The wrath of Achilles transformed him from
the noblest of warriors into the most terrible, who continued to attack
adversaries he had already killed. After his betrayal of his commander,
and the death of his friend Patroclus, he was no longer truly himself;
his humanity was a casualty of war. The psychiatrist Jonathan Shay,
in his 1994 book, "Achilles in Vietnam," likens the Greek hero of the
Trojan War to American soldiers in Vietnam whose combat experiences
resulted in what he calls the "undoing of character." In them, feelings
of betrayal and loss led to such atrocities as the massacre at My Lai
and contributed to the high incidence of addiction, criminal behavior,
and suicide among returning veterans.
The explosions of rage at Troy and My Lai
are not far removed, at least in spirit, from what may have prompted
the behavior of the Brooklyn police officers accused of seriously inuring
a Haitian man, Abner Louima, in the precinct house by forcing a toilet
plunger up his rectum and then into his mouth. In police work, even
more than in modern warfare, there exists the imminent danger of hand-to-hand
combat. This combat, whether it arises from a routine traffic violation,
a domestic dispute, or a bank robbery, can be intimate and fatal. The
violent death of a police officer is a frequent occurrence, and it
leaves an acute but transient mark on the public consciousness. Other
casualties, ranging from line-of-duty injuries to suicide, whose rate
among policemen is significantly higher than the national average,
go largely unremarked by society as a whole. Unlike most sentient beings,
a police officer who hears gunfire is obliged to run toward it, and
this profoundly unnatural act requires a backup that includes a significant
measure of public trust.
Such trust, of course, in no way precludes
civilian scrutiny of police behavior. Still, New York has made attempts
to regulate police behavior that violate not only due process but common
sense. Here someone who makes a demonstrably false statement about
a police officer to the Civilian Complaint Review Board goes unpunished.
The complaint, however, remains on the accused officer's record. Before
Mayor Giuliani's administration, cops on patrol were strongly discouraged
from making drug arrests, even though narcotics - especially crack
- had become the primary cause of an epidemic of violent crime. Between
1990 and 1993, there were more than eight thousand homicides in New
York. Some public figures nevertheless maintain, with a stubbornness
bordering on the surreal, that the police have had next to nothing
to do with the recent, epochal drop in crime in the city.
Fortunately, most New Yorkers have believed
otherwise, and until mid-August the N.Y.P.D. was enjoying considerable
public esteem. The sickening Louima incident - a story that seemed
more like a dispatch from Bosnia or Iraq - quickly changed that. Yet
it is worth remembering that only a week earlier some of the officers
who were implicated in the incident had risked their lives to rescue
people from a collapsing building: they had reŽntered the scene of
the disaster even after being ordered, for their own safety, to withdraw.
Such a radical mutation of heroism into the basest brutality is not
often encountered in our daily lives, but it is a hallmark of soldiers'
lives in war. Moreover, what induced it can be mysterious even to the
officers involved. Belief in one's own exceptionalism may be a cultural
clichť, but it is also in the manual for tragedy.
Two officers are accused of the torture
of Louima; two more are accused of beating him up. The thirty-eight
thousand other officers of the N.Y.P.D. have been stigmatized by the
incident, and accusations of collective guilt have only intensified
the anger and shame felt by honest and honorable cops. Indeed, those
officers who have been obliged to continue their police work amid continuing
threats and rallies (with waving plungers) call to mind the returning
Vietnam Vets who were welcomed home with cries of "Baby killer!"
No talk of "battle fatigue" can excuse
police brutality - or military atrocity. Neither the laws of the state
nor the rules of war permit it. But the labor of understanding what
might have happened to two cops to make them lose all sense of decency
- indeed, all sense of themselves - and betray their oaths of
office, the public trust, and their thousands of colleagues must be
undertaken. And our judgement must be as precise as it is exacting.
Simone Weil, in a 1940 essay on "The Iliad," argues
that the greatness of Homer's epic lies in its equal treatment of enemies
- treatment that makes it easy for one to forget that its author was
Greek rather than Trojan. The work's encompassing humanity, Weil writes,
allows the horror of violence to be rendered with such lucid, sorrowing
eloquence - with a "note of incurable bitterness... that proceeds from
tenderness and that spreads over the whole human race, impartial as
sunlight." She goes on to say, "Force is as pitiless to the man who
possess it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims; the second
it crushes, the first it intoxicates. The truth is, nobody really possess
it... Thus it happens that those who have on loan from fate count on
it too much and are destroyed."
Weil's warning is clear: Whether engaged
in combat on the Trojan plain or in the jungles of Vietnam or on the
streets of Brooklyn, those who traffic in violence, regardless of the
justice of their cause, risk their hearts and minds as much as their
lives. And those who retain their integrity throughout the ordeal deserve
our respect, for it is on our behalf that they fight.