In his State of the Union Address, President Biden expressed his hope that something good might come from the murder of Tyre Nichols by five Memphis police officers. I have discussed Nichols’ murder in each of my last four essays and want to round out my discussion of the case with some thoughts on what that good might be.
In particular, I want to suggest that we can use the horrific murder of a young man in Memphis to help create a forgiving society. I understand how jarring this might seem; no one who watches the videos can be in a particularly forgiving mood. But as a society, we will never escape the fury on display that night, the wholesale assault on the dignity of a fellow human being, unless we learn to judge in a forgiving spirit.
What does that mean—to judge in a forgiving spirit? It means to assess the actions of another anchored in the unshakeable belief that those who have done wrong are nonetheless one of us. While it is too much to say that all human suffering can be traced to the belief that some among us are less than human, it’s not too much to insist that most preventable human suffering has its origin in this shameful conceit. In my view, therefore, there is no greater social sin than demonization. Though a person’s behavior may have been monstrous, no one is a monster.
Once we anchor ourselves to the belief that there is no Other, we necessarily approach transgressors and transgressions in a very different way. If my brother had been among the officers who beat Tyre Nichols to death, I would insist that he be punished, for his wrong would be unmistakable and egregious. But I would also insist—as would we all if he were our brother—that he is no monster, and that he be judged in a forgiving spirit. This is not so difficult to understand. It simply imposes on those who would stand in judgment an obligation to take account of the complexity of causation and the frailty of the human condition. It insists, in other words, on acknowledging the vital moral difference between an excuse and an explanation.
In practice, my approach takes aim at the artificial individualism of our unforgiving society. When we want to be particularly vindictive, we imagine that a person has somehow acted as an isolated avatar of evil. By some incomprehensible alchemy, they have managed to cast off entirely the culture and conditions that have surrounded them since their first breath. All the lessons in their blood and their brain, everything that constrains their sense of the possible and that tells them how the world has to be, suddenly becomes irrelevant. In our sober moments, as for instance when we might judge our brother, we know this is impossible, and because it is impossible—because it is true for no one—the image of a person who acts completely without context, as though they simply willed the choice, is literally dehumanizing.
When I apply this philosophy to the officers who killed Tyre Nichols, I begin with the insistence that they are one of us. Indeed, I am prepared to go farther than that. I do not believe, if I had genuinely occupied their shoes that night in all the ways that one might occupy the shoes of another, that I would have done any differently. I firmly believe it could have just as easily been me facing a long prison term. To judge them in a forgiving spirit, therefore, is to see them as complex and frail human beings, no different from the rest of us. It is to see them as people who were thickly embedded in an oppressive and violent culture that conceived of Tyre Nichols as unworthy of dignity, and that demanded the group “stomp his ass” for running away.
This emphatically does not excuse what they did, but it does explain it. More importantly, in arriving at the explanation—that is, by engaging in the struggle to make sense of the senseless—we open our mind and soften our heart. We behave, in other words, as we wish the officers had behaved. Indeed, as we wish every officer behaved in every encounter with every resident. Indeed, as we wish everyone behaved all the time, which is what it would mean to live in a forgiving society. In short, we model the behavior we want to see in the world.
And if we really want some good to come from this horrible night, we must take the same approach with the City of Memphis and its Police Department. We must judge them, as we would the officers, in a spirit of forgiveness. As I indicated in my last essay, the murder of Tyre Nichols is an occasion for a Sentinel Event Review. A properly facilitated SER of the sort conducted by, for instance, the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, takes the broadest view of an event to ask, as capaciously as possible, how it came to be and what might be done to prevent its recurrence. It brings together the widest range of stakeholders to examine all the biases, incentives, relationships, and norms employed by all the actors whose conduct made the outcome incrementally more likely. It undertakes this examination candidly and openly, without blame or recrimination, driven solely by a shared desire to see that nothing like this ever happens again. I am drawn to these reviews because they are the institutional equivalent of my desire for a forgiving society.
Think about the great many steps that contributed to what happened that night. We are accustomed to looking narrowly and asking how these officers were trained or recruited, but that is not remotely enough. As I have noted before, the SCORPION unit encouraged brutality and tolerated indifference. It had developed what the Memphis Police Chief called a “wolfpack” culture. A Sentinel Event Review has to wrestle with how this culture came to be. It has to ask “how Memphis police learn to patrol ‘those’ neighborhoods and deal with ‘those’ people, a designation that transcends simple narratives about race.” It must contend with what it means in Memphis “to be a ‘good cop,’ and the stories the good cops tell the new guys about the difference between legal and extralegal justice.”
But we must also look far beyond the department. As I have written before, police departments are subject to intense public pressure, and in the lead-up to Nichols’ murder, the department was under pressure to address violent crime and reduce reckless driving. The Memphis Police Department created, trained, armed, and instructed the SCORPION unit in this superheated milieu. What role did this pressure have on the events of that night? Did the mayor demand results? The city council? Did the Chief of Police believe she had to “get tough” or risk losing her job? And how might the city and department guard against this pressure in the future?
What of the other actors in the criminal legal system? What of the Shelby County District Attorney who charged the cases brought by the SCORPION unit? Did he turn a blind eye to police violence? Did he contribute to the pressure felt by the police department? What of the courts? Did they misuse bail or impose exorbitant fines and fees, which would increase the likelihood that a person might flee if they were stopped by the police, rather than incur unjust fines? What of the public defender? Do defenders act quickly enough to get people out of custody as cases proceed, so that no one is coerced to plead guilty by the threat of continued incarceration?
And no SER can succeed unless it also includes the voices of the neighborhood most affected by policing. Yet this is no small challenge. Who speaks for the residents? Sometimes it is not obvious and we should not expect “the people” to speak with a single voice. The clergy have a longstanding voice in Memphis public affairs, as do a number of civil rights organizations. But some organizations will have a more radical approach than others. Some may want to reform the police. Others may want to abolish them. Still others may want to leave them exactly as they are. But everyone shares in the belief that Tyre Nichols should still be alive, and all must be united in their shared determination to see that it never happens again.
I share the hope that some good will come from the death of Tyre Nichols. But we kid ourselves if we think we will achieve that good if all we do is cast blame. We must judge in a spirit of forgiveness and commit to change. Otherwise, we are simply biding time until it happens again.