The ongoing manhunt for former LAPD police officer Christopher Dorner is troubling on many levels. The idea of an angry man with a grudge seeking revenge is alarming enough. An angry man with weapons and training who knows exactly what law enforcement will be trying to do to stop him is even more unnerving. The growing consternation over the reaction of LAPD police officers to a report of Dorner's truck being spotted is also raising a lot of questions.
Some discussion below the Orange Omnilepticon.
Citizens Bearing Arms
Let's start right up front with Dorner's actions and their connection to the Second Amendment. It strikes right at the heart of one of the dearest fantasies in the fever swamp that has grown up around the debate over gun rights. The logic is this: the only thing keeping the government from someday establishing a tyranny over the people is armed citizens willing to resist. The roots of Dorner's vendetta have been alleged to be his anger over being fired from the LAPD, after Dorner reported another officer for brutality - a report the department ruled was false.
So what we have here is a cliché situation. Or do we? A man who claims he was wronged by the authorities and punished for trying to point out an injustice has now taken up arms. Except...his actions in compiling a hit list, ambushing police, attacking family members of those he blames, don't quite align with the fantasy of righteous armed civil disobedience against demonstrably evil thugs.
The "resisting tyranny" justification for the Second Amendment is not pretty when put into practice. It's based on some pretty troubling assumptions - that rights and wrongs reduce to black and white issues, that there are only good guys or bad guys. It's rooted in the idea that a single person can decide they have the sole right to be judge and jury, answering to no one except themselves and God or whatever higher principle they care to cite if they feel they have been wronged or an injustice has been done.
David Atkins has a horrifying account of where this mindset comes from and to what it can lead. There is always friction between the rights we have as individuals who are also members of society, and the responsibilities we have to that society as members of it. Ideally, we accept limits on our freedom of action with the understanding that A) it is impossible to have a civil society if people don't voluntarily 'make room' for it in their personal sphere and B) what they gain in exchange is perceived by them as acceptable compensation for making that accommodation.
Sometimes people legitimately have a case that part B is not working for them and they are being wronged. Sometimes they feel they are being wronged because they've never accepted part A. The debate currently going on over firearms and how to regulate them is an attempt to redraw the balance between A and B. (Remember A and B - they'll keep coming up in this discussion.)
How Did We Get Here?
The LA Times story laying out Dorner's troubled history raises a number of questions as well. Dorner is painted as a man who had trouble following rules and procedures, someone who felt he needed more help and understanding to do his job, someone who had trouble being an effective police officer, someone who had issues with his perception of racism versus how others interpreted things.
Let's think about that a bit. The LA Times story has an inescapable after the fact quality. We 'know' what he is alleged to have done and why. The picture being painted is one that effectively explains why Dorner is acting the way he is: he was a troubled individual who ultimately crossed some personal threshold into violence. Dorner is not currently available to give his side of the story. We have reports of a manifesto in which he laid out online his rationale for his actions. What we don't have is much else.
It's hard to imagine anyone willing to come forward at this point to defend what he's done or offer alternative explanations. Maybe there isn't anyone, and the injustice is all in Dorner's mind. That people are dead and wounded by his actions, and that he threatens more of the same seems pretty incontrovertible - but that doesn't rule out the possibility that some of what he claimed as justification doesn't have some basis in fact.
The record of the LAPD on racism and brutality, and the professionalism of its members is not exactly unblemished. (Nor is it for America as a whole, come to think of it.) Given the issues about Dorner's record in trying to become a police officer and his struggles to meet expectations, questions that come to mind are: Why wasn't he washed out earlier in training? Did he get all the training and help he really needed? Why was he accepted in the first place? Did he undergo any kind of psychological screening at any time? How well were the complaints he made handled? And what of his time in the military? Did he have problems there?
What of the larger picture? The LAPD is huge - the third largest local law enforcement organization in the country after NYC and Chicago. In a system that large, there is always going to be some percentage of officers who prove to be problems. They are human after all. How much of what led to Dorner's actions are the product of individual circumstances, and how much was the institution of the LAPD itself a factor? These are not comfortable questions, but asking them is how we can act to reduce the friction in balancing A against B.
Armed And Dangerous And Police
Let's talk about another issue: the militarization of the police. Somewhere, someplace there's the idea of the police officer as the cop on the beat, the person who knows and is known/trusted by everyone in the neighborhood. The Andy Taylor model, who didn't even carry a gun. It's not too practical in a policing area of several hundred square miles and millions of people. It's also not too practical in an environment that includes crimes and weapons never heard of in Mayberry. (Were there ever any people of color on that show?)
Between the hysteria over terrorists after 911, the lead-driven crime wave that peaked in the 1990's, racial tensions, gang violence, and more, the response by police departments has been to arm up and be less responsive to criticism of their actions. Digby for one has been tracking taser abuse for a long time. (One example) It's symptomatic of a trend that can work to make a police force more like an occupying army in hostile territory than agents of law and order.
Which is not, obviously, helped by a constant stream of anti-government, anti-society rhetoric, race baiting, insane drug policies and laws, hysteria over crime, and a call for MOOOAAARRR GUNNNSS EVERYWHERE!!! from the usual suspects fear-mongering for power and profit.
One incident is garnering some attention to this trend: the LAPD response to a report that Dorner's truck had been spotted. Lefty Coaster has a diary with some details and commentary. No warnings - just a fusillade of gunfire. Mistaken identity. The picture in the LA Times story on the shooting shows the truck riddled with bullets - yet the two occupants escaped with minor injuries through some miracle - as did the surrounding neighborhood where the rest of the stray bullets went flying. Assume you're an honest, law-abiding citizen who happens to be driving a blue pickup truck. And then "ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?"
More firepower is not an adequate substitute for more brains and better judgement. Neither is less accountability. What kind of discipline will the LAPD officers and their commanders face for that incident?
Qui Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?
Speaking of accountability, what of Dorner's original complaint, where he charged a fellow officer with kicking a suspect? It turned into a he said - she said dispute with no physical evidence to back it up and no complaint from the alleged victim. And maybe there was nothing to it at that; Dorner may have simply been trying to make trouble. But, increasingly these days it is possible to have records. Rodney King was a wake up call - or should have been.
Police departments are routinely equipping cars with dashboard cameras. Sometimes they capture real criminal behavior - and sometimes it's by the police themselves. Smart phones with video cameras have been capturing things some people would rather have left unseen. When those people happen to be police, the response has to been to arrest the people doing the recording and confiscate their devices. They're seeking the power to shut down cell phone networks when preparing to suppress demonstrations and other exercises of civil disobedience.
In an age when cameras are increasingly everywhere in public, there is a battle over who gets to watch who, and who gets to see the recordings. The nightmare of 1984 was that Big Brother had cameras everywhere - but we now have the technology to watch Big Brother back IF we insist on the right to do so. Is it time to think about equipping police with the video of equivalent of cockpit voice recorders? Would that shooting of the truck in LA have gone differently if the officers involved knew it was all going to be recorded - and that the public might see the footage later?
It's not an easy issue to resolve. Sometimes bad things happen by intent; sometimes by accident. What standard is used to decided accountability - and who judges? Who among us would be willing to have all of our actions on the job recorded and available for later review? What happens at the intersection of our private lives with the public? The words Law and Order are often yoked together, but they are not synonymous. What happens when the police and the DA's and Courts behind them decide it is far more important to have Order than Law? (h/t to UnaSpenser) That's one definition of a police state.
The Wasp Problem
There's a classic science fiction novel by Eric Frank Russell from 1957 that should be required reading for anyone concerned with asymmetric warfare: Wasp. The hero is being recruited to be dropped behind enemy lines in an interstellar war, acting as a lone agent with an entire planet out to hunt him down. The analogy he's given to explain his role is that of a wasp.
Specifically, he's told of a modern car traveling at speed on a highway with several fully capable adults inside that suddenly veered off the road and became wrecked. One of the victims lived long enough to explain what happened. A wasp got in the car, and the driver's panicked attempts to deal with it led to loss of control and the wreck. The wasp caused damage all out of proportion to its size and capabilities.
Another example was of police chasing a couple of wanted criminals in a car. After a number of hours they were captured without much fuss - but during the time the chase was on, hundreds of police across several states were tied up and prevented from doing their regular jobs, thousands were inconvenienced, the press was all in a lather, and much expense was incurred. Again, the effects were all out of proportion to the actions of the individuals at the center of the chase.
Dorner is proving to be a very effective wasp. The truck shooting in LA is just one example. The manhunt going on in the mountains and all the resources it's tying up is another. One individual with the right leverage and motivation can have a huge effect.
Now consider a couple of other scenarios. What if Dorner had been a disgruntled grad student working in a lab working on strains of deadly bird flu? What if Dorner had been an employee of a large social networking company with access to millions of personal accounts, or the software keys to keeping them secure?
If there seems to be a great deal of paranoia in certain circles about threats out there, one big reason is that our increasingly interconnected society and the spread of technology of all kinds increasingly gives individuals the potential to wreak havoc on a scale that can barely be imagined. The friction between A and B might just be capable of breeding up some particularly dangerous wasps.
It's not a problem that's going to go away, so we really need to pay attention to dealing with that friction.