Terrorism: Playing with Numbers

On this day known in infamy as 9/11, it is fitting that we talk about numbers.

I was in a debate recently with some friends about the NFL protests over police brutality. Some folks were saying there are no structural injustices in the police force. Rather, they argued there are some isolated “bad apples” who do bad things. The incidents may be bad, but the number of them is not statistically large when you look at a nation of 300 million (I’m paraphrasing a bit here).

Numbers can be funny. You can get them to say all sorts of things.

Today is the anniversary of 9/11. The attacks of 9/11 “only” directly caused the deaths of less than 3,000 people. But yet we all know how traumatic that day was to the whole nation. Laws were changed as a result. Wars have been waged. The whole attitude of our nation changed and to my eye still hasn’t recovered. We’ve become a darker, more fearful and more hostile place since then.

In recent reports, there were 98,000 public schools in the U.S and 33,000 private  The Parkland school shooting was the 208th school shooting since Columbine 19 years ago. 208 school shootings seems like a large number until you compare it with 131,000. There is “only” a 1 in 629 chance that your school will be one of them–more likely than winning the lottery by far but still a slim chance.

4,400 people were lynched in the Jim Crow years, most of them African Americans. As horrific as that is, you could argue that is “only” 55 per year–nearly 5 per month if you average it out. “Only.” Another way of looking at it: That is 5 people per month–every month–for over 80 years. Can you imagine what that does to the psychology of a population living with that (literally) looming over their heads?

Not only is the number of lynchings bad enough as it is, but for every person lynched there have been no doubt dozens more who have been beaten, robbed, raped and threatened. Lynching was used (and is still used) as a weapon of terrorism against a whole population of people. Step out of line, express yourself too much, ask for too much, and even worse, demand too much, and the threat of lynching was always there. There were people who no doubt spent their whole lives looking over their shoulder, monitoring every word they said and behavior they made in order to avoid a situation that could escalate to lynching. They hid their God-given light so as not to attract too much attention or anger. That’s how terrorism works.

And THAT is the situation many African Americans find themselves in today when it comes to their relationship with the police force. We know there are good cops. I assume–and hope–that the majority of them are good. I have friends and family members who are cops. I haven’t seen any of them on their beat, but as far as I know all of them are good. I trust in that. But there is a significant percentage of cops who are not so good–some reports say the number of bad cops is as high as 15%. If so, that’s huge. But perhaps worse, there is a system that covers for them–a system of loyalty, secrecy and power.

For every killing, there are no doubt dozens of instances of racial profiling, harassment, beatings,  rapes, wrongful arrests, wrongful convictions and disproportionately long prison sentences compared to whites. And for every one of those, there are millions of our fellow citizens waking up today wondering, ”Is it going to be me today?”

The situation is not unlike the problem with abuse in the Catholic Church. Many of us are hesitant to speak up because we know many good priests. We don’t want to disparage all of them in one swoop.  But the small percentage of bad priests has caused a huge problem. And even worse, the system has been willing to cover for them. That’s the problem with see today with the police. The system seems unable to hold police officers accountable.

Perhaps you have heard the litany of names of wrongful deaths alleged and remembered by groups like Black Lives Matter–Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, etc. To my friends who say that list of atrocities–however horrible it may be–is not statistically significant in a population of over 300 million, I hope this post has shown that not to be the case.

This is why NFL players are taking a knee.

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