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.
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.