We True Americans

Again? When did we stop?

I recently posted several blog pieces during our trip to Morocco.  While the reaction of most was positive, many took exception to my positive portrayal of Muslims and the Islamic Faith.

One struck me as shockingly ill-informed; bordering on dangerous.

The comment included a reference to a false meme about a one-time ban on Muslims coming to the US (never happened) often circulated among the jingoistic-inclined nationalists who see Islam solely through the filter of terrorism. The line that frightened me, not because I feared the truth of the statement but because others might see it as truth, was this;

We True Americans must be on guard against Islam.

The comment gave me pause. Someone, and I am certain they are not alone, believes there is such a thing as a “true American” which is both identifiable and necessary for this nation to survive. It made me wonder.

What is the definition of a true American?

So, I went looking.

Is Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, a Muslim by birth, who died in Iraq serving in the US Army and posthumously received a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his service a true American?

Is Humayun Khan, a Muslim by birth, a US Army officer killed in Iraq serving in the US Army and posthumously received a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his service a true American?

Is Dr. Ayub Ommaya a Pakistani American who invented the Ommaya Reservoir (used to provide chemo-therapy directly to the tumor site) a true American?

Is Khaled Hosseni, an American Physician and novelist born in Afghanistan best known for his novel “The Kite Runner” a true American?

Is Dr. Mehmet Oz, vice chair and professor of surgery at Columbia University a true American?

Or

Is Charles Manson, infamous convicted murderer and lunatic, a true American?

Is Eric Rudolph, the Olympic Park Bomber and self-proclaimed Christian, a true American?

It’s easy to pick and choose when one has an agenda. In particular, an agenda based on fear, ignorance, and misplaced nationalistic fervor. Islam represents the third largest religion in the US and the overwhelming majority of its adherents are as appalled by terrorism in Islam’s name as all those self-proclaimed “True Americans.”

Likely, more so.

I would dare say that the remaining members of the Native America tribes we Christians herded and hunted almost to extinction would argue about what a true American is.

That some people lay claim to be the only True Americans is about as far from the very nature of America as one can get.

And it bears remembering when they demand we follow their lead in denying others the same American dream we all enjoy based on their religion or place of origin .

I am fairly certain a true American is better than that.

Heel, don’t Kneel

The First Amendment protects us from government restrictions on the free expression of one’s personal and political views. It is different within the private sector.

Employers may limit the exercise of free speech when it directly affects their business.

No one can argue this. To paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

“An employee may have a constitutional right to talk politics, but he has no constitutional right to be employed.”

Aside from the legal arguments, there is a more significant issue at stake with the NFL ban on players taking a knee during the National Anthem.

While most Americans, regardless of their political leanings, freely stand during the National Anthem in gratitude for those who fought to preserve our way of life, implicit in that sacrifice is the right to do otherwise.

I often chafe at the inattentive, text-addicted, hats still on idiots who either stand because everyone else is or sit drinking beer when the anthem is played before a game. But it is their right to do so.

Ignorant, rude, or just downright asinine as it may be.

But I wouldn’t want to see uniformed police officers roaming through the crowd and hauling them off for it either. (I might find it momentarily amusing, aside from the serious constitutional issue.)

The NFL situation is different on two levels.

First, if this was an intrinsic element of the game, then the owners have every right to insist players comply.

It is not. It is a moment at most public venues where we pay homage to this nation. Which implies the right to express a different political opinion.

Second, and more critical, this wailing and gnashing of teeth that the constitutional guarantee of free speech has limitations in the private sector and players must comply with a workplace requirement is all a smokescreen to the real issue.

Americans do not like the very public reminder of the persistence of bigotry and prejudice. They do not like their sacred sports game marred by such a divisive issue. They prefer to keep it in the closet on game day, and then ignore it for the rest of the week.

To further illustrate the point, the protest must be working in raising the issue otherwise no one would care.

Which makes the restrictions put in place by the NFL, albeit legitimate under the most common interpretation of the Constitution, more troubling.

While the NFL owners have much latitude in controlling the players when they are “working,” to insist they can regulate free speech, during a ceremony that honors free speech, for the benefit of their bottom line, is troubling.

If it is that important an issue, fire them.

Remember, the first act of American patriotism was to challenge the King’s government for the right of freedom of expression.

Do we seek to return to the times of pledging loyalty to the government as a condition of being an American? Is it that some people miss the days when the government would ask “Are you, or have you ever been, a communist?”

While the NFL issue is minor in the big scheme of things, it is the conglomeration of little things, chipping away at liberties, that cause real damage. This issue may be nothing but a single termite, but termites are never alone.

Let the players take a knee, do backflips, or whatever. When the anthem plays, focus all the cameras on the Stars and Stripes flapping in the breeze above the flag-draped Bud Light advertisements.

Black Skin Kevlar Skin

It is impossible for me to know what it is like to be black in America. My upbringing in Cumberland, Rhode Island in the 1960’s could not have been more plain vanilla. Cumberland wasn’t home to very many black families.

The first conversation I ever had with a black person wasn’t until I went into the Air Force. So for me to pretend to understand what it’s like to be black in America is foolish at best and dangerous at worst.

Later, when I became a police officer, I came into daily contact with a much wider variety of ethnicities. Yet, it was easy to fall prey to the us versus them mentality. As my experience grew, so did my appreciation for the similarities we shared rather than the superficial differences.

Unfamiliarity breeds misconceptions and prejudices.

The America of the 60’s was torn by the strife of racial hatred. Cities in America were burning. Images of riots showed lines of club-wielding police officers, almost exclusively white, facing off against protesters, mostly black, in the confrontations over segregation and racial discrimination.

It was these images that served as the basis of my exposure to people of color. I didn’t see prejudice in Cumberland. Not because it didn’t exist, but because there were few people of color living there.

As a police officer, I saw examples of prejudice perpetrated by officers. Yet, the times were changing. These acts, once institutionalized, were by individual officers rather than department policies.

The truth of the matter is they became more concealed, more insidious because they hid behind the façade of arresting criminals. If there is one thing I learned as a police officer, it is that everyone is one dire change of circumstances away from committing a crime.

All it takes is a sudden downturn in fortune and a once successful, happy, employed individual might turn to some criminal action to obtain money or sink into the abyss of drug addiction.

This condition is color-blind.

There is another aspect to being a police officer that creates conflict. We started wearing ballistic vests, donning Kevlar skin as part of our job. A necessary evil that created a mindset that every moment on the job was fraught with risk.

Cops are not taught that people of color are dangerous. They are taught that everyone is. Cops begin every encounter assuming the person they are in contact with poses a threat. It is drilled into them in the academy and in the field. They evaluate the person starting from that assumption. It sets a certain tone to every encounter.

For anyone not raised with black skin to say they understand the problem or can empathize with someone of color is ludicrous.

For persons of color to assume the individual in Kevlar skin is a racist threat with murderous intentions is equally ludicrous.

I was taught to seek out a police officer if I were in trouble. People of color often teach their children to fear cops based on their own experiences. As a country, we can do better.

To applaud the killing of Police Officers while doing their job is to sustain the perception and problem. It derails any attempt at a solution.

America can no longer afford to ignore the endemic racism prevalent within our society. We must confront it in an open and honest manner.

The reason our prisons are full of people of color has nothing to do with propensity to commit a crime. It has to do with a difference in access to justice. The lack of access to dedicated legal advice is the prime factor behind incarceration rates. Until access to justice no longer comes with a price tag, such disparity will continue.

I cannot pretend to know what it is like to be a person of color in this country. Just as most people cannot begin to understand what putting on Kevlar skin and going out into the dark night is like.

There is room for increased understanding and conversation on both sides of that spectrum. The time to act is now. The cities are smoldering. Now is the time to remove the fuel of discrimination before they are burning once again

 

Cops, Superheroes, and Stupidity

In my almost 60 complete revolutions of the sun, I have heard people say some stupid things. Truth be told, I spewed some idiocy myself. But, after reading a story about a protest over the recent police involved shooting in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, I saw a statement that defies explanation.

The words are so without an inkling of intelligence or rationality as to be laughable if they didn’t revolve around such a serious matter.

The Providence Journal (http://www.providencejournal.com/news/20160409/video-protesters-in-pawtucket-call-silence-over-fatal-police-shooting-injustice) quoted one of the protesters as saying,

“A Police Officer should disarm someone, not shoot to kill.”

Where to begin?

Statements such as this come from people whose experience with police procedure comes from one of three places: Television, movies, or riding in the back seat of a police car with their hands bound behind them.

Such ignorance does nothing to promote better relations between the community and the police. Such lack of intellectual foundation does nothing but reveal the lack of understanding of the situations officers find themselves in on a daily basis.

If she had said, we have to discourage people from carrying guns so the police won’t be forced to kill them I could agree with her.

If she said, we in the community must work with the police to tell them about those who carry guns so we can prevent such confrontations I could agree with her.

But to expect an Officer, in a dark alley, after having a gun pointed at her twice, to somehow disarm the individual regardless of the risk to the officer is nonsense.

I have always said that much remains to be done to eliminate prejudice within our society. Much remains to improve relations between the police and the minority community. Statements like this hurt such efforts.

I can guarantee you that at the moment that Officer decided to fire, she did so because she recognized a threat to herself and her fellow officers. She didn’t see skin color, she didn’t see a socially handicapped victim of prejudice, she didn’t see anything but a gun pointed at her by someone she reasonably believed would use it.

Much is made about rights in these cases. Too often an important element of this discussion is left out, the right of the officer to live.

Officers have a responsibility to perform their duties impartially and lawfully. It is a heavy burden and one we should be glad that there are those among us willing to bear it. Officers accept the responsibility knowing it may come at the cost of their lives. That doesn’t mean it must.

Behind that badge beats a human heart. One that has a family, friends, and loved ones it cares for. Officers have an equal right to enjoy their lives.