Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Thin Blue Line and the Torn Curtain

For centuries, societies have depended on scapegoats to resolve social conflict, or at least keep it suppressed. From the Aztecs to the ancient Near East, this originally involved putting human victims to death. Exodus 32, for example, depicts Moses unleashing a bloodbath to wipe out worshippers of the Golden Calf. The violence is carried out by sword-wielding Levites engaging in a mad melee to forge the priestly caste; today, we might call it a gang initiation. Greek tragedy, too, reflects the reality of human sacrifice. The thousand ships of Homer’s epic would not have sailed, had Agamemnon not sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia at Aulis.

Today, in our secular age, one might think we’ve outgrown all this. There’s no need to sacrifice humans to maintain social order, or to substitute animals under an outmoded theory of atonement. Humans are rational creatures, responding to rewards and punishments expressed in criminal codes. It might not be possible to create a felicific calculus, exactly, but just let us enjoy our fascination with Kojak or Miami Vice or CSI (in its various iterations) or Law & Order — and not think too much about it.

Ah, but what if you found yourself falsely accused of murder and were up against a prosecutor like Doug Mulder of the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office, circa 1976? That’s what happened to Randall Adams. Adams was a 28-year-old Ohio resident who was living in Dallas, working a job repairing pallets and living in a motel with his brother, when he was arrested and wrongfully convicted of the murder of a police officer. Officer Robert Wood was shot and killed on November 28, 1976 during what should have been a routine traffic stop.

The evidence in the case strongly pointed to a 16-year-old juvenile, David Harris. Harris had stolen the car involved in the incident, as well as the .22 caliber pistol. He had also bragged to various people in his hometown of Vidor, Texas about killing the officer. But under Texas law at the time, Mulder could not charge Harris with capital murder. Instead, he chose to focus on Adams, an adult “drifter,” suppressing evidence and knowingly using perjured testimony to deceive the trial court.

The prosecutors justified these tactics (to themselves) by asserting in their closing argument that the police are the “thin blue line” against anarchy. Errol Morris took this phrase as the title for his path-breaking documentary, which helped Randall Adams finally get released in 1989 after twelve years of imprisonment for a crime he didn’t commit. To me, the prosecution’s thin blue line is little more than a watered-down, shorthand version of the scapegoat theory exposed by Rene Girard in Violence and the Sacred. As Girard and his epigone (particularly Gil Bailie) have argued, using humans as scapegoats is no longer morally viable in a world being transformed by the Christian gospel’s message of empathy for victims and love for all.

It’s not merely that Mulder made Adams into a victim through twelve years of wrongful imprisonment. That was bad enough. Even if he’d focused on the true culprit, David Harris, Mulder’s prosecutorial zeal for the death penalty might well have been tempered by a recognition of the early pathos in Harris’s life. Yes, David Harris was a bad actor; he was on a crime spree at the time he murdered officer Wood, and he was executed in 2004 for a murder he committed in 1985. As depicted in Morris’s film, however, his evil deeds follow a childhood shadowed by tragedy. The drowning death of his 4-year-old brother, when David was only 3, produced a haunted family dynamic in which, David Harris claimed, his father withheld love from him, instead showering it on a later-born brother, one who was born after David’s older brother’s death.

David Harris's family background does not excuse his crimes. For all I know, he may have been a true "bad seed" and used his brother's drowning death as a feeble excuse. Without question, law enforcement — by men and women in literal or metaphorical blue — is vital to civil society. My point is that in a culture in which empathy for victims is on the rise, even the cold-blooded murder of a police officer doesn’t justify prosecutorial misconduct purporting to preserve “the thin blue line.” When the curtain of the temple was torn in two upon Jesus’s death, that line, as previously practiced, came down for good, even if the Word about it is still getting out.

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