I recently watched Jake Tapper of CNN interview Jeff Roorda, a St. Louis, Missouri police union official, and Antonio French, a St. Louis Alderman, about the New Yorker profile of former police officer Darren Wilson. I believe it was part of a media push to acknowledge the one-year anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown (an anniversary that unfortunately has not passed without violence) and that’s fine, but I was—to use a wonderful British expression—gob smacked by something Mr. Tapper said.
Just to make sure we’re all on the same page here, Darren Wilson who is white, is the former police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, sparking months of rioting and looting in Ferguson, Missouri. And just to make sure we’re all on the same page here, extensive investigations by the Ferguson Police Department, the St. Louis Police Department, the FBI, the Department of Justice, the United States Attorney’s Office, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, and a grand jury hearing, all concluded that Michael Brown had assaulted Officer Darren Wilson, and that Officer Wilson had killed Michael Brown in self-defense, and that he was completely justified in doing so because he had reason to fear for his life.
What caught my attention during the interview was the following question by Jake Tapper:
“Jeff, you know him, you are friends with him. Does Officer Wilson have any remorse for what happened?”
The implications behind that question floored me. Michael Brown was a three-hundred pound male who fit the description Officer Wilson had just been given of the suspect in a recent strong-arm robbery (it was in fact Michael Brown who was the perpetrator of that robbery), who ignored Officer Wilson’s commands, who assaulted the officer in his vehicle, who attempted to wrest Officer Wilson’s sidearm from him, and who then charged the officer even after he, Brown, had been wounded. No matter how you look at this in terms of racial and societal differences, or in terms of how much more training police officers in certain communities might need to be able to better serve those communities, this particular encounter almost instantly became nothing more—or less—than a life and death struggle. And Jake Tapper wanted to know if Darren Wilson felt any remorse.
Jake Tapper is not a stupid man and he is not an uneducated man. He is the son of highly educated professionals (his father is a pediatrician and his mother is a psychiatric nurse); he was raised in an exclusive and well-to-do neighborhood of Philadelphia; he was educated at a private, mainline school and went on to graduate magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth; he has been awarded multiple honors for his work as a journalist, including both the Edward R. Murrow Award and an Emmy Award. He’s damn good at what he does. He understands the power and the meaning of words.
But he could still ask if Officer Wilson felt remorse. He didn’t ask if Officer Wilson felt sorrow or regret that his own life has been destroyed and his ability to earn a living compromised. He didn’t ask if Officer Wilson was suffering any post-traumatic troubles or having nightmares about his fight for his life. He didn’t ask if Officer Wilson felt any resentment about his life being, essentially, destroyed because he had done what his oath required him to do and came close to dying for it. Tapper asked if Wilson felt remorse, meaning specifically, “moral anguish and bitter regret arising from repentance for past misdeeds,” for killing a man who was attempting to kill him.
Remorse for what, Mr. Tapper? For being alive? When did fighting for your life become a misdeed?
I was so stunned by the implications of that question that it took me awhile to realize what the problem was, not just with Mr. Tapper, but also with practically every other journalist around today. The problem is a complete disconnect from any reality other than that of the exceptionally sheltered and rarified atmosphere of their own upbringing. If you’ve never been forced into a situation where you’ve had to fight for your life, how can you have any possible understanding of the emotions that rise to the surface as a result of such a struggle?
When I was still earning my living in the gilded jakes of Hollywood, I lived on the edge of a neighborhood in Los Angeles where the homes ranged from comfortable and moderately affluent, to luxurious and stinking rich. It was a neighborhood of well-educated, successful families, most of whom represented the best of the American dream, a few of whom qualified as old, inherited wealth, but all of them basically decent, well-meaning, well-intentioned, well-educated, well-heeled people. The kind of people you might find in, say, one of Philadelphia’s exclusive and elegant neighborhoods.
One quiet Sunday afternoon I took my dog for a long circuitous walk that included a loop through one of the really wealthy enclaves within the neighborhood. I was part way down a tree-shaded street where the houses all sat back on lawns the size of small golf courses, when the LAPD descended en masse, half a dozen squad cars, lights flashing, sirens blasting.
As the officers bailed out, the door to one of these stately homes opened and a young man came out, covered in blood, breathing heavily, but carrying himself with that jaunty strut one associates with boxers in the ring. I recognized him as someone I saw occasionally in that area, no one I knew personally, but a guy I used to nod to when I passed him on my walks, a guy I used to see jogging from time to time.
I was close enough that I could hear the exchange between him and the police. It has been over thirty years now, so I now no longer remember the exact words, but this represents both the tone and the essence of what he said:
“It’s alright, it’s all over. I killed the son of a bitch. He’s deader than a mackerel. He had a baseball bat and tried to kill me, but I killed his sorry ass. He won’t break into any more houses in this neighborhood, God damn him.”
And then in response to a question I couldn’t hear from one of the officers:
“He’s on the second floor, up at the head of the stairs. He jumped out at me from behind, from the linen closet, and got me in the side of the head, but I fucking killed that son of a bitch. That was my own bat he hit me with! He got it out of my bedroom. If he weren’t already dead I’d go back in there and kill him all over again.”
(In point of fact, it was very quickly determined by the police that the burglar, while certainly very much the worse for wear and unconscious, was not dead.)
It turned out the young man was studying for his master’s and had come to his parent’s home while they were away on vacation so that he could study in peace and quiet. Someone had just broken in through a back door, had been surprised in the house by the young man coming home, and the fight was on.
But take a look again at the words that young man spoke. Like it or not, I can assure you, having been there, that is the reaction of the victor in a life and death struggle. It is triumph, strutting, victorious, chest-pounding triumph. Later, he probably regretted his boastful words, his unconcern for the man he thought dead inside, but baby, at that moment, all you feel is triumphant, unvanquished, immortal, the gladiator in the arena, holding your sword on high and waiting for Caesar’s thumb to go up or down.
Under normal circumstances, after a tennis match at his country club, say, that young man was the kind of guy who would jump over the net to shake your hand and say, “Great game! You’ll beat me next time. Let me buy you a beer.”
But after fighting for his life, the completely normal reaction was to act like a mixed martial arts fighter after a cage fight. And, having been there, I can also guarantee you he didn’t later feel “remorse” for being alive.
Of the five police officers I know who have had to kill people in the line of duty, not one of them regrets the split second decisions they made that kept them alive and not the other guy. None of them like to talk about it, but none of them feel “remorse” for staying alive.
The line between victim and victor can be very thin, very tenuous, and can change very quickly, but only a man who has no understanding of—or empathetic imagination for—the realities of the world outside the Mainline and the Ivy League could ever imagine survival should be tempered with remorse.