Our Demons

Posted in: Human Rights

Like many of you, I watched with horror as a Minneapolis police officer drove his knee into the neck of George Floyd, slowly squeezing the breath from his body while Floyd, helpless and handcuffed, pleaded for his life. In broad daylight, on tape, while bystanders protested and fellow officers stood idly by, an officer choked a defenseless man to death. I was stunned. What kind of a monster does this?

But there is no them. There is only us.

Time and again, on this site and elsewhere, I have railed against demonization of every form, for I have seen the misery it produces. I spent much of my career in Minneapolis, and lived not far from where George Floyd died. I was a criminal defense and civil rights lawyer, and squared off against more than my share of Minneapolis police officers. Before that, I lived in Texas and represented men and women on death row. After 9/11, I began defending people tortured and imprisoned by the United States in the so-called war on terror. I defend “monsters.” In a career that has lasted more than three decades, it is nearly all I have ever done.

Some of my clients committed acts of unspeakable violence. They have taken lives. They have caused unbearable pain. And for that, many are willing to cast them beyond the pale. For decades, I have seen how easy it is for powerful people to declare that my clients are monsters. They know nothing about my clients—the pain they have endured, the regret they carry and the promise they hold. They know only what my clients have done, or what they think was done, and that is enough. But it is not just those in power. I have always been struck by how many people embrace the impulse to demonize, how eager they are to deny my clients a place at humanity’s long table.

And in doing, they become the demon. They become gripped with a startling savagery, and express the most fervent hope that my clients—monsters that they are—might be made to suffer excruciating torture. If it cannot happen here, they pray it might happen in the eternal hereafter. This bloodlust is a drug. It is more addictive and more deadly than anything we can grow in the land or cook in a lab. To taste it once is to crave it always. Each taste leaves a stronger craving, a wild-eyed fervor to hunt down the demons that walk among us in the costume of a man. The need is never sated, it lingers even after the body collapses, exhausted from an orgy of violence and retribution. When the body recovers, the craving returns and the violence resumes.

In our frenzy to rid ourselves of demons, we devise ever more sadistic ways to torture and kill the beast. We strap it to an inclined board and pour water up its nose and down its throat to bring it to the knife-edge of death. We rip infants from their mothers and put children in cages. And still it is not enough. It is never enough. For all the pain we cause, all the lives we ruin, there is always another monster, and each new beast lures us deeper into the darkness. In our madness, we cannot see the mounds that pile around us, but they are the skeletons from every genocide, every ethnic cleansing, every pogrom that came before. All the empires that set off to slay the beast traveled this path, and all of them launched their crusade with the same cry: The monster must die.

Every campaign begins with the insistence that this monster is different. Other hunts might have been a mistake, but now we know better. His nose has a hook. His skin is dark. His skin is white. He worships the wrong God. He has all the money. He takes all the land. He loves the wrong people. This time we are right. This time we are righteous. This is hubris masquerading as reason, a pretense to justify a conclusion reached long before: The monster must die.

When I had seen more of this madness than I could stand, I undertook to distill my career into a personal philosophy. I have settled on these eight words: There is no them. There is only us. I do not push this philosophy on anyone. It is yours if it helps you. If not, let it be.

But understand what it means. It is not simply that there are no monsters. The real lesson is more challenging. If there is no them, if there is only us, then what do we make of the man who killed George Floyd? Is he us? It is one thing to demand that those who have always been forced to travel on the class and race margins of society be treated as human beings. That has been my life’s work. Yet it is hard indeed to watch a video of an armed white man in a uniform drive his knee into the neck of a helpless black man and crush the life out of him, and then to say, “There is no them. There is only us.” In fact, it is so hard that for a time after the killing, I couldn’t do it.

But there is no them, and he is us. I know nothing of this man’s life. I know nothing of his pain. His regret. I do not know him. I do not know what he has endured; I do not know what he might become. I don’t know him anymore than he knows my clients. I know only what he did for 8 minutes on a single, awful evening. That is what my philosophy demands of me—a radical determination to understand and accept humanity in all its ugliness, and to separate sinner from sin.

It does not prevent me from condemning his actions, and I would not lose a minute’s sleep if the Minneapolis officer, whom I refuse to name, were convicted at a lawful trial and sent to prison for a long time. But I will not take the first step toward demonization. I will not do to him what others do to my clients. I will not cast him out. This is a journey that can only start; the first step has no last. If I allow myself to say that this man is a monster, I deny his humanity and abandon my own. I become what he became. I know that I have it within me to be him, just as I know he has it within him to be me. It is our most precious gift and our cross to bear. There is no them. There is only us.

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