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Hollowpoints: An Optional Post

August 27, 2012

So, Dan Solomon, a curse upon his harvests, directed me towards this absurd little piece from The New Inquiry, hoping I would respond. Generally, I try not to respond to work like this, but Dan, it’s your lucky day, so here it goes. We’ll take this line by line.

The story first broke with the salacious glee of a journalist knowing he’s about to get paid.

I am sure there are journalists who get excited about breaking news. But what the hell is going on in this sentence? The implication here is that we are supposed to associate the news of the recent Empire State Building shooting with salaciously gleeful journalists. Of course, there is no actual evidence that the journalists here in question were gleeful, and certainly not, despite the fact we are about to embark on a piece critically analyzing the discourse of the shooting, links to actual stories that might demonstrate salacious glee. But our writer here elides the question by saying the story broke with salacious glee, a glee comparable to those of journalists, who happen to break stories.

Already here we’re dealing with a realm where the object of study is the discourse, which is too big to be fettered down or absurdly reduced into, well, actual observable news stories. I suppose it’s obvious that this is what the narrative is, and I guess we, if we’re putting on our critical media analysis hats, recognize it to be the case prima facie.

Deeper down the rabbit hole we go:

Nine wounded in an outburst of class warfare and another crazy terrorist to add to the arsenal of reasons for NYPD empowerment. You could practically hear Ray Kelly smacking his lips.

Yes, that’s true, the outburst of media stories attributing this to terrorism is certainly going to bolster greater support for NYPD abuse of power. Well, it would be if we had any evidence that the media was dead set on portraying this as terrorism. As it turns out, the mainstream media was rather quick to point out that this wasn’t an act of “crazy terrorism,” quoting local and federal officials who all emphatically stated as much. On the other hand, we can also point to early commentary that tried to connect the police shooting bystanders with the NYPD’s counter-terrorism units and the use of M4 carbines, which, well, turned out to be false.

Maybe the author is referring to some moment before the press conference and the full write ups of the story when the narrative was referring to terrorism, but we’re provided with no evidence that it exists and, if it did, it was also clearly one the media and police both had rejected by the afternoon of the shooting. But acknowledging this would miss the point.

Then we get to the real, maggoty, festering meat of the argument:

… a couple on-site cameras revealed that, actually, this madman wasn’t firing wildly into the crowd, just killing his old tormentor and then putting down his gun, and it was police who shot nine bystanders before killing him, in what is their second cell-phone captured daylight murder this month.

Such clever writing! You see, the man who premeditates the shooting of his unarmed ex-boss was simply “killing his old tormentor,” (yes, it’s still murder even if your boss is, as some stories back up, verbally or physically abusive) while the police, who, when confronting a man who pulls a firearm on them, are committing a “daylight murder.” This sort of offhand rhetorical obfuscation might be acceptable if the videos the author refers to actually supported it, but, well, it doesn’t. For those of you who are skeptical, at least one video is available, which pretty clearly shows the police approaching the man, who turns around, pulls out a weapon and begins aiming it in the general direction of the police. I am not sure at what point he puts down his gun, but it appears to have been after the police shot him several times.

I am not sure why we should consider the choice of two sworn law enforcement officers, faced with armed and potentially lethal resistance, to use deadly force an act of “murder.”

Then we get this:

And when the news came out that Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum of New York’s finest turned a murder into a shooting gallery, coverage of the violence dropped off dramatically.

Calling the victim an “old tormentor” is a supportable argument, describing two veteran police officers as “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum” requires some justification. As Alex Olesker explains, the shooting here, while tragic, was hardly evidence of gross oversight or incompetence:

In the split second captured by a security camera here, the officers chose to shoot, firing 16 shots, some of which over-penetrated, missed, ricocheted, and fragmented, wounding 9 onlookers.

This unfortunate incident points out why so many common security, force, and gun myths are false. The gunman was shot 7 to 9 times out of a total of 16 shots fired. While this would be sloppy for Hollywood, it’s actually above average. Between 1996 and 2006, NYPD officers hit their targets in 34 percent of the time, and this rate is typical nationwide. Firing at an armed, moving suspect in the heat of the moment is very different from hitting a target at the range, which is why the idea of “shoot to wound” or aiming to incapacitate a suspect is absurd and dangerous. These officers weren’t rookies either, both with 15 years on the force. While they had never fired their weapons on patrol, that too is typical. Most cops in a police shootout have never been in a similar situation.

Of the 7 to 9 shots that hit the suspect, several went through him even though the officers were aiming at his center of mass where they were most likely to hit and least likely to over-penetrate. There is little that officers can do about properly fired bullets exiting their target and hitting something or someone else, which is why law enforcement officers use hollow point bullets. Hollow points, however, are more likely to fragment, as they did here. 6 of the wounded were grazed by bullet fragments while 3 were hit by actual bullets, some or all of which ricocheted.

To add some clarity, in shootings from zero to six feet, police accuracy is still below 50%, which makes NYPD accuracy here around or better than normal. To expand on the data Alex offers:

In all shootings — including those against people, animals and in suicides and other situations — New York City officers achieved a 34 percent accuracy rate (182 out of 540), and a 43 percent accuracy rate when the target ranged from zero to six feet away. Nearly half the shots they fired last year were within that distance.

In Los Angeles, where there are far fewer shots discharged, the police fired 67 times in 2006 and had 27 hits, a 40 percent hit rate, which, while better than New York’s, still shows that they miss targets more often they hit them.

Bad marksmanship? Police officials and law enforcement experts say no, contending that the number of misses underscores the tense and unpredictable nature of these situations. For example, a 43 percent hit rate for shots fired from zero to six feet might seem low, but at that range it is very likely that something has already gone wrong: perhaps an officer got surprised, or had no cover, or was wrestling with the suspect.

In this case, there are some obvious complicating factors. It would be preferable to try and apprehend the suspect from several yards away, where police shooting training will likely give officers an advantage over a relatively inexperienced shooter with a handgun. But the suspect was fleeing the scene on a crowded street, meaning the more distance between them and the officers made it more difficult to track and apprehend him, and worse, would have potentially put more civilians in the firing line.

Our author Osterweil claims that coverage dropped off dramatically, and then goes on to insinuate that “they” (it is not really clear here who they are – the “newsmen” the police officers, or are they, as the title implies, just part of the same machine?) wanted to “bury” the shooting story. Osterweil insists that language in articles such as this, the role of the police in the shooting does not receive due discussion, merely being reduced to “nine people were wounded in gunfire.” Which would be a sensible complaint, except the article in question is clearly a piece about the identity of the shooter and the victim rather than an attempt to anatomize the shooting itself (which sort of complicates the narrative that the shooter was a simple victim of torment). Aha, but why is there no article trying to anatomize the shooting itself? Well, there was one in the Times. I suppose if one treats the simplification of an issue in a more narrowly targeted piece, and then its fuller explanation in a dedicated article as the “burying” of a story, then yes, the story was buried.

And indeed, Osterweil does not seem to like the conclusion that reporters reach when they examine the evidence, complaining:

the media was too eager, pounced too fast on the story to successfully drop their presence, and so instead the police line is repeated without questioning, despite being so obviously nonsensical that only a journalist could believe it: “[Ray] Kelly’s comments reinforce the picture that began to emerge on Friday: that in acting quickly and with deadly force, the police prevented the gunman, Jeffrey T. Johnson, 58, from inflicting more harm but in so doing also were responsible for many of the injuries.” Clearly we should thank the police for preventing more harm from being inflicted by the gunman. Just imagine how many people he could have shot with the four bullets he had left!

Of course, if Osterweil claims this is nonsensical. it is because he either does not understand or is choosing not to understand ballistics. To quote the preceding section of the story:

“We recovered whole bullets from two of the victims,” Kelly said at an event in Harlem. “Actually, we think a total of the three out of the nine bystanders were struck with bullets, the rest were struck with fragments of some sort.”

When a piece of metal traveling hundreds of meters a second hits something – pretty much anything – it is not going to remain in one piece, and those pieces are going to keep moving after impact. This was not a case of the police firing at the wrong people, or firing randomly into a crowd. It was not even clearly a case of bullets missing their intended target, though that likely contributed. But somehow reporters actually doing their jobs and examining the facts, and trying to examine, in several articles, how two cops could have wounded 9 innocent bystanders, is just not enough, because if you are following the same script that Osterweil is claiming to describe, coming to such a conclusion independently of being beholden to the media’s role is impossible.

As for the idea that somehow the four bullets left invalidates the police’s decision to shoot, I can only say, give the NYPD a break. I don’t know. Maybe Osterweil would have known exactly how many shots the suspect fired. He would have known what kind of firearm the suspect was using at the scene, and furthermore, know how large of a magazine the suspect was using. He would have known if the suspect had extra magazines and if he had already reloaded. He would have known if the suspect had another weapon, too. And if he somehow knew all these things, he would have known whether or not that suspect raising that weapon was with malicious intent.

But, the police, having the abilities and training of mere policemen and not online writers like myself and Osterweil, probably did not know any of these things. Osterweil, echoing, probably unintentionally, another profoundly meaningless statement in the storied critical commentary genre of “things that are guns,” claims:

Guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Police don’t kill people either, and that’s because, when it comes down to it, police are more guns than people, objects not only absolved from but incapable of personal responsibility.

Osterweil appears to be speaking here about the way the media portrays police. What he does not seem to grasp is that there is a difference of absolving the police from personal responsibility and saying that they were wrong to make the decision they did. The internal affairs review of the shooting will determine to what extent the shootings were the result of the officer’s errors in judgment and to what extent they were the result of uncontrollable factors like wound ballistics. But simply because the media has reviewed the evidence, which mostly seems to support the Department’s line, and agreed, does not mean the media is somehow absolving the police of any responsibility or capability of responsibility.

But here’s Osterweil’s real gripe:

The news will always keep the police from the subject position of any negative story, because the newspapers, magazines, bloggers and reporters are the other part of the police, the pretty face and soothing voice that apologizes for the long arm’s blows, which mystifies police actions and empties violence of political content, which transforms rage into madness and antagonism into insanity.

It’s funny to claim that the media is “mystifying” the police’s actions when, in this case, it is trying to provide an empirical and contextualized take on a police shooting. Yes, some sentences have passive voice, but passive voice isn’t mystifying or mystical, it’s just an undesirable way to construct a sentence. Explaining that ballistic evidence suggests the police might not have been acting as recklessly as a headline such as “police shoot 10 people” might appear is not mystifying but clarifying, it is only mystifying to those who have already injected political content into wound ballistics and a murder apprehension. The shooting at the Empire State Building was not political except in the sense that it was conducted by an instrument of state power designated with the task of domestic coercion in support of the law.

Why stop at that, I guess? Why stop where Osterweil does? How could we ignore the police’s choice of hollowpoints when dum-dum rounds were used specifically against “barbaric” peoples? How can we ignore the roots of Jeff Johnson’s .45 ACP pistol, in light of its development for killing Moro insurgents in America’s imperial adventure in Philippine counterinsurgency?  Besides, since when did personal motives become necessarily apolitical? Under what frame of reference should we politicize Johnson’s choice to kill Steven Ercolino? Are we supposed to interpret their workplace, Hazan Imports, and Johnson’s shooting, as some sort of violent rejection of the creative class as a new form of self-colonization that Orwell chafed against when he shot an elephant in Burma, in the guise of a new imperialism of free trade  that now links the capitalist metropoles to the oppressive service industries of Southeast Asia? We don’t know because Osterweil doesn’t tell us, but in any case, ascribing political motives without an ability to establish one’s political model in the basis of what we know about the shooter’s intentions reveals a lot more about the writer than the shooter.

As for the idea that somehow madness and insanity does not appear to be the immediate takeaway, unlike, say commentary on James Holmes, where his mental health status dominates commentary about the shooter, the article Osterweil references seems firmly rooted in the context of rage and antagonism. Then again, I’m in “the other part of the police,” apologizing for the “long arm’s blows.” At least Osterweil thinks we’ve got a “pretty face.”

So, we’re supposedly left with the fact that:

the media will never allow an explanation other than complete madness. That’s why its so important that the police kill the murderer rather than even attempting an arrest, that the media silence him by stripping his actions of anything but the most apolitical ‘personal’ motives.

No, it was important for the police to kill the murderer because he was armed and dangerous, fleeing the scene of a murder, when he drew his weapon in front of law enforcement officers attempting to apprehend him. They could have arrested him had he not fled, had he not drawn a firearm he had demonstrated his ability to use lethally, upon being confronted. He chose not to, and for that, the police, within the limits of law and logic, killed him.

Bizarrely, Osterweil considers “personal” motives to be insufficiently political. Exactly what political motives did the shooter have? What motives did he claim? If anything, imputing political motives to a workplace dispute and reducing them to being personal – and indeed they seemed highly personalized, for he shot his boss, not his entire office – seems closer to describing the shooter as a “terrorist” (someone whose motives, by definition, are political), which Osterweil laments (but does not substantiate) as a key element of the narrative or discourse earlier in the piece, back when it was still breaking with salacious glee or whatever.

Ultimately, the problem here appears to be not that the media and the police are reading from a script, paying homage to a self-reinforcing narrative that ignores facts and distorts context for a political agenda, but that it is not reading from the right script. Only in the context of a narrative where personal relationships are elevated into political symbology should we think anything going on here is being depoliticized. If only we were reading the right script, we could interpret this incident as a call to arms for whatever political cause we are supposed to be recognizing here. But when you pull away the media narrative – one that Osterweil never really substantiates in actual fact – we don’t see the “real” politics, but a collection of facts and guesses about facts we do not know.

This is not very exciting for someone writing at The New Inquiry, which is not a journal of criminology or ballistics. But a piece that begins by decrying a script is, itself, sounds no more authentic and no less rehearsed, and is certainly, compared to the media narrative so far, more willing to trample the inconveniences of facts and context to make the political arguments the proponents already held before the incident. This is not the first time The New Inquiry has elicited such a reaction in me, although it is the first time I’ve stooped to blogging about it. Oh, there was the Drone Issue, and that tempted me sorely. There’s a whole wacky world where drones are guns, and vibrators are drones, and police are guns. Osterweil closes:

The media understands this process better even than the police, (who ultimately are blunt, stupid instruments); the vigour with which they disavow understanding these acts gives them away. Because the killings wont end, the killings are terminal struggles against a totality that makes itself appear so vast and endless that a bullet becomes the only way out.

This is similar to the sort of argument I recently challenged in Foreign Policy. In both cases, the critic wants to challenge an instance of apology for state violence, and then chooses commentary that is actually relatively responsible, but all the more vile for still refusing to accept the political premises the critic thinks a responsible actor ought to. There is an imagined or imputed narrative to which all members of this objectionable group of state violence apologists must adhere to, and the narrative is at least worked out enough to explain away the responses or objections of that group. Cases where that groups deviate from, contradict, or reject that narrative are then easily dismissed, and cases where evidence or technical analysis deflate the strength of anti-apologist polemics are simply ignored or dismissed as political maneuvers out of material or ideological self-interest.

This is very satisfying, I suppose, for reinforcing the ideological trench lines, but it does not actually do very much to inform us about the issue at hand. Instead the imagined enemy narrative serves as a useful foil to bind together disparate concepts and interesting pastiches into polemics, designed to fight a foe whose existence and fear-inspiring quality injects some vitality into the stale realm of political commentary. You don’t have to be Ernst Junger to think that the aesthetics of agonism and conflict give virtue to politics, as it’s exactly this sort of quality that makes polemicism more exciting to read than stale analysis that postures at apolitical neutrality. Of course, these arguments don’t really prove anything. But Junger’s experiences in the trenches had value external to their political instrumental purpose, the true and more authentic politics was the sense of community and coherence the process of fighting itself was worth it anyway. The more maddening thing, I suppose, is that at least for Junger, the enemy played along. His situation emanated from a battlefield where force went against force. Instead, these sorts of arguments face a narrative so hegemonic that a kind of insurgency the narrative refuses to recognize as a legitimate political belligerent are the last refuge of the real, authentic politics – the transition we see in Schmitt from Concept of the Political to Theory of the Partisan. I see the appeal here. Who needs arguments, let alone evidence to support them, when ultimate the high ground of meta-argument has yet to be won?

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