Why are you acting irrationally?

David Anderson

In writing my novel manuscript, there was a scene where I knew my main character and his wife would have sex with each other. I worried about whether or not I should show it. One of my reasons in the “Not column” was that being in prison would make them self-conscious about it. A man in my critique group shot that down. He had been in prison, and he said when you are there, this rational restraint I thought my characters had would not exist. You are so overwhelmed emotionally you don’t think of the consequences. You just react.

I have a friend – I’ll call him Frank – who says when he was twenty, he got pulled over by the police. He made some belligerent comment, and the police officer drew his gun. I was really surprised to hear this from him, because I’ve always known him to be a peace-loving and compassionate person. This seems to be both against common sense and against what I know of his character. Looking back, he knows it was a stupid thing to antagonize a police officer. But in the moment, he lost all sense of what was wise and dangerously foolish.

In these two situations I see a common thread. Two men, who are normally smart and responsible, acted foolishly in confrontations with law enforcement. I know enough about brain science to know the frontal lobe is the part of the brain where inhibitions live. Wikipedia says,

The function of the frontal lobe involves the ability to project future consequences resulting from current actions, the choice between good and bad actions (or better and best), the override and suppression of socially unacceptable responses, and the determination of similarities and differences between things or events.

So that voice that tells you not to do it because it will only make things worse, that comes from the frontal lobe. Under certain conditions, the frontal lobe can shut down, and the mind responds emotionally rather than rationally. Apparently, for these two friends, extreme emotional distress caused their frontal lobes to shut down, and they reacted in a “fight or flight” mode of thinking, and they reacted irrationally.

I am not saying this to exonerate them or anyone from bad behavior. “Hey, my frontal lobe shut down. What could I do?” I’m talking about this in an attempt to understand why people – even smart, good-hearted people – sometimes behave irrationally. We have seen a lot in the news lately of police encounters starting bad and escalating into deadly situations. It’s been just a little over a year since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson.

Some people talk about how the victims talked back or didn’t follow instructions. In other words, the police may have overreacted, but Michael Brown, Eric Harris, Darrius Stewart, etc., acted aggressively, so it’s their fault. And I have to admit, when I watch, there’s a part of my brain that says, “For God’s sake, he’s got a badge and a gun [not to mention a nightstick, a tazer, pepper spray, etc.]! Just do what he says!”

Normally, I respect law enforcement. Those who do their job correctly are worth their weight in gold. We could not have anything resembling civilization without them, and I for one am a big fan of civilization. And no officer should ever be punished for legitimate use of force. Unfortunately, police officers are human too. They can make mistakes. Legally, we hold people responsible if they commit an unjustifiable level of violence, even if they were under extreme duress. Because they have a badge and a gun, it is all the more important that police officers be held to that standard as well.

If someone talks back to them, the gun or a choke hold should not be the first resort (In fact, the choke hold should not be a response at all). If someone is actively resisting arrest, they may need to use strong force. Strong force, however, does not include continuously beating a helpless suspect. Deadly force needs to be an option only when his/her life or the lives of law abiding citizens are immediately threatened, and I don’t see immediate threat in these videos. That’s the problem. The beating, tazing, or shooting was excessive.

You can talk all you want about how these victims were not angels, but neither was my friend Frank. Since this issue is more personal for Frank than for me, I offer these observations from him to reflect on.

  1. We have only seen these incidents because they were captured on video. How many more incidents occurred that were not on video?
  2. If it was happening in your neighborhood, you would have either seen it or heard about it, but the world outside would know nothing of it – and perhaps not care. How would that make you feel?
  3. To this day, Frank cannot help but wonder if he were black, would he still be here?