When are Cops Heroes?

I rewatched Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 the other night, after seeing the sequel. My thoughts had been hovering on a PoliceLivesMatter bumper sticker I saw slapped to the back of a stop sign that day when I sat down to watch superheroes. This got me to thinking about superheroes and real heroes and what heroes are, philosophy. What the hell is a hero anyway? I know I’m not the first philosopher to ask the question. That was probably Aristotle while examining the ethics of bravery. But my thoughts went to Peter A. French, a contemporary expert in the realm of moral philosophy and responsibility.

In the eleventh chapter of his book Responsibility Matters, French examines the role heroism plays in moral action. Who is the moral hero? What does it take to be a moral hero? French draws the archetype of the modern hero as the comic book superhero, but he is quick to denounce this iconography. The superhero is superhuman, and thus a terrible model for the moral hero. Like the Nietzschean Übermensch that they descend from, the superhero’s abilities place them outside the moral rules for mere mortals, placing them beyond good and evil. The morality of the superhero is simpler, easier, more straight-forward, black and white, and immediately obvious. Worse, it lacks all nuance. It does not require thinking or compassion or sacrifice. It is authoritarian and comes down upon mortals from above. Like gods before them, the superheroes simply know right from wrong. When they deal out death, their vaulted place above mortals makes their decisions right, in the sense that might always makes right, since to question it is to bring unstoppable violence upon one’s self. One is entirely vulnerable in the presence of the demi-god or superhero.

Police officers, it should noted, are not demi-gods. Unlike most superheroes, the men and women of law-enforcement suffer from the pangs of mortality: they are ignorant, fearful, prejudiced, and self-interested.

French names four conditions he feels are necessary for heroism. The first is that the hero defining actions must intend a “morally desirable end” (113). For example, winning the Super Bowl is not morally relevant, and thus those players that struggle long and hard to achieve that end, even when successful, are not heroes. The second is that a heroic action must involve risk to the hero and the hero must be aware of that risk (114).  Superman is not a hero for charging into a room full of armed bank robbers because their weapons cannot hurt him. The third is that the risk to life or limb or property or others is not being undertaken in the spirit of sport, that is the hero doesn’t gamble for fun (114).  The hero’s motives must be fixed on the “morally desirable end” and not a risk for risk’s sake.  The fourth and final condition is that “the hero’s intention to help others must be proportional to his or her sacrifice” (115). It may be a moral good to save someone some money at the cash register, but risking one’s life to do so is not heroic; it’s foolish.

Heroism, French explains, is not a duty, it is exceptional (116-119). Nor would we want it otherwise. French identifies a tension between society and its heroes that makes heroes both necessary and a threat to the common good (120). This tension tips sometimes this way and sometimes that. But French claims and I agree, that for the last several decades the tension in the US has shifted away from heroes. “We teach rules, not lives”, he writes; “[t]he turn towards litigation in the last thirty years has produced cowardly rule followers who maintain only minimum standards of moral behavior” (121).  Heroism has been overshadowed by celebrity and “Courage has lost ground to security” (121). French concludes this chapter by arguing that “Ideals must be exemplified, principles made incarnate…  In the end, it does not matter whether the heroes we try to replicate are real or fictional. What matters is that the heroes held before our collective consciousness are emulatable personifications of the virtues on which the flourishing of a good society depends” (121).

But what about the superheroes of Guardians Vol. 1. In that movie, none of the Guardians start as moral heroes. Star-Lord is a thief and roguish womanizer. Gamora is a ruthless assassin. Groot and Rocket are petty bounty-hunters. And Drax the Destroyer is in prison for mass murder. Not exactly the stuff moral heroes are made of. After forming a loose confederacy to sell a stolen orb for inordinate money, things go downhill quick for these non-heroes–morally and physically. After the story arc reaches its nadir, each of the characters comes to have a singular moment. In this moment the individual character finds him or her or it-self in a decisive situation. It is an opportunity both for self-sacrifice and towards a “morally desirable end”, a giving over of your one’s self to something greater and better. After Gamora realizes that the “orb” contains a planet-devastating weapon, she decides not to sell it and even to fight the powerful forces that seek to have it, in order to protect the lives of strangers.   Nevertheless, the orb is taken and Gamora left for dead. Star-Lord then risks his life and gives up his freedom to Yondu (who wants to kill him at this point) in order to save Gamora from death. Drax–after summoning his enemy and endangering everyone in an ultimately doomed revenge attempt–comes to admit his weaknesses and place trust and value in his friends. Groot denies Rocket, demanding that they attempt to save Star-Lord and Gamora from Yondu despite the fact that there is no profit in it for them. Many of these transformations are done to comic effect, but nevertheless, the heroism feels pretty real.

Each self-sacrifice makes the next self-sacrifice easier. The transformative value of self-sacrifice that turns mortals into heroes culminates in the greatest moment of decision, when the group decides to attempt to stop the villain Ronin–now in possession of the ultimate weapon–despite the fact that this likely means death. All agree to the suicide mission. The last hold-out, Rocket, eventually finds his place as a hero as he leads the defense of the planet from the kamikaze attacks of Ronin’s forces. So that at the end of the movie, when Star-Lord has taken hold of the infinity stone (from the orb), which no mortal may touch, the group does not hesitate. They reach out to him, standing with him, sacrificing their individual selves to strengthen the group, because doing so is what is right. Each act of self-sacrifice has made each character–little by little–into a moral hero. Their acts do not go unrecognized. The heroes are not “rewarded” for their heroism; they are appreciated for it. They become the realization of the best of us, the ideal made flesh.

The Guardians are heroes because the challenges they faced were life-threatening, aimed at a moral good, but most importantly, they chose to self-sacrifice in full knowledge of these facts. They are instructive because we can see how anyone, even the worst criminals, can become moral heroes. However, an act of heroism is just that, a single instant. To be a hero, this moral action must become sustained. It is not enough to do a good deed in a life of bad ones. Heroism must be more than blip. The Guardians will surely go on, but they can never return to who they were when they started, or if they do, renounce their status as heroes.

So what about the real-life heroes? Does this moral logic apply to them? At first blush, we can imagine that the police are heroes because putting on the shield is understood to entail risking one’s life for the good of society. Police risk something in order to achieve a better world. But French, following Kant, argues that heroism is not a moral duty. And merely being a police officer is not a moral duty: a role one inhabits that may carry risk. The job itself is honorable and noble coextensively with its purpose being bent toward justice, but the job is not heroic. Police do not “put their lives on the line for us every day” as the bumper-sticker argument assures. Most days the lives of police officers are in no more jeopardy than an average citizen. And, as it turns out, in far less jeopardy than many vulnerable populations. Thus French’s second condition of heroism is not being met most of the time by most of the officers. In fact, police departments have been very complicit in giving up ground from courage to security. Officer training procedures emphasize the value of officer’s lives at the price of justice. Equipment, from police cruisers to bullet-proof vests to riot gear to arming police with everything up-to and including deadly weapons are under the pretense of protecting officers’ lives. The heroism of self-sacrifice is becoming less and less a part of the job. Shooting first and finding out if it’s justified later is increasingly the rule.

Police use guns to protect themselves not anyone else. If to be a hero is to brave death in order to see that justice prevails then some acts of self-protection violate this moral status. Again these opportunities are relatively rare, even for police. But when they occur, officers always have a choice: protect themselves first or uphold justice first. Kant held the first solution to be a moral duty, thus it is not heroic to protect oneself. Everyone should protect themselves all the time, but self-sacrifice in the name of justice demands we abandon our moral duty for something higher than ourselves. And it must become a habit. Justice must come first in every action of a police officer for us to call that or any officer a hero. Bravery does not come from self-protection, it comes from risk so that justice is carried out.

If this were all that was going on, then we could say that we live in a world where law-enforcement is simply made-up of a great deal of decent folk, a splotch of rotten apples, with maybe a small sprinkling of heroes. Fair-enough! But this is not all that is going on. Police are routinely killing citizens, many of whom aren’t much of threat or any at all. This turns the tables completely around. If self-sacrifice in the name of justice makes one a hero, this sort of over-blown self-protection that sacrifices justice should be condemned as cowardice. And it goes without saying that cowardice is no defense against murder. Anyone who kills because they believed they were under threat although they weren’t, or they were angry, or they had their pride wounded, or they were insulted, or were meant to deal with harsh words, in other words, those who cannot exercise restraint when restraint is what is due are disgraces to the uniform.

Officer Wilson’s execution of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO was an act of cowardice, if not of crime. He did his job, just the way he was trained. He violated no laws, and yet he acted with injustice. This is the heart of the complaint that BlackLivesMatter represents. Not Wilson or any other individual, but that police departments nationwide put little to no value on justice. 

Please, do not misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting it’s a problem for the police to protect themselves. By all means, police have a right to self-defense. And it will be tested by them more than others. It’s part of the job, and as long as it is in keeping with the name of justice it is acceptable. What is not acceptable is the fact that cowardice seems to be an instillation in the modern police culture. Officers are trained to be cowards, not heroes. Trained to react on prejudices and fears, rather than staying cool. The police can take a (white) mass-murdering gunman alive. Someone known to be armed, someone who has shot at police, and maybe killed one. If that is a possibility, it is a possibility for every single incident police have to face. How embarrassingly cowardly then does it appear to shoot an unarmed (black) boy? 

And it’s so pervasive it’s fueling a rebellion. Putting on the shield doesn’t automatically make you a hero, but following your police training, following the rules, certainly seems to be making police cowards. Saying black lives matter is not saying that police lives don’t, but police are expected to uphold justice, even at the cost of their lives.

It is allegiance to justice above life, above liberty, above all else that makes the police something more than a violent gang pursuing their self-interests. I believe the job of police deserves respect; the task we charge them with is not easy, but respect for individuals is earned. This systemic cowardice should not be tolerated by the police and the cowards should be drummed out of the force. No union should defend them, and I say that as a socialist. The union should have a clear cut line on this issue of brutality, negligence, and conduct. Individuals who cross it are on their own. Neither should the courts grant immunity to any of these acts. Immunity, after all, is meant to guard civil servants from frivolous legal actions, and accusations of homicide and police brutality are never frivolous.  

Like being a hero, it is little moments, little decisions, that over and over again make the next one a little easier. To be worthy of respect police must put themselves second to justice in every decision. In order to do that, they must know what justice is. What it looks like. How it feels. It is not the law. Even where the law and justice are in perfect harmony, it is not the law. Justice is above the law. The law aspires towards it. I don’t know if police training teaches cops to consider what justice is so that they can put it above themselves and by so doing earn the respect of heroes. Police have the monopoly on violence, the discretion to hurt and kill, and when enacting justice is not the primary concern of police, they fail in their responsibility to everyone.

Finally, I want to end this by circling around again to where we began: with superheroes. There is one, interestingly mortal, who ought to serve as the example for all police: the Batman. Perhaps because Batman is mortal, with no extraordinary powers, he is one of the few superheroes to live by a strict code of conduct. His code does not permit him to deliver death to anyone, and neither does he deal with guilt or innocence. He is the moral opposite of the Punisher, a terrible, if frequent, role-model for police to emulate. Batman very simply and very shrewdly tries to minimize harm for everyone, including himself lastly. He does not kill, he does not hurt, in fact, he risks his own life to protect the lives of the dastardly supervillains he tries to apprehend, putting them before himself. To a coward, this would be foolish, to a hero it is perfection. The Punisher is not a hero, but Batman is, and is precisely because he puts justice above all else.

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