provocation at all. And tonight, four police officers (at least) were murdered just a little while ago, and many others wounded, at a protest held for those two young men.

On Tuesday, July 5th, Alton Sterling was wrestled to the ground by two police officers in response to a report that he was brandishing a gun in front of a convenience store where he often hung out selling CDs and videos. As the two officers pinned him down, still struggling a bit, one shouted something about a gun, then shot Alton many times in the chest. Alton died. The next day, his teenage son sobbed his heart out on TV.

On Wednesday, July 6th, Philando Castile had just gotten a birthday haircut and gone grocery shopping with his girlfriend and her daughter, when he was pulled over for a broken taillight. According to his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds, the officer ordered Philando to produce his license. Between Philando and Diamond, they told the officer that Philando carried a gun but had a permit to do so. As Philando reached for his back pocket, the officer shot him several times and he died. Diamond’s four year old daughter watched it all from the back seat.

Then just a little while ago, on this Thursday evening of July 7th, 2016, two snipers fired at police officers providing security at a protest in downtown Dallas, Texas. Four officers died, eleven officers were injured, and one civilian woman was wounded while shielding her children from the gunfire. And at the time I finish this piece, the standoff with at least one sniper continues.

What a hard evening this is, after such a hard week. What suffering and ugliness. So many shot and killed, these after so many others just this year in this country. I hate guns, personally. I never like holding one. I did try some informal target shooting with family a few years ago, and found I was a decent shot. But the experience did nothing for me emotionally after the initial fun of winning a little contest, and I was glad to have that gun leave my hands. Holding power over life and death like that makes me unhappy.

And I never identified with gun culture, though I’m familiar with it, mostly through some extended family. If the gun culture people are right, all of these people should be alive right now: everyone would be deterred from using their guns knowing that the others are also packing. Or, good guys with guns would have stopped bad guys with guns. Yet here are all these dead people, none of them ‘bad’ as far as we know. They were all some mixture of good and bad like the rest of us, surely, whatever we take those terms to mean. The shooters were not stopped by anyone, good or bad, and the first two young were shot because they had guns, and probably also because they were black. Double whammy, as the Black Panthers realized: for all the hue and cry over First Amendment rights, the moment that black people exercise them, the image of the armed patriot breaks down. Perhaps Alton showed some poor judgment here and there in the events that led up to his death. But as far as we can tell right now, he was not particularly more ‘bad’ than most people I know, at least, than most people, myself included, are and have been at times. Perhaps he did brandish a gun to make a man pestering him for money go away. Whatever. Open carry people do the same, flaunting their guns to deter others from messing with them. Most don’t get shot and killed for that. And every one of us, I think would instinctively struggle if someone tackled us to the ground, especially if we didn’t know why. Philando, apparently, did everything right, except obey the officer’s conflicting instructions in the right order. A split-second decision that any of us could make. And all of those officers killed and wounded in Dallas: we have no evidence that any of them did anything wrong, and we do know they perform an often thankless job doing the hard work dealing with our social dysfunction that most of us aren’t willing to do.

Here’s the common thread in all these killings: every person who fired shots thought that would solve a problem. All they did was create heartbreak and set us even more against one another. Anger, fear, vengeance, and self-righteousness will run amok. Perhaps we’ll listen to each other this time around, unlike the hundreds of times we’ve done nothing after mass shootings and police killings (by and of, though mostly by).

I don’t know what else to say. What a heartbreaking waste and morass of suffering. Like all of you, I’ll wrestle with all of this for a long time to come, especially as more details come out about these shootings. At this moment, I hear the helicopters whirl over the protesters in downtown Oakland from my apartment in neighboring Chinatown, as this city of protest and activism takes to the streets and blocks the freeway. I worry more violence may erupt. And I feel pretty sure of one thing: I can’t imagine ever wanting to carry a gun.

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Sources and inspiration:

4 Police Officers Dead After Shooting in Downtown Dallas: 3 Dallas officers, 1 DART officer confirmed killed in sniper fire following protest, police officials say. By NBC 5 Staff, Thu July 7, 2016. NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth.

Alton Sterling shooting: Homeless man made 911 call, source says. By Joshua Berlinger, Nick Valencia and Steve Almasy, 9:21 PM ET, Thu July 7, 2016,

McLaughlin, Eliott C. Woman streams aftermath of fatal officer-involved shooting, 11:20 PM ET, Thu July 7, 2016,

Minn. governor says race played role in fatal police shooting during traffic stop. 11:30 PM July 7, 2016, by Michael E. Miller, Wesley Lowery and Lindsey Bever.

O.P. Recommends: Make it Stop, a Boston Globe Piece on Banning Assault Weapons

Assault rifle, image CC0 Public Domain, no attribution required, via PixabayI came across the link to this article on Leiter Reports, one of my go-to forums for news and ideas in the philosophy world, by Brian Leiter. Thanks for the share, Brian!

The Boston Globe editorial ‘Make it Stop‘ contains statistics on deaths inflicted by assault rifle, a list of senators who block gun control reform, and an essay on modern gun culture and how much has changed since the passage of the Second Amendment. You may find it helpful if you believe, as I do, that we Americans need to change some of our policies and attitudes about guns.

I believe a ban or serious restriction on assault weapons not only would save some lives, it would show how much we value the lives of our fellow Americans. And even if a ban on assault weapons fails to stop mass shootings since they may still be acquired illegally, I believe that signaling our moral commitment to protecting innocent lives, to each other and to the world, is a worthy goal in and of itself. Especially given that there’s no good reason for most civilians to own assault rifles that I can see. They give us no significant protection in case our own government turns tyrannical (the most paranoid among us think it already has) since those who promote Second Amendment literalism tend to be those who vote to keep our military and our police forces among the largest and most powerful in the world, the most well-equipped, and the most omnipresent. And for those who insist their rights to their fun little gun hobby takes precedence over all… well, I question their priorities.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

The Value of People’s Lives Versus Our Love of Stuff

The more thuggy-minded among us seem to be taking the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case as cultural validation of their ‘tough-guy’, violence-glorifying, trigger-happy, vigilante mindset, as evidenced by some of the reactions I’ve seen.

And it’s not just the culture of violence that’s being celebrated by so many that concerns me. Racism permeates this case, from the circumstances that led to the original confrontation, to the killing itself, to the conduct of the court case, to the public’s perception of it all. It’s all-important we confront the issue of racism and figure out how to solve the problem, and there are countless passionate and thoughtful people taking this on right now. Here, however, I’d like to address another little-discussed American prejudice exemplified by this case and by the controversy surrounding it.


George Zimmerman may have been suspicious of Trayvon Martin simply because he hadn’t seen him before and he fit the description of burglars recently in the neighborhood, or Zimmerman may have profiled Martin as a criminal just because he’s a malicious racist. No one can read his mind, and he may not even know his own; we can only base our judgments of his motivations on our interpretation of the evidence. Since race was a factor in this case and racism has long been endemic in American culture, this has been among the hottest subjects of debate from the outset. But there’s another assumption implied in the public discourse that I wish was also a prominent part of the discussion. Even if Zimmerman really thought that the young man he saw might be a burglar, even if he knew for certain that he was one, why would chasing him down with a gun, provoking a potentially deadly confrontation, be justified in the first place? Since there had been burglaries reported in Zimmerman’s neighborhood prior to the Martin killing, Zimmerman and his defenders claim Zimmerman’s sole motive in pursuing and confronting Martin was to protect the community. Other more enthusiastic Zimmerman defenders try to make the point that Martin was a troublemaker, implying that if Martin had committed property and/or drug crimes before, Zimmerman’s suspicions and actions are somehow validated. Perhaps they see these rumors about Martin’s past as evidence that he was probably given to acting like a stereotypical troublemaker or criminal? But, again, even if Zimmerman has good reason to suppose that the young man he saw was a burglar or a petty criminal, why would this, in any way, justify the actions he took that night?

It seems to be that Americans are so obsessed with property rights, are so attached to and in love with the stuff we own, that we assume that anyone who messes with it is ‘asking for it’: deserving of physical harm and even death.  Another controversial case, of a man who picked up a knife and chased down a man for stealing his car radio , killing him, then being excused on the basis of ‘Stand Your Ground’ legislation, provides another telling example of this common American attitude. The controversy over the latter case, it’s true, does include more dismay over the fact that a man lost his life over the comparatively minor infraction of stealing such non-essential luxury items as radios. And the stabber’s argument, that he feared for his life because the thief swung a bag of radios at him, appears ludicrous to most, myself included.

To be clear, there are times when theft can mean life-or-death to the victim of it, such as horse-stealing in the frontier days when a horse was essential to one’s livelihood, or when someone’s life-saving drugs or medical equipment is stolen. In this sort of case, there is much more justification for aggressive defense from thieves. But I’m quite certain such cases are relatively rare. And, of course, there’s armed robbery, which is different, because in this sort of situation the thief is the one who first introduced the life-threatening element to the situation. I would agree there’s much more justification for self-defense here. But, when you consider two important pieces of evidence, that widespread gun ownership does not correlate world-wide with low rates of gun deaths (as deterrence theories would predict), and that most people, in conditions of stress, are terrible shots and often mistakenly hit innocent people, it seems clear that avoiding confrontation, if possible, is more often the way to preserve the lives of everyone involved. But, we do have a strong instinct for self-preservation and for defending the lives of our loved ones, and I argue, the right to do so, so self-defense cases such as these are not what I’m talking about here.

I’m talking about the very idea that it’s okay for people to defend their non-essential property in such a way that someone might be killed as a result. If evidence was presented that the burglaries in Zimmerman’s neighborhood resulted in a life-threatening situation because of the thieves, we can place this in the frontier-horse-stealing category. Same would go for the second case, if we found out that there was some crazy science-fiction scenario going on where the radio in the man’s car was the one thing that kept him alive. Now, no-one, myself included, would argue that thieves should be allowed to go on stealing to their heart’s content, unmolested by anyone. They should be captured, put on trial, made to pay restitution, and jailed if that’s what it takes to protect others from being preyed on. We rely on our police force rather than vigilantes to make sure people are forced to take responsibility for their actions, so that the protectors of society are well-trained to preserve human life whenever possible, and are publicly accountable if they abuse their power. (As we’ve seen with some historically corrupt police forces, such as the LAPD, we sometimes need to do a much better job at keeping them accountable. Most police officers, however, I think are in fact honorable and do care about the well-being of their communities. But we don’t hear about the good ones in the news, just the bad ones, so many have a distorted view of the police community as a whole.)

I hope the DOJ does prosecute Zimmerman, as the NAACP is urging, for the very reason that Zimmerman took it on himself to go out and chase down a man he suspected of stealing, with a gun at his side. This was a grown man, who should have been old enough to know better, who made decisions that resulted in a minor’s death. Zimmerman disregarded the instructions of the police, our trained and accountable public representatives, not to confront anyone. He thought that his own private evaluation of the situation was more important than other considerations, and it appears to me that he placed Martin’s, his own, and potentially, innocent passers-by’s lives at risk because he thought that some stuff being stolen justified his doing so. And not enough people, it seems to me, are willing to question this one aspect of Zimmerman’s whole mess of unjustified assumptions.

But, sadly, Americans as a whole are just too obsessed with stuff, and so much so that we’re not likely to consider whether getting and keeping the stuff we want is worth the cost to others. (I can’t speak for other cultures as well as I can for my own, perhaps we’re not unique in this sort of perverted set of priorities. Some cultures tolerate or promote killing to preserve their own honor, for example.) It’s not only these ‘stand your ground’ cases. We all thoughtlessly consume products that we know or suspect are made in conditions where the workers are treated horribly and work in dangerous, even deadly, circumstances. We buy our cheap fashions and chat on our smartphones, never demanding that companies that make these things improve their factory conditions and stop polluting, and even worse, keep giving our tacit consent to the whole system by pouring our consumer dollars into it without a murmur. I just went and checked right now in my underwear drawer, and confirmed that some panties I bought were indeed made in Bangladesh, even though I have several pairs I started making and set aside. Sewing underwear is tedious, and it was so much easier to just run out a buy a few cheap pairs. I bought them as thoughtlessly and innocently, American-style, as anyone else, even though I should know better. I’ve been an indie fashion designer for years and decided I didn’t want to be part of the mainstream fashion industry after my research revealed that cheap fashion is among the most polluting, wasteful, and human-rights-violating industries in the world, worse than coal, I’d argue. But there it is, I bought those panties anyway.

I’m not making the point that buying a smartphone or panties made in Bangladesh is like gunning a young man down. I’m making the point that perhaps we Americans, indeed, all human beings a little too obsessed with stuff, need to reassess our priorities. I’m making the point that our attitude about stuff, that we are entitled to have as much as we want and can afford, has led us to make some very misguided moral judgments. I think it’s made us too blind to the various ways in which our love of stuff, from everyday purchasing of goods we suspect but don’t know are made in miserable sweatshops, to the well-phrased philosophical argument that there’s an essential link between property rights and liberty, have made us thoughtlessly accept some things we shouldn’t accept. Whether we think we can or can’t condemn Zimmerman because we think he’s a racist or lawless vigilante, I think we absolutely should condemn his and all of our attitudes that place the acquisition and protection of our stuff as more important that the lives and safety of our fellow human beings. Trayvon Martin was not, arguably, only a victim of racism and vigilantism: he may also be a victim of our love of stuff.