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Fate and Fundamentalism | The Nation

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Diary of a Mad Law Professor

Fate and Fundamentalism

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The distinguishing feature of most fundamentalist belief systems is a literal conception of the relation between words and meaning. If God is the Word and the Word is God, then speaking the profane is blasphemy for which one is banished from God's grace. If the flag is the state and the state is the flag, then burning the flag must be tantamount to treason. It's a shortcut, this way of thinking, a symbolic code for complex, deeply held beliefs, a bright-line demarcation of boundaries not to be transgressed.

About the Author

Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams, a professor of law at Columbia University, was born in Boston in 1951 and holds a BA from...

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But fundamentalisms are at heart authoritarian, and worse, encourage the brainlessness of the obedient foot soldier. If, according to Afghanistan's Taliban, a chaste woman remains covered, and covered be the chaste, then a woman who uncovers herself even for a medical examination is surely a whore. By the same reasoning, if a gun is a shiny thing and shiny things are guns, then brandishing a highly polished toaster quickly translates into the aggressively felonious.

It is perhaps such logic that accounts for the fate of Andre Burgess. The 17-year-old, a college-bound senior and soccer captain at Hillcrest High School in Queens, New York, was shot recently because the silver-wrapped candy bar he was holding looked to a federal marshal exactly like a gun. The officer was part of a multi-agency stakeout called the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force. When Burgess walked through that tense, embattled watch, the agents reacted like panic-stricken rabbits, in an explosive reflex of what we must assume was self-protective instinct. They shouted for him to drop the gun; startled, he turned to look and was shot.

That's all there was to it, really. A story so short and simple that it doesn't change, no matter how many times you replay it in slow motion. The street was demarcated as a suspicious area. The suspect was walking down said street. He was holding a suspicious metallic object, later cleared as a candy bar. A Three Musketeers chocolate bar, to be precise, with a regulation silver wrapper. But guns are shiny things and shiny things etc., so...better safe than sorry.

He'll make a full recovery, the papers say, although not in time to finish the soccer season and perhaps impress the college recruiters on whom his chances for a scholarship depend. "He didn't even say 'I'm sorry,'" complained the troublesome Mr. Burgess. "I'm lying there, bleeding, wanting to go to the hospital, and he's shaking hands with the other cops, or agents, or whatever they were. He asked one of them, 'Don't I know you from some other case?' And I'm still lying there."

Now I know awful accidents happen, and I know that police work is scary and dangerous and that judgment calls are hard to second-guess. I, for one, have faith that all the officers involved are extremely sorry and will be extra careful in the future to make sure nothing like this ever happens again. So putting all the apologizing and assigning responsibility stuff to one side, what intrigues me more is the general social cost of the kinds of "suspect profiling" that can so easily turn a soccer star with a sweet tooth into a young black male with a weapon.

Who bears the long-term cost, to return to my earlier example, when women zealously conforming themselves to the Taliban's equations of chastity are left without medical care? Similarly, how does a nice young man sanely comport himself when tangled, muffled, shrouded within the darkly veiled doppelgänger of a fearsome social shape? It is the great toll of life in these times, I suppose. All our lives--but most dangerously those of young black boys--are burdened with a zillion injunctions about how to survive in a world where every aspect of one's body is scrutinized for threatening possibility or read according to someone else's lexicon of pornographic meaning.

It's almost a cliché of "good" black parenting, the general lesson of what to do when police stop your car: Put your hands on the steering wheel in plain view and for God's sake don't move. Any reach for license or registration will get you shot, the solicitous black parent is supposed to impart, because they might think you're reaching for a gun, and the normative fear of your stereotype will satisfy the standard about there having been imminent and life-threatening danger. Never put your hands in your pockets, the lesson continues. Don't carry anything that could look like a gun: no toy weapons, of course, but also flashlights, screwdrivers, dipsticks, slide rules. Chocolate with nougat filling is a new one, but, you know...better safe than sorry. Everyone and their daddy, as the expression goes, knows someone who's been shot for less. Don't wear those hats or these colors. Don't wear this brand of sunglasses, don't get caught in that part of town. Don't dawdle in stores, don't run down streets.

One of my former students describes his fear of jogging anyplace other than a track. He is afraid that the sight of a black man moving speedily is so alarming that someone will see him and think he is fleeing. He worries about being shot "on principle" by people with only the noblest intentions. How indeed does one teach young people to survive the institutionalized fear of others--without also instructing them in the tense hypervigilance of fundamentalism turned inward? How does one acquaint them with the dangers of "rational"-ized disdain, while not diminishing their dignity?

In these actuarial times, I fear that statistical composites have become the new cipher for phenotypic classification. A society that vaunts individualism, we nevertheless encourage this conformity to the probabilistically determined, lowest common denominator. Our bodies are read by computer correlations, not, heaven forbid, by the color of our skin. And so when Andre Burgess is shot, it happens no longer in the name of race but rather in its shape. But if the shape is criminal and the criminal is black, for whom is reserved a presumption of innocence, to say nothing of adequate medical care? To what walled-off isolation are we consigned when our profiles are our destiny?

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