If you had to distill all of America’s cultural mythology into a single word, you might come up with this one: belief. It’s central to the narrative of self-improvement and the American dream, and of course to the nature of religion. A state of belief is a sort of venerated state in American culture. From Morpheus’ whispered “he’s starting to believe” in The Matrix through rags-to-riches stories as diverse as 8 Mile and Rocky and self-help trash like The Secret, to endless exhortations to just believe in yourself enough and you’ll succeed, the idea of strong belief as a virtue is pervasive and all-encompassing. It’s also dangerous. And in the past few weeks, we’ve seen why.
Belief is something that has to be grounded in reason. If it’s not, it becomes blind and dogmatic. And more pointedly, it can never be a reason for action on its own — or, at least, it shouldn’t be. We need look no further than the case of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old kid shot dead by police on a Cleveland playground for carrying a toy gun. There will most likely be no charges against the police, of course, and to see why, consider something the father of Tim Loehmann, the officer who pulled the trigger, said yesterday: that his son had “no choice,” because he believed Rice had a real gun.
Here’s the problem with this logic: it removes the possibility — and ignores the consequences — of being wrong. This doesn’t work in any other scenario: I can believe as hard as I like that the sky is red or that I’m good enough to play in the NBA, but in both cases, I’ll be wrong, because it isn’t, and I’m not. And it’s an ill-conceived threshold for action.
It’s also not what the law says. In tort law generally, there’s a thing called the reasonable person test, which provides a standard for the validity of a belief: would a reasonable person believe the same thing? If someone broke into your house and menaced you with a gun, and you shot them in self-defense, and then it turned out their gun was fake, it turns out your belief was, objectively, false — your life wasn’t in danger. But would a reasonable person have believed the same thing you did: that this person who’d already demonstrated the intent to break into your house and was menacing you with a realistic gun did in fact present a threat to your life? Yes, quite possibly.
This is important, because it places the legal onus not on the strength of personal belief, but on the validity of that belief. You may very well believe that the moon is made of green cheese, but would a reasonable person agree? No, of course not. This test has been a mainstay of tort law around the world, and it applies to, among other things, Missouri’s law on deadly force, relevant in the case of Darren Wilson and Mike Brown: “In order for a person lawfully to use force in self-defense, he must reasonably believe he is in imminent danger of harm from the other person. He need not be in actual danger but he must have a reasonable belief that he is in such danger.” For these purposes, the word “reasonable” refers back to the “reasonable person” definition.
But throughout the deposition and the coverage of the case, we rarely see any reference to whether a reasonable person might have considered himself to be in imminent danger of harm. Instead, we hear about whether Wilson believed himself to be in danger. And the thing is that only Wilson knows what Wilson believed. By definition, only Wilson can ever know this. Similarly, perhaps Tim Loehmann really did believe that a 12-year-old boy with a toy gun was in fact a dangerous gunman who needed to be shot within a second of being engaged by police. (Go on, watch the video.)
I mean, you’d hope so, right? Unless they’re actual murderous psychopaths who really do shoot black people for fun, I expect the police really did think that Tamir Rice had a real gun. I expect that the police who arrived at the Wal-Mart to shoot the unfortunate John Crawford, a black man carrying a pellet gun he’d picked up off a shelf in the store, believed he had a real gun. But so what? Those beliefs were wrong. Tamir Rice wasn’t a dangerous thug loitering in a playground, he was a 12-year-old kid with a toy gun. Crawford wasn’t a potential killer stalking the aisles of a suburban Wal-Mart, he was a regular dude who was thinking about buying a pellet gun. And Mike Brown wasn’t a supernatural demon with what Wilson seemed to believe was some sort of scary black-man marijuana jungle strength, he was an 18-year-old kid who may or may not have not taken kindly to being told not to walk in the middle of the road.
Anyway, the point is that in all these cases, the narrative has focused on whether or not the police genuinely believed the person they shot was a threat. And in all these cases, this focus is wrong, both in law and in logic. It doesn’t matter how firmly Tim Loehmann believed that a 12-year-old with a toy gun was in fact a deadly menace who needed to be shot on sight: I submit that perhaps a reasonable person might see a kid in the park with a toy gun and think, hey, there’s a kid in the park with a toy gun. Perhaps a reasonable person might see a guy in Wal-Mart with a pellet gun and think, hey, I guess that guy’s buying a pellet gun.
Because if you’re going to take away a man’s life (or, in one of these cases, a child’s life), you’d better be damn sure that you have a reason for doing so. It’s not enough just to really, really believe you’re right. You should take steps to verify whether the person you perceive as a threat is in fact a threat. And if it turns out you were wrong, you should be held responsible for that error — because it is an error. When most of us make a major mistake at work, we get shouted at. And most of us are making lower-stakes errors than shooting someone dead for a bogus reason.
And again, this comes back to belief. The police believed Ronald Ritchie, who called them about Crawford “pointing the gun at people,” and didn’t bother to verify any further that Crawford was a threat. It turns out, though, that the caller was full of shit — he’s a fantasist who describes himself as an “ex-Marine” despite being booted from the Marine Corps after seven weeks because his enlistment was fraudulent. Maybe he’s deluded enough that he really believed that Crawford was a threat to the public. Maybe he also believes in fairies and talking Gila monsters.
It doesn’t matter. The police took his story at face value, and made no further attempt to verify it. Why might that be? The answer, of course, is that Ritchie’s beliefs tallied with their own. A black man. A gun. A dangerous thug. A threat. Beliefs aren’t formed in isolation; they’re based on entire belief systems, which are in turn founded in an entire world view, with all the prejudices and preconceptions that implies. People are generally more likely to react to evidence that confirms their beliefs, rather than challenging them.
Part of the rationale for the reasonable person test is that it seeks to avoid this problem by assuming impartiality and neutrality on part of the hypothetical reasonable person. If you trade that for a subjective standard based on the beliefs of the people involved, you’re essentially allowing for a legal system that reflects institutionalized prejudice.
Of course, you might argue that that’s exactly what we do have in this country. If you read through all the grand jury evidence in the Mike Brown case, you come to realize that many witness accounts directly contradict Wilson’s evidence… except for that of a certain “Witness 10,” whose evidence is remarkable in two respects: it tallies with Wilson’s perfectly, and it tallies with precisely no other witness’. It’s… well, let’s say it’s remarkable. And yet, it was believed, so much so that the Washington Post is holding it up as the archetypal “reasonable person” test.
These cases all demonstrate, in the most stark and brutal way, just how dangerous and destructive preconceived and ill-formed beliefs can be, especially when those beliefs are grounded in centuries of prejudice and poisonous race relations. An honest belief shouldn’t get you off the hook if that belief turns out to be horseshit. Beliefs are not a shield. Beliefs are not immutable. They’re not even a good thing in and of themselves, because without questioning they become dogma. They’re something that should be constantly questioned, because left unquestioned, it doesn’t matter how heartfelt they are; they’re the sort of thing that can lead you to shoot a 12-year-old in a park.