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Acting Stupidly

by Dear Jon
July 28, 2009

A white police officer arrested a black man for breaking into his own house. That man turned out to be a famous Harvard professor, so the whole experience became a media diversion to get our minds off of Michael Jackson. Since it became overblown, someone thought it would be a neat sound-byte trap for President Obama. And they were right. President Obama called it like he saw it based on the information he had, which was the information most of us get--through the news. He stated that the police officer "acted stupidly."

President Obama was, of course, absolutely correct.

But oh my what a ruckus now! Some of us have even forgotten the name of Michael Jackson's doctor (who, according to rumors spread on Cable news by the ex-boyfriend of a cousin to a reliable witness, might have been dosing him with pure mercury for all we know. "That's not a needle, Doctor! That's a thermometer!").

Back to Boston: If I am entering my own home through a window, and am accosted by the police, I would expect my explanation to be thoroughly satisfactory. If it were not, I would expect my temper to rise. I am not saying that I am Harvard Professor material. But I do have a lot more empathy for Harvard Professors than I do for, say, professional hockey players. (To hockey fans everywhere: Empathy is not the same as sympathy. Instead of flaming me, please consult your local dictionary.) I can imagine myself responding similarly to this Harvard professor were I to have a similar brush with the law.

Well, Dear Jon, YOU don't have all the FACTS! Right. Neither did the President, and they asked him anyway what he thought. How many of us have all the facts about the Afghanistan surge? How many of us have an opinion about it anyway?

What was President Obama supposed to do?

President states: "I will not comment on a local matter of law enforcement."

Headline: Obama Takes Reagan-like Approach to Apartheid in Massachusetts.

President states: "I do not have all the facts."

Headline: Sharpton Demands Leadership from Waffling Uncle Tom President. "How many facts do he need?" said the Reverend. "Black man gets arrested for breaking into his own house. I'll give him the facts."

President states: "I am sure that the apology from the police department is sufficient to end this matter."

Headline: President Interferes in Local Law Enforcement.

President states: "That question is inappropriate."

Headline: President Curbs Freedom of Press to Make Inquiry.

Instead the President responded like a citizen, calling the situation the way he saw it. And the way he saw it brought absolute clarity to the situation.  That white police officer did act stupidly. Only now he will get to write a book: My Beer with the President and make the rounds of talk shows.

The police are our public servants. As in many other professions, they have dangerous and difficult work to do with little margin for error. As in many other professions, humility in that dangerous and difficult work goes a long way to reducing tensions. It may mean apologizing for the inconvenience. It may mean giving a name and directions for lodging a formal complaint when requested. It may mean apologizing for lapses in judgment. It is never comfortable being on the wrong side of an error. The last thing to do, in any profession, is to compound the error.

As a property-owner I have this to say on behalf of property-owners: I understand and am glad for the empowerment of police to act on suspicion and complaint. However, when the suspicion is itself dispelled, in my constitutional opinion, the warrant for the presence of law enforcement ends. Were I arrested under these conditions I might pursue a suit on constitutional grounds and force the Supreme Court to weigh in: To what degree is a private citizen's residence inviolate? When does the power to detain and arrest become unconstitutional?

The President was right. In my view, it is now the President who has acted stupidly to the extent that he has apologized and turned this all into an even bigger circus. That police officer is a hero just for putting on the uniform, but in this event he is neither a martyr nor a victim. I come from a city that puts faces on dart-boards of baseball fans who interfere with foul balls. As far as I am concerned, this is a face for a dart-board, to be sold to home-owners everywhere who care about the sovereignty and dignity of their own privacy in a society that is increasingly ignorant of its founding principles.

I expect to get flamed. Bring it on. The President has already apologized. Advancing glaciers will be cancelling the Daytona 500 before I do.

Where did I put my darts?

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