If you haven’t seen the video, you certainly have heard about the savage beating of Tyre Nichols, which led to his death, murder charges brought against five Memphis police offers who carried out the atrocity, and their subsequent firing.
Brutal, horrific, evil. And real.
And I am sad, angry, defeated. And disoriented. As I always am when evil shows up. At some level I know evil exists. I am familiar with the dynamics which can cause it to emerge – and I have learned how to stay out of evil’s way. And I know that not everyone can.
And then evil happens. Torture, trafficking, ruthless violence. Most of the time we only hear or read about about it. But this time we can see it – in graphic detail. And when I see the evil – not the fabricated evil described in novels or depicted in movies and TV dramas; no, the real evil as we saw it in the released video; my first reaction is to want to unsee it. How can this be happening? How can people be so cruel? I want to push it out of my consciousness, and remove it from my soul — because evil doesn’t belong there.
The last time (and I think only time) I punched someone was when I was about twelve years old. A group of us were walking to our weekly Boy Scout meeting, held every Monday evening. We reluctantly included Danny. Most of us didn’t like him. He was incredibly annoying. He started taunting me, and wouldn’t give up. And when he said something insulting about my sister, I swung.
I hit him in the finger. No damage done.
I immediately apologized. My punch surprised me more than it did Danny. And I said then – and I continue to say now, that I am not a violent person. And I’m not – at least physically. But I can get verbally violent – especially in traffic (thankfully the windows are almost always rolled up). I can curse loudly – and violently, at some news story that offends my sense of justice. And I mean it. These outbursts surprise me – because I didn’t think I had that level of venom in me.
But I do. We do.
We are living at a time when violence is permitted, if not encouraged. There are more and more entrepreneurs of violence who are annoying, taunting and insulting – and won’t give up. And when we swing or shoot or swear in some sort of response – and point back to those who egged us on, the reaction is almost always, “What, me? I didn’t do anything.”
The police are meant to be public safety officers. Assigned to keep the peace. And often they do. But there is a violent dimension in the DNA of policing in this country. One of the primary responsibilities of police departments in the 19th century was to seek out, capture, and return runaway slaves. There was nothing nonviolent about that enterprise. What we saw in the Tyre Nichols video was abominable, yes, but also a logical extension of their history. At some level, it is what we have asked them to do.
The five officers need to be prosecuted. And at the same time, we need to take stock of the fact that we live in a violent country. That evil can show up in unspeakable ways. It is tempting to ascribe the evil impulses to others; but we carry it in us as well. It can burst forth. If we are going to have an impact on reducing violence, it is important to acknowledge that it is embedded in our culture, and seeps into our psyches.
We can’t afford not to see that. As Jesus said, “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Matthew 7:5)