He’d left the water running, flooding neighbors’ apartments. He’d been running around outside naked. By the time police arrived, he was standing in the window of his fourth-floor apartment on Farwell Avenue — a few blocks from where I live in the diverse, unpredictable Chicago neighborhood called Rogers Park — threatening to jump.
He pointed his finger at the cops, pretending he had a gun. He yelled expletives. The standoff lasted four hours.
But eventually, he capitulated. The forces of sanity held sway. He was taken to a hospital. No one was hurt. (Phew-w-w!) And life in Rogers Park moved on.
Beyond the big why, a question the size of infinity — why, sir, did you snap? — things more or less returned to normal (Clark Street reopened, I could get to Walgreen’s) and the incident folded into our ongoing, collective shrug: This stuff happens, y’know?
But I have this one sticking point, and it won’t go away. The more I wonder about it, the wider it opens. Local coverage of the incident included a photo montage of the standoff: pictures of police officers standing around by the apartment building, the blurry naked guy in the window, SWAT team officers in full body armor, an MRAP parked on Farwell . . .
They drove a tank (or tank-looking armored truck, designed to withstand improvised explosive devices) up to Rogers Park because a guy was running around the neighborhood naked? Who’s crazy here?
Unavoidably, an ancient Norman Mailer quote flooded my thoughts. Writing, in Miami and the Siege of Chicago, about the Republican and Democratic national conventions of 1968, Mailer observed that despite the massive police and military presence at the events, we have “no real security, just powers of retaliation.”
Half a century later, all that’s changed is the technology: what you might call the technology of insecurity. Our powers of retaliation are more massive than ever. It’s the mutually assured destruction complex, perhaps: the governmental abdication, at every level, of any attempt to achieve a complex understanding of human behavior and the maintenance of social order sheerly by the use of force or its symbolic display. That’s why the MRAP in my neighborhood felt so disheartening.
I started thinking about the nature of authority. Is there such a thing as authority that isn’t hierarchical in nature, that isn’t about the threat of punishment? Then I thought about Elian Gonzalez.
Remember him? Back in 2000, when he was six years old, he accompanied his mother and her boyfriend when they attempted to flee Cuba and join relatives in Miami. His mother drowned in the journey, but Elian survived and was held in the custody of the relatives, who wanted to keep him here. His father, still in Cuba, wanted his son back, and eventually, a federal district court ruled in the father’s favor. U.S. border patrol agents were sent to retrieve Elian from the relatives — and they entered the house in full battle gear, brandishing assault rifles.
Someone present took a photo of one of the agents apparently pointing his rifle directly at the face of a screaming Elian. The photo went viral.
I wrote at the time: “Certainly, the intransigent faction who believed 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez should not have been returned to his father got what it wanted, a readymade poster of tyranny — Soldier Waves Weapon at Screaming Child, Rips Him from Embrace of Loving Family. Small matter that’s not the reality; the government action righted a wrong, seized the boy from the grasp of his politics-besotted relatives and returned him to a father who loved him. No one was hurt, but measured force was necessary.
“What a shame, then, that a right action had to look so wrong — thanks to the fundamental dishonesty not of the mission itself but of its design. The planners, anticipating violent opposition, had to protect the agents (hence the battle armor, goggles, etc.); they also had to convey seriousness of intent. This was not a ‘request’ for the boy’s return to his legitimate parent; it was a demand. And something has to back up a demand.
“The government decided to go with the threat of violence, a big bluff — the agents weren’t going to shoot up the place or kill Elian in order to save him. Little Havana isn’t Vietnam (or Kosovo). If the military action is on American soil, collateral damage isn’t an option. So why the assault rifles, then? Why such a dishonest display of authority?”
Sixteen years — of war — later, I remain transfixed by that question. Why must social authority be symbolized with escalating bombast? Assault rifles, body armor, MRAPs? Then a scene from Robert Duvall’s 1997 movie The Apostle flickered for an instant in my mind. Billy Bob Thornton’s character, a racist with a bulldozer, is threatening to demolish the church that Duvall, a preacher on the run from the law, has constructed with his racially mixed congregation. Duvall sets his Bible in front of the bulldozer and Thornton is immobilized, indeed, reduced to tears. His hatred melts; the threat disappears.
Another memory, this one from real life: My daughter was maybe 4 years old. I need to take her to daycare, then go to work, but it’s the dead of winter, and she refuses to put on her coat. I feel extremely pressured to get moving but instead of throwing commands and the threat of punishment at her, I seize an opportunity to talk with honesty. I tell her why I’m in a hurry, and we talk as equals. After maybe five minutes, she puts on her coat — happily — and a precious memory remains transfixed in my heart.
Maybe all I’m saying is that authority has more likelihood of impact if, instead of threatening harm or punishment to the transgressor, it reaches across the divide that separates us. I know this isn’t a solution for all social disorder, but maybe it’s a starting place.
Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.