Refusing To Wage War

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014

And so we grieve over another national tragedy.

Two New York City police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, were shot — assassinated — as they sat in their patrol car this past weekend. Let the needlessness of their deaths rip our hearts open. Let the humanity come first.

“Now is a moment for empathy and deep listening.”

The words are from a statement issued by #BlackLivesMatter, a grassroots movement emerging this year over the spate of police killings of young men of color. The murder of the officers is part of the same tragedy. Black lives matter. Blue lives matter. All lives matter. Any thinking that embraces less than this is part of the problem, not the solution.

“The family of Michael Brown condemns today’s senseless killing of two NYPD officers,” a family spokesman said. “We reject any kind of violence directed toward members of law enforcement. It cannot be tolerated. We must work together to bring peace to our communities.”

Far too many people, and far too many institutions, have vested interests in not working together. Bridging these artificial divides is the primary task of building peace. It requires setting aside our anger and our righteousness and walking toward one another with reverence, not with loaded weapons. If all lives matter, then we cannot declare war. With war you get nothing but losers.

Ismaaiyl Brinsely, the untethered man who pulled the trigger, then shot himself in a nearby subway station, was another American loner playing war, by which I mean blaming an abstract enemy for his own troubles and the wrongs of the world. Mass murder is the coolly impersonal killing of strangers, but the victims aren’t random. They are in some way symbolic of the imagined deep wrong the killer wants to eradicate. It hardly matters whether this deep wrong is personal or global.

Two years ago, in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, evolutionary biologist Peter Turchin wrote an essay called “Canaries in a Coal Mine,” addressing the phenomenon of mass murder in the United States, which, he noted, has increased tenfold since the 1960s. This would seem to indicate a deep, expanding social brokenness in our world, a growing sense, you might say, of armed alienation.

Mass murderers usually act alone, but they are linked to one another and to the society that created them.

In his essay, Turchin discussed what he called the “principle of social substitutability”: seeing a particular organization, institution, race, nationality, community — or whatever — as a threat to one’s well-being and, therefore, holding anyone associated with that group as part of the malevolent “other,” thus requiring extermination. Mass murder equals terrorism equals . . . war.

“On the battlefield,” Turchin wrote, “you are supposed to try to kill a person whom you’ve never met before. You are not trying to kill this particular person, you are shooting because he is wearing the enemy uniform. It could easily be any other individual, but as long as they wear the same uniform, you would be shooting at them. Enemy soldiers are socially substitutable. As they say in gangster movies, ‘nothing personal, just business.’”

New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, speaking of the two slain officers, said: “They were, quite simply, assassinated, targeted for their uniform and the responsibility they embraced.”

This is true, but it so quickly transforms into a declaration — or a re-declaration — of war. People choose sides and line up. Humanity is to be found only on one side of the divide. Critics of police violence, all those who call for demilitarized law enforcement and an acknowledgement of America’s institutional racism, are, yet again, but with even more self-righteous ferocity, declared the enemy. This includes New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, who said, following the grand jury’s decision not to issue an indictment for the killing of Eric Garner, “The way we go about policing has to change.”

A statement released by the New York Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the police union, read: “The mayor’s hands are literally dripping with our blood because of his words, actions and policies and we have, for the first time in a number of years, become a ‘wartime’ police department. We will act accordingly.”

The war is already in progress, of course. We’re waging it abroad and we’re waging it at home. Every wrongful death will fuel the war if we let it. But refusing to wage war is also possible and always appropriate, and in its own way it’s just as shocking:

“A wall of militarised police had blocked the centre of Ferguson, Missouri, this week, shooting teargas and rubber bullets at seething protesters who dared to show any defiance,” Jon Swaine wrote last summer in The Guardian.

“On Thursday evening it melted away.

“A carnival-like demonstration filled the centre of the city after a new police chief given control of protests over the killing of an unarmed 18-year-old implemented a dramatic shift in tactics.

“Hundreds of people gathered at the same intersection in this northern suburb of St Louis that has been the epicentre of violent clashes with police in the previous days.

“But where the officers with assault rifles once stood, backed by armoured trucks topped with snipers’ nests, on Thursday there was almost no police presence.”

For an evening, state Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson became temporary “ground commander” of police operations in Ferguson and embraced the legitimacy of the protests rather than trying to bludgeon them out of existence. His command didn’t last, but the possibility he showed the world, of people on two sides working together for the public good, remains vividly within reach.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at or visit his website at