Politicians on both sides of the aisle are praising President Trump’s decision to bomb an airfield in Syria in retaliation for Assad’s recent use of chemical weapons against his own people. The air strike is being called a “proportional response” to the egregious attack on the part of the Assad regime. If anything, it’s significantly less heinous than the wholesale massacre of innocent civilians using a slow and painful method of murder.
While I’m not sure I join the pundits in praising this recent U.S. military action, it has gotten me to thinking about the idea of proportional response. This idea goes back to Biblical times, wherein Jewish law specified the so-called “eye for an eye” administration of justice. What many people don’t realize is that this law was not meant to incite violence but rather to contain it. Therefore, if someone took an eye from you, you were allowed only to go so far as to take an eye from him, not to kill him or his whole family.
In recent history, America has seen a decrease in tolerance for proportional response. Take, for instance, the recent assault on an innocent United Airlines passenger who refused to give up his paid for seat on a flight. Instead of trying to coax the man off the plane, flight attendants called the police to board the plane and forcibly remove him. He was yanked out of his seat, made bloody as his face was banged against the handset, and literally dragged on the floor out of the plane. The entire incident was caught, of course, on cell phone video and has been broadcast all over television and the internet. One would think United – and those officers – would know better.
Yet even with the installation of body cameras on police officers, incidences of police abuse seem to be increasing. Routine traffic stops and minor infractions, such as illegally selling cigarettes on the street, are met with disproportional and sometimes deadly force. Why?
Certainly there has been a racial component to many instances of police overkill (literally, in the case of Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times). But whether dealing with individual suspects, performing house raids in the war on drugs, or even responding to street protests, the police have become increasingly militarized – using armored vehicles, assault weapons and grenades, and often going in guns blazing to deal with ordinary criminals. For instance, a Georgia toddler was severely injured by a flash grenade in a raid on the home of a suspected drug dealer.
The war on drugs itself has been responsible for mass incarceration and the creation of career criminals who, due to Draconian “three strikes “laws, are spending most of their natural lives in prison for minor drug infractions. Meanwhile, we are witnessing an epidemic of people addicted to opioids prescribed by their own doctors. Yet Trump’s new Attorney General Jeff Sessions has shown indications that he wants to ramp up the “war on drugs” that has done so little to reduce crime, addiction, or the proliferation of weapons in our country.
I certainly believe in the right of law enforcement officers to defend themselves from armed criminals and to use SWAT teams in very dangerous, high risk situations. But the normalization of these military tactics and responses is a danger to innocent people who may be swept up in a raid or peaceful protesters who are exercising their First Amendment right to assembly. More importantly, I believe that violence begets violence, whether we are dealing with military conflicts around the world or our own citizens here at home.
Our government, our laws, our military, and our law enforcement agencies should keep in mind the concept of proportional response in dealing with transgressions. They should seek to de-escalate conflict wherever possible. Such policies would increase respect for the men and women entrusted with keeping the peace and keeping us safe.