A Philosopher's Blog

Responsibility for Shootings

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 22, 2014

In December 2014 two NYC police officers, Rafeal Ramos and Wenjian Liu, were shot to death by Ismaaiyl Brinsley. Brinsley had earlier shot and wounded his ex-girlfriend. Brinsley claimed to have been acting in response to the police killings of Brown and Garner.  There have been some claims of a connection between Brinsley’s actions and the protests against those two killings. This situation does raise an issue of moral responsibility in regards to such acts of violence.

Not surprisingly, this is not the first time I have written about gun violence and responsibility. After Jared Lee Lougher shot congresswoman Giffords and others in 2011, there was some blame placed on Sarah Palin and the Tea Party. Palin, it might be recalled, made use of cross hairs and violent metaphors when discussing matters of politics. The Tea Party was also accused of creating a context of violence.

Back in 2011 I argued that Palin and the Tea Party were not morally responsible for Lougher. I still agree with my position of that time. First, while Palin used violent metaphors, she clearly was not calling on people to engage in actual violence. Such metaphors are used regularly in sports and politics with the understanding that they are just that, metaphors.

Second, while there are people in the Tea Party who are very much committed to gun rights, the vast majority of them do not support the shooting of their fellow Americans—even if they disagree with their politics. While there are some notable exceptions, those who advocate and use violence are rare. Most Tea Partiers, like most other Americans, prefer their politics without bloodshed. Naturally, specific individuals who called for violence and encouraged others can be held accountable to the degree that they influence others—but these folks are not common.

Third, while Lougher was apparently interested in politics, he seemed to have a drug problem and serious psychological issues.  His motivation to go after Giffords seems to be an incident from when he was a student. He went to one of Giffords’ meetings and submitted a rather unusual question about what government would be if words had no meaning. Giffords apparently did not answer the question in a way that satisfied him. This, it is alleged, is the main cause of his dislike of Gifford

As such, the most likely factors seem to be a combination of drug use and psychological problems that were focused onto Giffords by that incident. Because of these reasons, I concluded that Sarah Palin and the Tea Party had no connection the incident and should not have been held morally accountable. This is because neither Palin nor the Tea Party encouraged Lougher and because he seemed to act primarily from his own mental illness.

As far as who is to blame, the obvious answer is this: the person who shot those people. Of course, as the media psychologists point out, it can be claimed that others are to blame as well. The parents. The community college. Society.

On the one hand, this blame sharing seems to miss the point that people are responsible for their actions. The person who pulled that trigger is the one that is responsible. He did not have to go there that day. Going there, he did not have to pull the trigger.

On the other hand, no one grows up and acts in a perfect vacuum. Each of us is shaped by factors around us and, of course, we have responsibilities to each other. There was considerable evidence that Lougher was unstable and likely to engage in violence. As such, it could be argued that those who were aware of these facts and failed to respond bear some of the blame for allowing him to be free to kill and wound.

Back in 2011 I did state that there were some legitimate concerns about Palin’s use of violent rhetoric and the infamous cross-hair map. I ended by saying that Palin should step up to address this matter. Not because she was responsible, but because these were matters worth considering on their own. I now return to the 2014 shooting by Brinsley.

Since consistency is rather important, I will apply the same basic principles of responsibility to the Brinsley case. First, as far as I am aware, no major figure involved in the protests has called upon people to kill police officers. No one with a status comparable with Palin’s (in 2011) has presented violent metaphors aimed at the police—as far as I know.  Naturally, if there are major figures who engaged in such behavior, then this would be relevant in assigning blame. So, as with Sarah Palin in 2011, the major figures of the protest movement seem to be morally blameless for Brinsley. They did not call on anyone to kill, even metaphorically.

Second, the protest movements seem to be concerned with keeping people from being killed rather than advocating violence. Protesters say “hands up, don’t shoot!” rather than “shoot the police!” People involved in the protests seem to have, in general, condemned the shooting of the officers and have certainly not advocated or engaged in such attacks. So, as with the Tea Party in 2011, the protest movement (which is not actually a political party or well-defined movement) is not accountable for Brinsley’s actions. While he seems to have been motivated by the deaths of Brown and Garner, the general protest movement did not call on him to kill.

Third, Brinsley seems to be another terrible case of a mentally ill person engaging in senseless violence against innocent people. Brinsley seems to have had a history of serious problems (he shot and wounded his girlfriend before travelling to NYC). Like Lougher, Brinsley is the person who pulled the trigger. He is responsible. Not the protestors, not the police, and not the slogans.

As with Lougher, there is also the question of our general responsibility as a society for those who are mentally troubled enough to commit murder. I have written many essays on gun violence in the United States and one recurring theme is that of a mentally troubled person with a gun. This is a different matter than the protests and also different from the matter of police use of force. As such, it is important to distinguish these different issues. While Brinsley claims to have been motivated by the deaths of Brown and Garner, the protesters are not accountable for his actions, no more than the NYC officers were accountable for the deaths of Brown and Garner.

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on December 23, 2014 at 5:32 pm

    “I’m putting wings on pigs today. They take 1 of ours…Let’s take 2 of theirs.” ~ Ismaaiyl Brinsley

    Ismaaiyl Brinsley: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know http://heavy.com/news/2014/12/ismail-brinsley-nypd-brooklyn-bed-stuy-shooting-suspect/

    Ismaaiyl Brinsley used the hashtags: #RIPEricGarner #RIPMikeBrown #ShootThePolice

    ‘Can they breathe?’ Execution-style killing of two NYPD officers celebrated; ‘Salute the shooter’ http://twitchy.com/2014/12/20/can-they-breathe-execution-style-killing-of-two-nypd-officers-celebrated-salute-the-shooter/

    “What do we want?”
    “Dead cops!”
    “When do we want it?”

    The Truth About the NYPD Murders: http://youtu.be/ijy90ikRLh8 via @YouTube

    Denver student protesters cheered when car struck officer, union official says | http://fxn.ws/123HsUD

    “What do we want?”
    “Darren Wilson!”
    “How do we want him?”

    Ferguson Protesters Harass Black Police, Call for Darren Wilson’s Death http://thebea.st/1vwGqxg via @JustinGlawe

  2. TJB said, on December 23, 2014 at 5:43 pm

    Sorry, Mike. Dems own this one. They whipped up the mob.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 24, 2014 at 5:35 pm

      For the Democrats to be accountable, that would seem to require 1)an intent to have police killed as as a party plank, 2) an incitement to violence as part of the party’s operations, and 3) a direct casual link to motivating the killer. These all seem to be lacking.

      The Democrats are no more accountable for Brinsley than Republicans are accountable when right wing extremists murder cops. Political parties don’t own the crazies unless they create them and guide them. Having some general ideological overlap does not suffice.

      Now, if you want to hold that the Democrats are accountable for Brinsley, then you would seem to be committed to the Republicans owning all the right wing extremists. These people are the main politically motivated cop killers in the US.

      • TJB said, on December 24, 2014 at 7:59 pm

        Mike, can you answer the question whether Iago is partly responsible for Desdemona’s death?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 25, 2014 at 5:41 pm

          Certainly. He engages in an intentional campaign of deceit and manipulation. But, the choices people make are still their own.

          Could you lay out the analogy between Othello and the current situation in terms of who is who and what is being done?

          • TJB said, on December 26, 2014 at 4:49 am

            Sure. The false and poisonous lie driving the protests is that institutional racism was responsible for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. This is simply not true, but the person who killed the two cops clearly believed it and acted on it.

            Why do you think the NYPD is mad at de Blasio? It is because he helped spread the lie.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 26, 2014 at 11:32 am

              There are reasonable arguments that racism is a factor in how some police operate and these are grounded in well-researched statistics. While these arguments can be reasonably disputed, to say that the conclusion is a poisonous lie seems rather strong. Now, if you can 1) show that the statistics in the research are in error or 2) logically undermine the analysis and 3) then show that those making the claims know they are in error and 4) they are acting from intentional malice, then you would be justified in saying that these are poisonous lies.

              To make sure I have this right, your argument is that those who are protesting, etc. are responsible for Brinsley’s actions because they make claims that Brinsley believed and that he claimed motivated him to kill. This is despite the fact that the vast majority of protesters have condemned violence and endorse peaceful methods.

              Would it make a difference to you if what you claim is a lie was actually true? That is, suppose there was institutionalized racism and this was responsible for the deaths of Garner and Brown. Would protesting that make people accountable for what Brinsley did? Or does it have to be untrue? Do they have to know it is untrue?

              Are conservatives accountable when they say things that are embraced by right wingers who go on to shoot police?

              Does it matter that Brinsley was mentally ill?

            • wtp said, on December 26, 2014 at 12:14 pm

              Do you see how the game is played, TJ? It is just a game, you understand. Obfuscate and meddle the issue until you can force the conversation to a place where you put your opponents in the position of having to provide hard facts in an area or subject that is a safe distance from the question originally asked. Which was, lest we forget, “Hands up, don’t shoot. Fact or fiction, Mike?”.

              You will also note this game played by the same character who dropped a duce like “That said, there are still some legitimate concerns about Palin’s use of violent rhetoric and the infamous cross-hair map. I will, however, not be discussing these now beyond saying that Palin would seem to need to step up to address this matter.” and then runs away from it.

              All this from a man who teaches “ethics”. But what should one expect from a sophist?

            • wtp said, on December 26, 2014 at 12:18 pm

              Meddle==muddle obviously…or perhaps not.

            • TJB said, on December 26, 2014 at 4:55 pm

              Mike, If you yell “fire” in a crowded theatre and people get hurt trying to leave the theatre, don’t you think it matters whether there was a real fire or not? I think it does.

              When Jews are killed based on a blood libel, doesn’t the perpetrator of the libel have blood on his hands?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 30, 2014 at 3:09 pm

              1. Yes.
              2. To the degree the person engaging in the libel influenced the actions of the killers. The person engaged in libel also commits the moral offense of lying (by definition of “libel”).

            • TJB said, on December 26, 2014 at 4:57 pm

              Mike, what is the evidence that racism was involved in the deaths of either Brown or Garner?

            • wtp said, on December 26, 2014 at 6:18 pm

              For God’s sake, TJ. Are you listening? If you can’t even get him to commit to the simple true/false question at the root of this thread of discussion, of what use is arguing anything dependent upon it? He’s playing the same old game he’s been playing for over five years now. Why do you suppose he continues to do so?

  3. wtp said, on December 23, 2014 at 7:29 pm

    “Hands up, don’t shoot” — fact or fiction, Mike?

  4. wtp said, on December 23, 2014 at 11:35 pm

    And while we’re asking questions Mike won’t answer, what does the chant “No justice, no peace!” mean? Do those chanting such deserve to be called “peaceful”? Ahh, but Mike has his own dictionary, written as he sees fit.

  5. TJB said, on December 24, 2014 at 6:26 am

    Mike, do you not believe that Iago is at least partly responsible for Desdemona’s death?

  6. TJB said, on December 24, 2014 at 9:05 am

    Mike, don’t you get tired of all the lies told by the Dems? 1 out 5 college women are raped, women earn only 77 cents of what men earn for the same job, etc.

    Heather Mac Donald
    The Big Lie of the Anti-Cop Left Turns Lethal

    Since last summer, a lie has overtaken significant parts of the country, resulting in growing mass hysteria. That lie holds that the police pose a mortal threat to black Americans—indeed that the police are the greatest threat facing black Americans today. Several subsidiary untruths buttress that central myth: that the criminal-justice system is biased against blacks; that the black underclass doesn’t exist; and that crime rates are comparable between blacks and whites—leaving disproportionate police action in minority neighborhoods unexplained without reference to racism. The poisonous effect of those lies has now manifested itself in the cold-blooded assassination of two NYPD officers.

    The highest reaches of American society promulgated these untruths and participated in the mass hysteria. Following a grand jury’s decision not to indict a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer for fatally shooting 18-year-old Michael Brown in August (Brown had attacked the officer and tried to grab his gun), President Barack Obama announced that blacks were right to believe that the criminal-justice system was often stacked against them. Obama has travelled around the country since then buttressing that message. Eric Holder escalated a long running theme of his tenure as U.S. Attorney General—that the police routinely engaged in racial profiling and needed federal intervention to police properly.

    University presidents rushed to show their fealty to the lie. Harvard’s Drew Gilpin Faust announced that “injustice [toward black lives] still thrives so many years after we hoped we could at last overcome the troubled legacy of race in America. . . . Harvard and . . . the nation have embraced [an] imperative to refuse silence, to reject injustice.” Smith College’s president abjectly flagellated herself for saying that “all lives matter,” instead of the current mantra, “black lives matter.” Her ignorant mistake, she confessed, draws attention away from “institutional violence against Black people.”

    The New York Times ratcheted up its already stratospheric level of anti-cop polemics. In an editorial justifying the Ferguson riots, the Times claimed that “the killing of young black men by police is a common feature of African-American life and a source of dread for black parents from coast to coast.” Some facts: Police killings of blacks are an extremely rare feature of black life and are a minute fraction of black homicide deaths. The police could end all killings of civilians tomorrow and it would have no effect on the black homicide risk, which comes overwhelmingly from other blacks. In 2013, there were 6,261 black homicide victims in the U.S.—almost all killed by black civilians—resulting in a death risk in inner cities that is ten times higher for blacks than for whites. None of those killings triggered mass protests; they are deemed normal and beneath notice. The police, by contrast, according to published reports, kill roughly 200 blacks a year, most of them armed and dangerous, out of about 40 million police-civilian contacts a year. Blacks are in fact killed by police at a lower rate than their threat to officers would predict. In 2013, blacks made up 42 percent of all cop killers whose race was known, even though blacks are only 13 percent of the nation’s population. The percentage of black suspects killed by the police nationally is 29 percent lower than the percentage of blacks mortally threatening them.


  7. nailheadtom said, on December 24, 2014 at 10:59 am

    The real tragedy in the Ferguson/Garner/NYPD affairs is that the focus has been diverted from the genuine concern over a general escalation of police violence to three particular incidents that are outside that area of concern. The many ambiguous aspects to the Michael Brown incident make it a poor example of the phenomenon that occurs daily in the US, where police use lethal force in all too many situations.

    The deaths of the two NY cops, while a significant event, has to be kept in perspective and viewed as what it is, not the untimely deaths of two people, but instead an assault on the establishment power structure. People of all kinds, including cops, die every day but somehow the lives of these two is more important than the lives of anyone else, but only because they’re cops. Half a dozen people or more are shot to death every weekend in Chicago, few bother to note their names. These two will be celebrated and mourned for a period because their demise was an inversion of the norm. Of course any sentient being knows that police departments are havens for degenerates of all kinds. That’s why internal affairs sections are such busy places. A number of NYPD cops that have been awarded disability status have been found to be frauds, literally stealing from the public. Yet we’ve been taught from birth that these people are all that stands between us and a gruesome end at the hands of bands of savages. There was no such thing as a police department anywhere until the early 19th century so prior human survival has to be considered a miracle.

    Blaming Sarah Palin or de Blasio for gun violence is, in itself, intellectually fraudulent at the most basic level. Neither of those two, at least one of whom is scorned by the pseudo-intelligencia, is capable of mesmerizing anyone at a distance. The idea that a public figure can command behavior is laughed at except in cases such as this, where it’s the easiest explanation.

    • magus71 said, on January 5, 2015 at 1:18 pm

      “where police use lethal force in all too many situations.”

      Do you have evidence to support this statement? Despite the media coverage of the last few years, statistics do not show that police shootings, reasonable or otherwise, are anymore common than in any other time in American history.

      I argue, that in the past, when a person was shot dead by the police, people shrugged their shoulders and said: “yep, crime doesn’t pay.”

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