One of the great challenges for a citizen of the United States is the intellectual gymnastics one must perform in reconciling our national ideals with our living reality. We are a nation committed to the ideals of freedom and equality, and the belief that justice and equity will prevail in all cases. We honor those individuals who have sacrificed their lives in the defense of these ideals, and Memorial Day is an occasion on which we redouble that honor. This, despite the fact that our nation often fails to live up to these ideals, and in some cases, those whom we honor have failed to live up to the ideals they claim to defend.
Last week a judge in Cleveland acquitted a veteran-turned-police officer who inexplicably felt it was his duty to leap on the hood of a citizen’s car and empty not one, not two, but three magazines of bullets into the already bullet riddled bodies of the two men in the car. The officer had chosen a bench trial, possibly assuming that a jury of his “peers” would not afford him the same leniency as a judge. What this judge proved as he twisted his way through a pre-verdict presentation is that justice is not just blind. In the United States, justice may also be deaf and mute. The judge determined that there was not enough evidence to hold this veteran accountable to the ideals of justice that the soldier presumably fought to defend in our country’s wars in foreign lands.
If this were a single, isolated incident of injustice, we might overlook it as an aberration. But this story of the Cleveland police officers who acted without honor, who violated nearly all the ideals we profess to hold dear, and the judge who excused them from responsibility for their acts of violence, is just the latest in a string of similar stories of the kind of inhumanity that seems to have taken root in police departments across the country.
If we hope to live in a free, just, and equitable society we may need to reexamine our uncritical reverence of those who claim to protect us. I have met police officers and soldiers who are worthy of the honor we bestow, and a blanket pardon for crimes against other humans would likely offend them as much as it offends me. So, on this Memorial Day, as we reflect on the service of those who died serving this country, let’s also remember the victims of state sanctioned violence — those who died at the hands of police officers. And if we really believe in the American ideology, let’s take a stand and say we won’t ignore the brokenness of a system that fails to treat all its citizens with justice and equity.