A reader named Leo Wong sent in this link to his collection of quotes from a book about American converts to Catholicism. I read it because I almost always like reading conversion stories, and learning what inspired people to change their way through life. Leo’s quotes are just that, quotes; they aren’t complete stories. But there were two that really stood out to me, despite my not being a Catholic. I offer them to spark conversation.
Here’s the first, from a black Catholic drama critic and writer named Theophilus Lewis:
[Zola's] leading characters [in the novel Lourdes] are Pierre, a young priest, and Marie, a crippled girl he is taking to the shrine for the cure. Here was a type of character I had never encountered before in fiction—people whose decisions were not pre-determined or colored by their desire for personal happiness. Pierre and Marie were the first Catholics I had ever met who made me at least partly understand what religious faith can mean in the lives of people, and for years they were the only Catholics I knew.…
People whose decisions were not pre-determined or colored by their desire for personal happiness. I have never thought of things that way — I mean, of the difference religious faith makes. Lewis is talking about real religious faith, though, not Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. I think this is a good way of discerning what is true religion from its counterfeit: if it compels you to do things because they are good, even if they don’t make you immediately happy.
It is lovely to reflect on the fact that Zola (whose portrait is above), who was such an enemy of Catholicism and of religion, in that dreary 19th century materialist way, played a role in the conversion to Catholicism of Theophilus Lewis.
Here’s the second, a line from a letter that Sophia Ripley, an antebellum feminist turned nun, wrote to Father Isaac Hecker. Ripley was a New England Transcendentalist who studied Dante at Brook Farm, a utopian community she founded with her husband:
I am without a doubt the only convert you and Dante have made between you.
Boy, do I get that. Many, many people read Dante and never become Catholic. If you are Orthodox and read Dante, you will, if my experience is any guide, be even more illuminated in your Orthodoxy, and maybe even confirmed in it, considering how the imaginative and mystical elements in Dante are so much more palpable in Orthodoxy than in contemporary Catholicism. Besides, the Divine Comedy is by no means an apologetic work. I believe that all Christians, of all churches, who engage with the work will find themselves drawn much closer to God and into the mystery of Christ.
If you want a good student’s introduction to the Divine Comedy by a leading conservative Presbyterian, buy Peter Leithart’s Ascent to Love. And here is C.S. Lewis in 1930, a year before his conversion to Christianity, writing about how Dante’s Paradiso, the third and final book of the Divine Comedy, affected him:
Afterward, Lewis described this experience to his friend Arthur Greeves:
“[Paradise] has really opened a new world to me. I don’t know whether it is
really very different from the Inferno (B. says it is as different as
chalk from cheese — heaven from hell, would be more appropriate!) or
whether I was specially receptive, but it certainly seemed to me that I had
never seen at all what Dante was like before. Unfortunately, the impression
is one so unlike anything else that I can hardly describe it for your
benefit — a sort of mixture of intense, even crabbed, complexity of
language and thought with (what seems impossible) at the very same time a
feeling of spacious gliding movement, like a slow dance, or like flying. It
is like the stars — endless mathematical subtility of orb, cycle, epicycle
and ecliptic, unthinkable & unpicturable yet at the same time the freedom
and liquidity of empty space and the triumphant certainty of movement. I
should describe it as feeling more important than any poetry I have ever
Lewis suggested that Greeves might try it in English translation, but
warned him “If you do, I think the great point is to give up any idea of
reading it in long stretches… instead, read a small daily portion, in
rather a liturgical manner, letting the images and the purely intellectual
conceptions sink well into the mind…. It is not really like any of the
things we know.”
Six months later, Lewis told Greeves he had visited Barfield again and they
had finished Paradise. “I think it reaches heights of poetry which you get
nowhere else; an ether almost too fine to breathe. It is a pity I can give
you no notion what it is like. Can you imagine Shelley at his most ecstatic
combined with Milton at his most solemn & rigid? It sounds impossible I
know, but that is what Dante has done.”
So, it is established that it is possible to read and to love and to understand the Divine Comedy and not to become a Catholic (or an Orthodox). Having said that, it is hard for me, personally, to imagine how reading Dante outside of Catholicism or Orthodoxy, you could remain so. I can’t say this clearly enough: the Divine Comedy is not an argument for the Catholic Church. It is not an “argument” for anything; it is a revelation. When I saw the Chartres cathedral for the first time, I experienced an overwhelming desire to become a part of the religious mind out of which something this staggeringly beautiful could arise. I thought, somehow, that it must be true, to be capable of producing such beauty. It was as if I had been hurtling through space, minding my own business, and stumbled too close to a black hole, and had been caught in its inescapable gravity.
I feel very much the same way about the Divine Comedy. It probably speaks more to my own limits than to anything real, but I don’t see how you walk away from the Commedia without an insatiable hunger to become a part of the kind of Christianity capable of producing such art. Obviously people do — Lewis did, Leithart did, Eliot did, and others — but I would not be capable of it.
Did art or literature convert you to a particular religion or religious tradition? Tell that story, please.
Nani Beraha mourns the fact that she will not have her mom’s candied yams this Thanksgiving. Her mother died from cancer in 2013. That first Thanksgiving without her, the family scattered for the holiday:
My dad ended up in Connecticut at the home of someone he’d never met, or met only once–my younger brother’s wife’s uncle. My dad was used to hosting holidays and when my mom died he became rather like a holiday orphan and shuffled where he could, his three married children divided by obligations to their married families. So after Thanksgiving last year he wrote us and said let’s all do it at my house again next year, together. And no one said much about it but it stayed the plan. My brothers, sisters-in-law, and even my younger brother’s in-laws said of course. And so did my mom’s parents. And her siblings and nieces and nephews. Everyone said yes, they’d like to have Thanksgiving together in my mother’s house. Without her. There will be 23 of us.
When my aunt and I were divvying up cooking responsibilities I volunteered to do the yams. I briefly considered taking them in an entirely different direction this year. I’m a peel-it-yourself, make-it-from-scratch kind of cook and I knew the yams my mom got came from a can and were then doctored by her diligent hands. But that idea quickly fizzled when I thought about what it would be like to eat Thanksgiving in my childhood home, with my family, with yams that were different on purpose. My aunt told me that she’d tried making my mom’s yams in the past using the exact same ingredients but could never get it right. Maybe because my mom never used recipes, and instead cooked by intuition, by taste. My younger brother confessed my mom had walked him through the steps one year but his yams fell terribly short of the real thing, too. I’m glad you’re going to make them this year, he told me.
Tonight, as I stood there in my kitchen emptying the sweetened juice out of those cans I had a flash of what it would have been like if I had yelped “but I don’t know how to make your yams yet!” as my mom lay dying in front of me. It was a ridiculous image, but somehow also fitting. Because what I really needed to ask her was how do I do anything without you? How am I supposed to raise my children without you? How can it be that your important, shining life will be reduced to the stories I tell them about you? How am I supposed to understand the world without you in it to analyze it with me, for me? And how am I supposed to continue being a person in this world without you? Maybe she might have been able to answer me about the yams, but I just held her hand instead.
Read the whole thing. Those candied yams carry the memory of a beloved mother, a sign of what was lost when she passed, and a reminder of her continuing presence among those who loved her.
Do you have a Thanksgiving dish like that in your family? I don’t, but I love hearing about those who do.
Last night at church I heard one of the most beautiful litanies I’ve ever heard. It’s an Orthodox hymn called an akathist. This one is called the Akathist of Thanksgiving. Many people mistakenly think it was written by Grigory Petroff, an Orthodox priest who died in the gulag, because it was found in his papers. In fact the author was Metropolitan Tryphon of Moscow, who wrote it in 1929, at the start of the second wave of extreme persecution of the Church by the Soviet regime (read this account of what that was like). Here is an excerpt of what we sang in church last night, on the eve of Thanksgiving:
Everlasting King, Thy will for our salvation is full of power. Thy right arm controls the whole course of human life. We give Thee thanks for all Thy mercies, seen and unseen. For eternal life, for the heavenly joys of the Kingdom which is to be. Grant mercy to us who sing Thy praise, both now and in the time to come. Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age.
I was born a weak, defenceless child, but Thine angel spread his wings over my cradle to defend me. From birth until now Thy love has illumined my path, and has wondrously guided me towards the light of eternity; from birth until now the generous gifts of Thy providence have been marvelously showered upon me. I give Thee thanks, with all who have come to know Thee, who call upon Thy name.
Glory to Thee for calling me into being
Glory to Thee, showing me the beauty of the universe
Glory to Thee, spreading out before me heaven and earth
Like the pages in a book of eternal wisdom
Glory to Thee for Thine eternity in this fleeting world
Glory to Thee for Thy mercies, seen and unseen
Glory to Thee through every sigh of my sorrow
Glory to Thee for every step of my life’s journey
For every moment of glory
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age
The dark storm clouds of life bring no terror to those in whose hearts Thy fire is burning brightly. Outside is the darkness of the whirlwind, the terror and howling of the storm, but in the heart, in the presence of Christ, there is light and peace, silence: Alleluia!
I see Thine heavens resplendent with stars. How glorious art Thou radiant with light! Eternity watches me by the rays of the distant stars. I am small, insignificant, but the Lord is at my side. Thy right arm guides me wherever I go.
Glory to Thee, ceaselessly watching over me
Glory to Thee for the encounters Thou dost arrange for me
Glory to Thee for the love of parents, for the faithfulness of friends
Glory to Thee for the humbleness of the animals which serve me
Glory to Thee for the unforgettable moments of life
Glory to Thee for the heart’s innocent joy
Glory to Thee for the joy of living
Moving and being able to return Thy love
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age
Read the whole thing, or even better, pray it today. And remember that it was written by a bishop who was watching churches destroyed, icons and holy things defiled and burned, and priests, monks, nuns, and faithful lay Christians rounded up and sent to the gulag. The Orthodox faithful in Russia sang this akathist even as they were going to their doom.
Think about that.
One of the things I am most thankful for on this day is the gift of faith, and the gift of my little country mission church.
That is the surveillance video of the playground in Ohio where police shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice. Someone called 911 to say that Rice had been pointing a pistol at people on the playground. The pistol was an AirSoft pellet gun, a realistic looking replica of a semiautomatic pistol. The orange safety cap had been removed. According to Reuters:
A patrol car pulls up to the gazebo, and two officers jump out and draw weapons. The view of the boy is obscured by the patrol car.
There is no audio on the video, but police said they told Rice to raise his hands three times before he reached for his pellet gun and was shot by an officer, police said. He died on Sunday.
Watch the video. Again, there is no audio, but how on earth can anybody order someone to raise his hands three times in two seconds? That’s how long it took from the time the police car stopped until Rice was lying on the ground, mortally wounded.
What you see is not always what you get, so we need to wait for the investigation. But this looks very, very bad for the Cleveland police. From the look of things on this video, that kid barely had time to react to the sudden appearance of a police car before he was on the ground with one or more bullets inside of him.
Here is surveillance video showing why someone called 911 on Rice. I can well imagine people on that playground being scared to death of a kid pointing a realistic-looking pistol at them. Had Rice not removed the orange safety cap, chances are nobody would have called the police, because they would have known it was a toy:
That said, there is virtually no time at all between the police car stopping and the officer shooting Tamir Rice. It’s hard to see what Rice was doing with his hands when the car stopped; maybe the police feared that he was about to shoot them. Still … two seconds? Really? This looks very, very wrong to me. In fact, this looks outrageous. I don’t blame people one bit for protesting this.
The cop’s last name is Loehmann. A pretty safe bet he’s white.
A reader posts:
I have a friend who works for one of the networks in the news division. Monday night we were at a game, and he kept checking his email. When asked, he said he was ‘race war to begin.’ And he said it with a certain amount of anticipation, as if to was a football on which he’d placed a bet.
Right now, the media is gorging itself on the Ferguson riots. If it bleeds it leads, and what better way to win those all-important ratings than watching a town burn itself to the ground? Bread and circuses, friends, bread and circuses…
Give it it a week. Ferguson will be yesterdays news and the media vultures will be onto the next scandal. A month from now, no one will remember and no one will care.
Another reader posted yesterday, “Ferguson is the Benghazi of the Left,” a formulation I think is brilliant. What does it mean? It means that for a certain sort of ideologue, a newsworthy event that presents a murky and complex combination of tragedy, stupidity, and fallibility so powerfully confirms a pre-existing narrative that it becomes an obsession. This obsession, which takes on a vivid emotional quality, means that all complicating factors, epistemological and otherwise, that complicate the narrative must be dismissed or suppressed. This obsession is stoked even further by the failure of most people in the country to share it, which, in the mind of the obsessives, only shows that a) there is a conspiracy to conceal the facts from the people, and/or b) the people are too morally corrupt to see what is plain to the ideologues and to share their rage.
The lack of popular outrage may serve as a feedback loop that only redoubles their commitment to pressing the narrative until everybody is sick of it. Even though there may legitimately be something important to the original story — something we ought to be discussing — most people will have dismissed the diehards as axe-grinding cranks.
Did you know you can get high on nutmeg? For true. Says The New York Times:
In the 1965 book, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” the activist describes purchasing it from inmates in a South Carolina prison, concealed in matchboxes, and stirring it into water. “A penny matchbox full of nutmeg had the kick of three or four reefers,” he wrote.
Toxicologists say that description is somewhat misleading, an overly romantic account of nutmeg’s generally unpleasant effects. It takes a fair amount of nutmeg — two tablespoons or more — before people start exhibiting symptoms. These can include an out-of-body sensation, but the most common are intense nausea, dizziness, extreme dry mouth, and a lingering slowdown of normal brain function. Dr. Gussow said nutmeg experimenters have compared it to a two-day hangover.
“People have told me that it feels like you are encased in mud,” said Dr. Edward Boyer, professor of emergency medicine and chief of the division of medical toxicology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. “You’re not exactly comatose, but you feel really sluggish. And your remembrance of events during this time period is incomplete at best.”
The main chemical culprit in nutmeg is called myristicin which forms naturally in the seeds (and in other plants, occurring in trace amounts in carrots). Myristicin belongs to a family of compounds with psychoactive potential that occasionally are used to make much stronger psychotropic drugs. It has been included in recipes for MMDA. And it is chemically related to another compound, safrole, also found in nutmeg, which is sometimes used in the synthesis of the street drug Ecstasy.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the natural compound acts like these synthetic drugs. “But a junior chemist might think that you are going to end up with a similar effect,” Dr. Boyer said. And he suspects that is one reason many of the poisoning cases seen in the United States involve teenage home experiments.
Teenage Home Experiment here. Let’s say you are a 17-year-old boy living in a residential high school in Natchitoches, Louisiana, and you and your friends are bored out of your minds. And let’s say that one of your friends has a copy of The Anarchist Cookbook, which has a few paragraphs in it about how you can get high on nutmeg. You and your buddy might be the kind of people who say, “Dude, you can buy that stuff at the supermarket.” And you might even be the kind of people who will ride their bikes through the rain to the Brookshire’s store after dinner, buy a box of McCormick’s ground nutmeg, and take it back to the dorm to eat.
If you’re me, you mix it with Equal to make it slightly more palatable. It tastes like spicy dirt. We must have eaten two or three teaspoons each, then sat around waiting to get high.
Finally we went to bed. It was a school night, after all.
Next morning my nutmeg buddy’s roommate shook me awake, telling me that the guy was really sick. I padded down the hall and found him curled up in his bed, miserable.
“I feel horrible,” he moaned.
“I don’t feel a thing,” I said. Then I fainted.
When I tried to stand up, I fainted again.
We both had to try to get ourselves together enough to go down to the dorm lobby for the school nurse to examine. I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror. My eyes were as glassy as they could possibly be. We walked through mud (that’s exactly what it felt like) down four flights of stairs, holding on to the railing as if we were on the deck of a ship in a storm.
“It’s a virus,” said the school nurse, and sent us to our rooms for the day.
I went to bed. When I woke up, it was midnight, and all the guys who had been in the room watching us eat the stuff were standing around waiting for me to come to. I had been asleep for 13 or 14 hours. I felt massively hung over. Not one bit of this experience was the least bit fun. We found out later that we had overdosed. As if we didn’t know.
The only lingering effects, though, were that for the next three days, every time I went to the bathroom, I basically peed Old Spice.
I could have been the Syd Barrett of the gifties! You kids be careful out there, helping your moms make those Thanksgiving pumpkin pies. Heh.
(Here’s the reference for the subject line, by the way.)
Damon Linker has a characteristically sharp piece about New York magazine’s 6000+ interview with an anonymous zoophile — in this case, a man whose fetish involves sex with a horse. Linker connects to my initial blog post about this thing, and shares my revulsion at what the magazine has done, and what it means:
[T]his is a very big deal, in cultural and moral terms. No, not the fact of bestiality, which (like incest) has always been with us, but the fact of an acclaimed, mainstream publication treating it as a matter of complete moral indifference.
As I said in my post, it’s not that this interview is going to make people heretofore disinclined to copulate with animals change their minds. It’s that a piece like this is a canary-in-the-coalmine cultural moment. Linker:
Why, then, is the New York interview a big deal? Because it’s perhaps the most vivid sign yet that, in effect, the United States (and indeed the entire Western world) is running an experiment — one with very few, if any, antecedents in human history. The experiment will test what happens when a culture systematically purges all publicly affirmed notions of human flourishing, virtue and vice, elevation and degradation.
But Linker says there are two problems with my analysis (and with the trad reaction in general). First, he says that we trads are wrong to blame relativism for this, saying that it’s more accurate to put the fault down to “an absolute ethic of niceness,” by which he means an increasing refusal to condemn, because that would be mean. I see what he’s saying here: it’s not that people affirm bestiality, but that they refuse to condemn it because hey, if that’s someone’s choice, who am I to judge?
(Of course we know from extensive sociological research that the Millennial generation, at least, can be quite judgmental on a number of topics. But the ones they suspend judgment on are matters of religion, and matters of sexuality. In those cases, niceness reigns.)
I take Damon’s point, but I think this is a distinction without much of a difference. If “niceness” is the ethical rule here, then how is that not de facto relativism?
Linker’s claim that disgust is not a sound basis for setting moral rules is harder to dismiss. When I was growing up in the 1970s, there were still a number of people who had visceral disgust at the sight of interracial couples. That has abated, thankfully, but it’s still present in some people. Same deal with gay couples. This is a case in which relativism is an important factor to consider in moral reasoning. It doesn’t mean disgust is irrelevant to our moral decisions; disgust can be a good general guide to right and wrong. But it does mean that disgust cannot be dispositive, and that we must look past our reactions of disgust and analyze the moral facts of a situation dispassionately. Seeing an 89-year-old man kissing his 26-year-old wife may prompt feelings of disgust, but it tells us nothing about the morality of an elderly man marrying a much younger woman.
But if disgust is not dispositive, and we are taught to believe there is no objective basis outside of consent — a very, very thin barrier — for deciding right and wrong, particularly in sexual matters, then the attitude the New York interviewer, and the editor who approved this interview, take towards the horse-screwer is completely understandable.
Linker’s second criticism of trads — that we may say, as I did, that our civilization is “galloping toward Gomorrah,” but in fact we do not know where this is headed — is a truism. Yes, we may turn this around, but on current trends, I’m not sure on what basis we do that. As Damon rightly says, we don’t have any precedent for running a society in which there is no commonly shared basis for determining right and wrong. Is emotivism and procedural liberalism a solid basis for sustaining a society and a civilization over the long run? I think not. Damon professes not to know, but I read in these lines radical doubt:
Can we do without a publicly affirmed vision of human flourishing? Fulfilling personal preferences (whatever they happen to be), seeking consent in all interactions, and abiding by the imperative of universal niceness — is that sufficient to bring happiness? Or will a world that tells us in a million ways that we are radically undetermined in our ends leave us feeling empty, lost, alone, unmoored, at sea, spiritually adrift?
Read the whole thing. It’s worthwhile. Let me say this again: the danger to society is not that a significant number of people are going to start having sex with animals. The danger comes from a society in which a significant number of people see no real justification for condemning those who have sex with animals. It is to concede that we are no different from animals.
Earlier this year, writing in the Jesuit journal America, psychologist Thomas McGovern wrote about the “lost generation” of young American Catholics. It’s a review of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith’s new book Young Catholic America, which is about how “emerging adult” Catholics are abandoning the faith in droves. McGovern writes:
Having taught psychology, religion and ethics at three public universities, I can report that a majority of the multigenerational and multiethnic students who took my courses self-identified as former Catholics. Evangelicals brought fervor to discussions and composed essays using biblical quotations and popular pulpit wisdom. With gratitude for an eye-opening semester, the Latter-Day Saints students gave me inscribed copies of their Book of Mormon. Others spoke of a vague spirituality enabling them to be “comfortable” in and with their lives. The Catholic students, as this book’s sub-title about “emerging adults” (i.e., ages 18 to 23) signals, were mostly out of faith and gone.
Young Catholic America describes the results of the National Study of Youth and Religion, conducted by telephone surveys and personal interviews for three waves (2002-3, 2005, 2007-8) of a longitudinal study. The respondents were 13 to 17 years old at the beginning and 18 to 23 at the last data collection point. Parents, pastors and ministers of religious education and higher education and secondary school educators will find here thought-provoking sociology-of-religion explanations for how, when and why this sample of young people became who they are and what they don’t believe and don’t do any more.
Baby boomer readers may gasp at the historical analysis of their parenting summarized in Chapter 1. Centrifugal forces from 1970 to 2000 generated increasing pluralism in American thinking, labeled by these authors as a “vulgar version of post-modernism.” (One of my true-believer science editors labeled postmodernism the “anthrax of the intellect.”) With truth and standards fragmented in the larger culture—the center did not hold—its effects exacerbated values conflicts within the church in the United States. The authors declare at fault “the inability, and sometimes unwillingness of the parents of the Catholic and ex-Catholic emerging adults we studied—and those half a generation earlier—to model, teach and pass on the faith to their children. At precisely the same moment, older, more communal, taken-for-granted forms of religious practice and catechesis were eroding and sometimes collapsing in American Catholicism.”
McGovern goes on to say this is not just a Catholic thing. He speaks of research showing that undergraduates in the liberal arts are abysmal at articulating anything they’ve learned from their college educations — “a university community’s core faith.” About Catholics, McGovern says Smith et al.’s research shows:
According to this study, three factors foster increased religiosity. First, teens must have strong bonds to religiously committed and supportive family and friends. Second, beliefs must be internalized; faith ought to be a person’s most useful compass for daily decisions, despite myriad secular guides that saturate their life experiences. Third, as Aristotle noted about civic virtue, faith’s principles must be learned first and then behaviorally practiced often.
It makes sense that this must be true for virtue, period, not just religious virtue. This, of course, leads us to philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, which concerns, broadly, the fate of a society and civilization in which the concept of virtue as a binding and authoritative code barely exists.
I will link here to that infamous New York magazine interview with the zoophile, whom I’ll call Mr. Ed, but I want to reiterate the strongest warnings. There are no graphic, NSFW images attached to it. But it is incredibly disturbing. I think it’s important for those with strong stomachs to read, so you will get an idea of a) how utterly vile this man’s practices are, and more importantly, b) how he uses the all-too-familiar rhetoric of emotivism, tolerance, and understanding to justify his preferences.
Sooner or later, it’s going to be the Benedict Option, or chaos. If you will not have God, you had better pay your respects to Mr. Ed.
Conor Friedersdorf — who, by the way, has been highly critical of police tactics in general — says that one reason Officer Wilson was not indicted was because of inconsistent, even contradictory, statements by witnesses. He quotes the statements from the grand jury documents, then concludes:
I haven’t yet had time to go through all the documents released by St. Louis County, but based on these witness statements, I can see why the grand jury would have reason to doubt whether Officer Wilson committed a crime. At least some witnesses corroborate his story. Some that don’t contradict one another. If the witnesses above all testified in a criminal trial, it’s hard to imagine that a jury would fail to have reasonable doubts about what really happened. There are hundreds of pages to sift through that the grand jury saw. In coming days, we’ll probably discover at least some eyewitness testimony contradicted by physical evidence. But it seems all but certain that we’ll never know exactly what happened that day.
One thing that is not in dispute among the witnesses, says Conor, is that Michael Brown leaned into the window of the police car, and that there was a struggle with the cop:
There’s no way to know for sure what Officer Wilson said to Michael Brown, or what the young man said back. But witnesses saw him leaning into the window of the police car. They saw some kind of struggle. They heard a gunshot fired and they saw Michael Brown start running away.
What’s really in dispute is what happened next.
The autopsy showed that Wilson fired a shot from inside his police car, striking Brown’s hand as it was inside the car. An independent pathologist in San Francisco analyzed the evidence and told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the physical evidence indicates that Brown was reaching for Wilson’s gun.
So it seems indisputable that a suspect reached into a police officer’s car as the officer had a pistol in his hand. If you were the cop, what would you have suspected the suspect was trying to do in that case?
If you don’t want to be shot by police, don’t stick your hand into the window of an officer’s car and try to grab his weapon. Can we at least concede that this was an extraordinarily stupid thing for Michael Brown to have done? That does not mean that what followed on the street was justified (nor does it follow that it was not justified). But it does mean that both the physical evidence and eyewitness statements support the contention that the initial shot that hit Michael Brown was justified.
Unless you believe that criminal suspects should be able to thrust their hands into the cars of police officers and try to grab their guns without being shot.
What would you have done had you been the cop in that situation?
As Conor indicates, the eyewitness statements are inconsistent, but the one most damning to Ofc. Wilson — from a friend of Brown’s — is very far from anything any of the other eyewitnesses saw.
Of course none of this means that black people aren’t treated badly by cops in general, or that cops in general are too quick to use lethal force. But neither of those beliefs make Wilson’s actions in this specific case criminal, or even worthy of indictment. Keep an eye on what the story is, based on the evidence, not what you think the story should be. That’s what the grand jury of nine whites and three blacks had to make its decision on. From The New York Times:
Independent legal experts said it was impossible to analyze the grand jury decision without studying the transcripts of the testimony as well as the police reports, autopsies and forensic evidence that might shed light on what Mr. Brown was doing in his final seconds: whether he was menacing the officer or, as a friend who was with him said, trying to surrender.
Some people claiming to be eyewitnesses said Mr. Brown was shot in the back, Mr. McCulloch [the county prosecutor -- RD] said, but later changed their stories when autopsies found no injuries entering his back. But others, African-Americans who did not speak out publicly, he said, consistently said that the youth had menaced the officer.
Mr. McCulloch, had promised that he would allay any suspicions about the fairness of the proceedings by releasing, with names redacted, transcripts of testimony and other evidence heard by the panel.
The release of grand jury information, secret by law, is rare, and Mr. McCulloch originally said he would first seek a judge’s permission. But on Monday, his office said it had determined that it had a right to release most of the transcripts and it did so Monday night.
Let’s see what the grand jury saw before we decide whether or not their decision not to indict was justified. The story we want to believe — both people who support the cop and those who support Brown — is not necessarily the same thing as the most plausible story suggested by all the available evidence. Which you have not seen, and neither have I.
UPDATE: A reader who is a former police officer writes:
Anytime someone goes for an officer’s gun it is a lethal force situation. Being in a vehicle is a particularly difficult place to protect your gun. There is a element of police work where you contact people while in your car and to have one of them lunge in and try to disarm you is nothing but an ambush situation. You are at a tactical disadvantage and the person out of the car is in one of superiority. He could have driving off dragging the kid…and it would have been justified.
If lethal force is justified the means which it is implement do not matter — period. If you go for a cop’s gun you will be lucky if you just end up in the hospital and not the morgue.
Re: what happened after the officer exited the car, and the time frame which occurred: we trained our officers to be able to fire 6 shots in 1 second on target, so the amount of rounds does not bother me. Was [Michael Brown] still a lethal threat? That’s the question the Grand Jury is looking for.
Why would we go to trial when there is not enough evidence for an indictment? That is not how our system works — thank God!
Another reader sends in this passage from a NYT story:
Disorder broke out moments after Mr. McCulloch announced that Mr. Wilson would not face charges for the Aug. 9 shooting.
Mr. Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, and stepfather, Louis Head, stood with protesters outside the barricaded Ferguson police station as Mr. McCulloch made the decision public. As Ms. McSpadden cried, Mr. Head turned and yelled, with an expletive injected, “Burn this down!”
We haven’t as of yet sorted through all the evidence the grand jury saw and we don’t know precisely what happened in this nightmarish incident. What we do know is that the Ferguson situation is one of several in just the past couple of years where white and black Americans have viewed a situation in starkly different terms. White Americans tend, in public polling, to view the presenting situations as though they exist in isolation, dealing only with the known facts of the case at hand, of whether there is evidence of murder. Black Americans, polls show, tend to view these crises through a wider lens, the question of whether African-American youth are too often profiled and killed in America. Whatever the particulars of this case, this divergence ought to show us that we have a ways to go toward racial reconciliation.
One of the things I’ve learned over the past year is that nothing brings out more hate mail, nothing, than when I say that too many black kids are being shot in America. Often this hate mail is accompanied by the sort of neo-Confederate rhetoric that I would have thought would have died out, at least in its explicit form, a long, long time ago. That’s just mail, with no real harm. I cannot imagine what it would be to worry about the physical safety of my sons. We have come a long way toward racial justice in this country, but we shouldn’t be deceived. The old zombie of Jim Crow still moves about.
This is true, and important. It is also true, and important, that Justice Department statistics show that 93 percent of black people murdered in America are murdered by other black people. True, 84 percent of white murder victims die at the hands of whites; murder is overwhelmingly an intraracial crime. That said, a Washington Post analysis that is generally hostile to Rudy Giuliani’s statements on race and crime this weekend reports:
It is true that the rate of black homicide victims and offenders were disproportionately represented compared to the general population, the 2011 BJS [Bureau of Justice Statistics] report found. The black victimization rate (27.8 per 100,000) was six times higher than the white victimization rate (4.5 per 100,000). Black offending rate (34.4 per 100,000) was almost eight times higher than whites (4.5 per 100,000), according to the report.
“The danger to a black child in America is not a white police officer. That’s going to happen less than 1 percent of the time. The danger to a black child … is another black,” Giuliani said. “If my child was shot by a police officer, I would be very, very frustrated. I’d also be frustrated if my son was shot by a gangster in the street. But if the chances were — that my son would be shot by the gangster in the street — nine times out of 10, I’d spend an awful lot of time on the nine times out of 10.”
Giuliani later told the Post that the “less than one percent” stat was his estimate. We don’t have statistics one way or the other. Still, it is impossible to refute Giuliani’s claim that mortal danger to young black men overwhelmingly comes from other young black men.
UPDATE.3: A reader writes:
I thought your story this morning was even-handed, but I wanted to point out that the pathologist you cited as an “indisputable” source establishing the fact that Brown went for the officer’s gun during the initial confrontation disputes that notion herself. The pathologist was independent of the investigation, and she was also misquoted on her reading of the situation. You can’t determine a subjective detail like whether he was trying to grab the gun based on the autopsy–just that he was in close range. She has detailed her contextualized take both online and in an interview with MSNBC: http://twitchy.com/2014/10/25/forensic-pathologist-charges-reporter-used-inaccurate-and-misleading-quotes-on-michael-brown-autopsy/
http://www.msnbc.com/the-last-word/watch/paper-obtains-official-michael-brown-autopsy-346549827897I think this is a significant detail to update/correct, considering it convinces you that Brown was acting foolish from the onset, which is not necessarily the case.
I heard the county prosecutor’s announcement on NPR. I cannot believe they released this decision at night. Buildings and cars are now being set on fire in Ferguson, reports NBC News, and looting. People burning and destroying their own neighborhoods. Idiots. Robbing a dollar store, the mob, and breaking into a Walgreens. A neighborhood hair salon on fire. And now, I’m watching a Little Caesar’s pizza restaurant going up in flames. Some innocent business owner’s livelihood, gone. Over and over, that’s happening tonight in Ferguson.
No opinion from me on this decision tonight. I will wait to read the stories tomorrow, after analysts have had a chance to analyze the grand jury documents released. Emotions are not evidence.
Open thread below.
UPDATE: I just checked my TAC e-mail. A reader wrote this afternoon, before the news:
You are fond of stating that “culture matters,” and I couldn’t agree more.
A short anecdote from my drive this afternoon:
I was driving to pick up my kids and was listening to CNN Radio. Jake Tapper (who is excellent) was speaking with a woman who plans on protesting with a group of people. Mr. Tapper told the woman he had earlier spoken with an officer from the St Louis County PD who told him that it wasn’t people from Ferguson or St Louis County causing the trouble, it was people from the outside coming in to the area that were being violent.
So Mr. Tapper asks the woman if she and her friends have a plan on what to do if they see criminal activity taking place such as violence, looting, etc. and how to get in touch with law enforcement. Her response was that she did not join the law enforcement profession “for a reason,” and that it was “not her job” to notify law enforcement if she witnessed any criminal activity, it was the cops’ job to look for lawbreakers and deal with it, with no assistance from her or her friends.
“Not her job.” Those are her neighbors being victimized. That’s her community being victimized. Not her job?
Not so easily are the ties of community formed once severed. Culture matters. I chewed out my radio for a good five minutes, I couldn’t believe what I had heard.
How can someone so cavalierly disregard the needs of her neighbors and community? How can a community survive if that is the prevailing attitude?
I was angry when I first heard what she said. Now that an hour has passed, I’m just saddened by it.
Sorry, I had to vent at someone and I dare not post something like this on Facebook.