IN THIS basically urban society, how is it possible to prevent the kind of incidents that have stirred the people's passions and brought about massive protests, some of them violent?
The answer is that it may not be possible, without radical changes - in law enforcement, economic and educational opportunities, and cultural, social and racial attitudes that free us finally from the dead hand of the past.
Accomplishing all this may be just too much to expect in a nation overwhelmed by domestic problems, from immigration to the fear of terrorism, and still wrestling 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation with how to deal with our ethnic differences.
Every time we take a step forward, and there have been a number of those, we are jarred back into reality with events like the tragedies of Ferguson, Mo., and New York City that seem, at least, to manifest our historic deficiencies.
Is there ever a day when this country's founding creed of equality becomes a fact? Probably not . . . as much as we would like it to be so. The elimination of hatred, my father used to say, is beyond the ability of humans to accomplish even if we were all the same color, shared the same habits and had the same wealth and intellectual capacity. A wise man once said that if all the cars were lined up from here to the moon, someone would pull out to pass.
So, where do we start to at least bring about some reforms that make the chances of Ferguson, although probably inevitable, far less than they are now? Should we disarm our police totally and order them to avoid confrontation at any cost?
Of course not.
Before anyone reads this as a defense of firing six bullets into an unarmed teenager or ignoring the complaints by one being arrested that he can't breathe as he is ultimately choked to death, it certainly is not. It is merely a personal attempt to understand how these things happen in a society that is supposed to be civilized in the 21st century.
President Obama, as a first pace forward to solving the problem, wants to equip all law-enforcement officers with automatic body cameras so that there can be no doubt about what is occurring. Some police forces already use such devices, but even then, somehow, they get turned off or fail to work on occasion. And the New York City chokehold incident was videoed from start to finish and still a grand jury found it insufficient to indict.
Then where do we start if we consider this merely a problem with police?
A suggestion might be in who we hire and the training we put them through before we send them onto the street to "preserve and protect." Pay becomes a factor as does the level of education, and not unimportantly the size of those who become officers. There are physical standards in most urban forces, but outside they understandably are rarely a consideration.
In both the New York and Ferguson cases, the suspects were considerably larger than the officers. In New York, there were four officers trying to wrestle a very large man to the ground. In Ferguson, the police officer was big but Michael Brown was larger and obviously stronger. In both cases intimidation by a bigger opponent seemed to be evident.
An increased effort to instill officers with a better understanding of their duties and obligations, including when and when not to use deadly force, might help. More importantly, extensive testing to determine their psychological fitness for the job including their racial attitudes obviously are needed. All this may be beyond the economic capacity of a force like Ferguson.
One of the most startling aspects of that Brown case was that its police department was basically white in a community that is overwhelmingly black. A mitigating factor for this disparity in some instances could be that blacks culturally think of police as the enemy and joining them a somewhat traitorous act. I have to believe that much of that derives from clear prejudices within the police ranks that excluded them in the past from the opportunity. Those who join are often uncomfortable on the job and in the community.
The only conclusion one can come to in all this is that we must do better or this society we think is great never will be.