There are few things more un-democratic than the abuse of violence to silence a voice of protest. And yet that is exactly what we have seen at university campuses and in city parks across the country over the past weeks. Some have argued that this outburst of brutality is the result of a decade of creeping militarization of police departments. There is something to this argument and it is reflected in the difficulty in distinguishing between the uniforms, weaponry, and popular publications for police officers and the same equipment and literature that are produced for soldiers. However, even the most over-equipped and on-edge police officers will only abuse their power to harm civilians if they believe that their chain of command will support their actions. In other words, these events happen because of the absolute failure of moral leadership by people like Chancellor Katehi of UC Davis, Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna of the NYPD, and the mayors of Portland, Oakland, Seattle, and other cities.
Various media outlets carried coverage of Dep. Insp. Bologna's rampage during the week of September 24th, but this material has recently been replaced by even more outrageous images from UC Davis, UC Berkeley, and Seattle. These images may become iconic, however they also fail to tell the full story of the officers who conduct themselves with integrity or the utterly spineless behavior of the elites who hold ultimate responsibility for this draconian response to peaceful demonstrators.
We have entered the Twilight Zone. When our soldiers who daily put their lives on the line make weak excuses for violence against innocent civilians, we readily admit that they should be fired and the world eagerly roasts them on the spit of public opinion. Life is tough, we say, and soldiers have to be held accountable for their mistakes. True. However, when the chancellors of UC Davis and UC Berkeley, NYPD spokesmen, and various mayors make morally bankrupt decisions on American soil and follow them with flaccid remarks that seem to defend the use of brutality, they all keep their jobs. Where is our outrage against the use of police violence to silence protest on our own soil? Surely we don't reserve our righteous indignation for abuses by our own soldiers overseas, or regimes like Egypt, Syria, and Yemen?
Ethical leadership is not some kind of an abstract construct that we can't apply to our everyday lives. In this security obsessed world of ours it is more important than ever. A lack of ethical leadership by civilians and soldiers is exactly what led to the atrocities at Abu Ghraib. At one point or another it affected nearly every kind of decision that I had to make as a platoon leader in Afghanistan. If I was seen as softening my stance on ethical standards in the platoon, then my soldiers would find unpleasant ways to test my limits. The same applied to my commander. We had to keep a tight leash on both ourselves and our subordinates to keep our unit on the straight and narrow. That balance of judicious use of real violence with extreme care to avoid unnecessarily harming civilians or their property was the challenge of a lifetime. When I see UC Davis police officers in riot gear spraying seated students in the face with mace, it is clear that neither they nor their superiors have even tried to live up to the ethical challenge that we demand of our soldiers who work and live in much more difficult positions.
More troubling than these patent failures of ethical leadership is the way that the images of continuing violence against protest movements in the Middle East are now much harder to separate mentally from the actions taken by local government leaders on American soil. This is not to say that there is no difference between the United States and countries like Iran that are unashamed to murder innocent protestors. If I believed that were true, I would never have put on a uniform to defend the United States. It is love and patriotism that move me to say that we are better than the events of recent weeks, and as a community we need to demand leaders who understand the moral complexities of their positions. So far no innocent civilians have been gunned down by police breaking up one of the Occupy protests in an American city. And technically pepper spray and tear gas don't usually cause permanent injury to people who don't have asthma or an unlucky allergy. But do we really want to admit that we've set the bar that low?