by Maya Pete
It has been one-hundred-fifteen days since police officer, Darren Wilson, shot high school graduate Michael Brown—once because he thought he had stolen a sandwich and five more times because he was black. Brown was unarmed. To date, our nation has not redressed Wilson for his senseless actions.
Racism. Discrimination. Bigotry. Intolerance. Why do I believe that human beings are agents of free will? Because babies are not born with the capacity to hate another being based on skin color. They do not understand the implications behind the evil that is segregation. They are oblivious to history, to the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Freedom Riders, the March on Washington. So, I ask, how does one become an agent of racism? Free will. How does one learn to hate one’s neighbor? Free will. How does a man, sworn to protect his community, take the life of a defenseless teenager without flinching? Free will. And how does a nation, that claims to govern itself under the principle of equal rights for all, let such a man off scot-free? Guess.
Yet, it can be argued that because of the influence others have on our decision-making and prejudices, that free will is just an illusion. A misconception, because we are so greatly impacted by the world around us, so our actions cannot be reduced to role playing and mimicry. We aim to please the world and in doing so forget that we have the capacity to act freely and spontaneously, informed by careful consideration and inspired by a sense of justice. For the majority of our young lives, we look to our parents for the answers, for guidance, and for the ultimate advice.
However, Simone de Beauvoir brings forth a valid point when she writes about a time in every adolescent’s life in which “Men stop appearing as if they were gods, and…Language, customs, ethics, and values have their source in these uncertain creatures” (The Ethics of Ambiguity, 39). Every child encounters an epiphany wherein he or she realizes that his or her parents do not have access to all of the secrets of the world. Therefore, they cannot be perfect models of human beings, and all of their morals and beliefs are not particularly valid. This realization often baffles, or scares, the adolescent, causing him or her to spiral into a pit of self-doubt wherein he or she must find ideals of his or her own to cling to. More often than not, such ideals tend to center around that of the prominent authoritative figure in his or her life. Moreover, the decisions we make, influenced by the world, or of our own pronouncement, are just that, our decisions. No matter kings or queens, common persons or homeless persons, all are allotted the opportunity to decide right and wrong for themselves.
If the authorities are community role models, should they not be held to higher standards? Should not we be able to trust them to make intelligent and concise decisions? According to de Beauvoir the rest of our lives are characterized by a desire to embrace this responsibility and accept the fundamental ambiguity of the world. When a police officer abuses his influence, in the manner that Wilson did, he, or she, is partaking in the act of mauvaise foi, or self-deception, bad faith. In this scenario, Wilson’s deception lies in the idea that he is an invincible agent of free will and of his own agenda. Deceived, by his own mind, to believe that murder is an imperative component of his occupation and neglecting the fact that the people of his community are the ones who pay for him to carry a gun in order to keep them safe from harm, he transforms from an agent of protection, into a sower of discord within his own community.
In this manner, Wilson is similar to Betran da Born from Canto XXVIII of Dante’s Inferno. Dante encountered Betran in the depths of hell, condemned to walk around holding his severed head for the remainder of eternity. This punishment was indicative of his sin: Betran turned Prince Henry against his father, King Henry II. Such a punishment was referred to as “the law of counter-penalty” or contrapasso. Basically, what goes around comes around, and you reap what you sow. In this case, Betran reaped his sins in the most literal sense. He mutilated the body politic and, consequently, his body was perpetually decapitated. Wilson is guilty of the same offense. Because a policeman is an essential part of a community, his abuse of power accordingly dismembers the body of his society. By senselessly shooting an unarmed citizen of his own community, not once but five extra times, he fundamentally turned his back on the population he had been entrusted to serve and protect. In doing so, Wilson neglected to fulfill his role in the community, because police violence is an imminent factor in the planting of discord in the body politic. In essence, by engaging in murder Wilson metaphorically severed the body that is his society.
“For just as the body is one and has many member, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body…. For the body does not consist of one member but of many” (1 Corinthians 12:12,14). Saint Paul argues that although the body is composed of many of members, each one is inherently and equally important and necessary to proper bodily functions. He states that “If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell…If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body” (1 Corinthians 12:17,19). Each part of the body is diverse, unique, but absolutely imperative to keeping the body from ultimately self-destructing. However, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:26). Copious suffering leads to devastation. Devastation of the self, and, most crucially, devastation of the body precede the destruction of the community in Wilson’s case. Wilson’s powerful influence and exoneration, subsequent to wounding the body politic, has given him the power of setting an absurd example of acceptable, and blatant, racism in the county of Ferguson.
Because all the citizens in one area are to be one community, racism is another factor that propagates dissonance in the body politic. It obtains the power to oppress a community and hold freedom, to oneself and to others, hostage, by obliterating freedom. Martin Luther King Jr. held fast to the concept that freedom must be a nationwide issue that expands from person to person, male to female, black to white.
“They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone” (Martin Luther King Jr., I Have A Dream Speech).
King describes the idea that a nation cannot claim to have the utmost freedom if half of its inhabitants are bound by the horrors of prejudice and the atrocity of oppression.
Therefore, a society ruled by racial discrimination is negligent of its integral free will. Because freedom is an inextricable product of free will, those who take part in destructing the body politic are obstructing the right of others to practice their fundamental freedom. Whether it is by obvious acts of injustice, such as murder, or more subtle nuances of racial segregation, those who take part in such acts of discrimination are essentially stripping inhabitants of their community of the ability to be agents of free will. Moreover, they diminish their own ability to be free because, as Saint Paul would agree, when one part of the body suffers the whole body suffers.
In conclusion, because Wilson is seen as an authoritative figure in his community, he ultimately has decapitated the head of his society’s body politic. Therefore, similar to Betran, Wilson shall be forced to walk around with his head, metaphorically, in his hand until justice is served in his municipal, order is restored, and free will becomes a renewed, natural occurrence.