[in]Justice System?

Earlier this week, one of my housemates was picked up by the police for matching the description of a suspect and having the same name (there happen to be 26 people in this city who share the exact same name). On the surface, this sounds relatively reasonable.  After talking to him and figuring out that these details matched, they took him downtown for questioning. Again, still within the ballpark of reason, it would seem. One would think that after asking a few questions, hearing an alibi, and maybe even verifying said alibi by phone, the police would realize they made a mistake and send him home with an apology for inconveniencing him.

But no, not in this system. Though it was clear (as the judge the next day told the police officers) that my housemate was not at all the person they were looking for, they held him overnight. What could have been, at worst, a couple hour annoyance turned into a nearly 24 hour ordeal. He had to sleep in a holding cell on a metal bench extending from the wall with no pillow and no blankets and then wait until afternoon the next day to see a judge, all to prove he wasn’t who they were looking for (which they’d figured out pretty early on). When finally dismissed, he was sent away without an apology from the police, nothing.

I try to envision how all this even happened; how did the police officer decide to stop my housemate? The description could likely have been “6’0 tall, 200 lb bald black man,” which is not exactly terribly specific, nor terribly uncommon in a city like this. When he ran his name/id, did he make assumptions based on past offenses? I hesitate to blame intentional prejudice on the officer who was doing his job, but I do blame the system. Suspicion is the driving force in so much “policing.” While understandable in some cases, the so-called justice system in the U.S. (and not just the justice system), has re-trained law enforcement agents to be fearful of the people they’re supposed to serve. See my story about the police during my car accident 2 years ago to see how my own interaction with the police taught me the same lesson.

On the one hand, there is the temptation to give the benefit of the doubt to the police. They have a job to do and do it the best they can. I can respect that, but like I said above, the problem is the system that teaches all of us to suspect our neighbors (“If you see something suspicious…” signs every where these days). Everyone is so darn afraid of everyone they don’t know. Will he hurt me? Will they take my stuff? Fear mongering is a virus that has gripped every level of American society. We can blame the media (as in the documentaries Outfoxed and  Bowling for Columbine), or the government, or any number of imposing institutions that seem to gain from obsessive fears of the masses. The recent controversy over an Islamic center near the sight of the 9/11 tragedy is exemplary of the tangible fear people have about other religions and cultures different from their own. Indeed, “September 11th” could easily be pointed to as the inspiration for a politics of fear. I put September 11th in quotes above because it is not just a date, or an event, but the scapegoat for billions of dollars worth of the very type of fear profiteering I’m talking about.

What continues to blow my mind as a Christian is that so much fear is perpetuated (and bought into) by Christians. “The Muslims all want to blow us up” is a more or less common refrain from people who claim to follow a God who has defeated death. Death has lost its sting, we sing on Easter Sunday, but from Easter Monday onward, we’re as fearful of being killed by our neighbor as anyone else. A theology of fear (fear of hell, fear of the rapture/judgement, fear of the “end times”) is what’s selling tickets on Sunday mornings in many, many churches in the U.S. We can’t blame Fox news or the Bush administration for that.

I guess what I’m trying to get at is the connection between what happened to my housemate and what’s happening on a grand scale all over this country. I see fear as the common denominator (suspicion being another word for fear). This fear is what allowed, somehow, common sense and courtesy to be refused to my housemate and he spent a miserable night in jail, awakening fears about being punished for crimes committed years ago when he was still in his addiction. Should he have to live in fear that such a mistake could bring years of hard work and spiritual deliverance from the hell he was living in to a screeching halt? Should my friends who are in the U.S. without papers have to fear that being pulled over for a traffic violation could get them deported, leaving wife and children behind?

We must overcome fear with love. There is no other answer. We must be the ones who exhibit a disarming trust of all those who create division and alienation by spreading suspicion and mistrust. That is the only way to dismantle a broken system. The government can’t change the fear-based justice system that it creates. No, it must be the church. It must be the people who refuse to be crazy in the same way the rest of the world is crazy, as Peter Maurin once said. We must be the people who stand outside during raid drills, as Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers used to do, to put flowers in the guns of soldiers, draw with sidewalk chalk on the hallowed steps of the Supreme Court. We can choose to laugh in the face of fear, like the circus lion tamers and tight-rope walkers. This imaginative response to fear allows to transcend what the rest of the world sees as inevitability, to dream of and enact the kingdom of God, right now.

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6 comments

  1. Zack · September 18, 2010

    There’s definitely no question that fearmongering has been in overdrive for the past nine years, and you’re spot-on for the main reason. It should be noted, however, that there’s a difference between unwarrented fear and necessary respect for real dangers. While I do believe that many people go overboard where it concerns Muslims, the fact remains that their own holy book DOES tell them to kill all non-Muslims. It does nobody any good to ignore than fact.

    As for your friends without papers…I’m sorry, but they probably SHOULD worry about getting deported. They ARE the ones breaking the law, after all. I’m sure they have reasons, and they may well even be GOOD reasons, but the fact remains that they are here illegally, and there may be consequences if they’re caught.

  2. brianjgorman · September 18, 2010

    Thanks, again, Zack for your thoughts. I understand respect for danger, I do. But as a Christian, what do I have to fear from a terrorist attack? It is an ongoing discipline of trust in God to overcome our fear of death (and as I’ve said in other posts, fear of death is not just confined to bodily death).

    We as Christians would be in a lot of trouble if people took a few phrases out of the Old Testament (which people have in history, some claiming to be in the church!) and used them as exemplary of what it means to be a Christian–the books of Joshua and Judges are filled with commands to slaughter people, not something that ever crosses my mind. To do so to Muslims is hypocritical and inevitably points the finger at our own holy book.

    As for my friends without papers, technically they are breaking the law, but that should make us question the law when it sends fathers thousands of miles away, treating them like animals. If we find the law to be in conflict with God’s commands (read Deuteronomy for God’s feelings on welcoming the stranger in your land), then we should not hesitate to defy the law.

  3. Zack · September 19, 2010

    Shouldn’t we be concerned about the unsaved people who would die in a theoretical attack? How about the children left orphaned because they were safely away from the workplace that was bombed?

    You have a point about taking things out of context. However, in this case, the context appears quite accurate. When confronted, Muslim leaders do not deny that they are STILL told to kill non-Muslims, though the ones who see themselves as more liberal (not apt to follow that particular commandment) tend to admit it somewhat sheepishly.

    It is important for any society to make sure the number of people comprising it is relatively controlled to prevent radical problems like work or food shortages (to name a couple of easy examples). There are legitimate reasons why the government limits immigration. In this economy, with the unemployment rate so high, do we really need illegal immigrants coming in and taking what few jobs there are from the citizens? No.

  4. brianjgorman · September 19, 2010

    Zack,
    I don’t want anyone to killed by a terrorist attack, here or anywhere. My post was about fear–and you have highlighted quite well some of the fears that we are sold in this world and specifically this country. Living my life in fear won’t put me in a better position to react well should something awful happen. As experience is showing us, people living in fear tend to react violently and angrily to the things they’re taught to fear.

    In regards to immigration, I’d highly recommend doing some research into the kinds of jobs that immigrants are “taking” from citizens. You live in a country that depends on immigrants, both those with papers and those without, but then refuses to pay them adequately or provide smoother ways to obtain citizenship. Many, MANY, undocumented immigrants are husbands of wives who came to the states legally with their children and the husband came later (risking his life) to live as a family. Any sense of compassion would dictate that there ought to be a better way forward than deporting people without considering their specific circumstance.

    You may also want to consider that when I suggested you look at Deuteronomy to understand how God feels about immigrants, your response was to tell me how a society has to work. Society does a lot of things that contradict God. Who will you choose to question? Which of those two should inform how you regard the stranger in the land?

  5. Zack · September 19, 2010

    Then we are in agreement regarding the terrorists…fearing them is useless, but that does not mean we shouldn’t use wisdom to tighten defenses (to a REASONBLE degree…a lot of people take it way too far) and live safe.

    If the wife and children can come in legally but the husband has to sneak in to join them, THAT’S a screwed up situation. I see no reason they shouldn’t be allowed in together all at once. As for the kinds of jobs they work: I am well aware that a lot of them take jobs many altogether too picky Americans wouldn’t want. I also know that the Chick-Fil-A I used to work for has a kitchen completely staffed with an illegally immigrated family. That’s a much less undesirable job than many.

    Having not read whatever specific part of Deuteronomy is in question (at least not recently, and you didn’t specify at all which is somewhat less than helpful), I can’t argue that point.

  6. brianjgorman · September 19, 2010

    Deuteronomy 10:17, 24:17, 14:28…there are others as well in Leviticus 19:34…not to mention Matthew 25 (sheep and goats passage).

    happy reading!

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