I cringe at “bad guy,” “good guy” labels
“You know what stops a bad guy with a gun? A good guy with a gun.” – Common refrain of gun rights activists.
On January 16, at a movie theater in Florida, a 71 year-old retired police captain with no criminal record and an up-to-date concealed-carry permit, fatally shot a man who was simply firing off a quick text to the babysitter of his young daughter.
During the bond hearing for Curtis Reeves, Jr., the suspect’s friend Margaret Scalise described the former SWAT team leader and regular church attendee as a “good man.” He apparently liked to spend weekends with friends and family, congregating at the local Dairy Queen and then taking in an afternoon matinee. He also doted on his grandchildren and was pleasant to his neighbors. You can read more of her description of Reeves at The Tampa Tribune here:
Whatever caused Reeves to snap that day we may never know, but one thing is clear: For 71 years he was a good guy.
By his 72nd birthday, he will not be.
Personally, I grimace whenever I hear the terms “bad guys” and “good guys,” a dichotomy that instantly rejects important motivators of crime and violence, including mental illness, poverty, and the religious fundamentalism that is often so attractive to those who have spent their entire lives deprived of food, shelter, and education (and often surrounded by generational cycles of violence).
I’m not suggesting that violent acts are in any way excusable. Once a person commits a horrific act of violence, he or she should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Anyone who knows me realizes I worship at the altar of non-violence; in fact, I have never been in a physical fight in my life.
Politicians are particularly notorious for characterizing various undesirables as “bad guys.” Whether they are convicts or insurgents, elected officials are quick to slap the “bad guy” label on anyone they perceive as a threat to society or stability. Oh shit! That was quite the unfortunate misplaced modifier I made! But you know what? It ironically works, so I’m going to keep it!
Politicians swap subtle nuances of understanding for quicker, easier-for-the-public-to-grasp “Old Western-esque” one-liners (hence John McCain’s infamous oath to track Osama bin Laden to the very Gates of Hell, which, really, if you think about it, would be quite fascinating to watch).
Let’s consider the issue of “bad guys” in relation to convicts. According to the Department of Justice, in 2011, about half of all U.S. inmates were in prison for drug crimes, and a large percentage of those were for simple possession. These then, are your bogeyman “bad guys”: Poor addicts, sick and stranded in a tragic cycle of incarceration and repeat abuse (with poverty and lack of education often fueling the illness).
Evil villains indeed.
Now, let’s turn to what is likely to be a more controversial example: Insurgents. The Bush administration – and to a lesser extent the Obama administration – has done a fantastic job conflating the term “insurgent” with “terrorist.” According to World Report News: “The definition of terrorism is politically motivated violence or the threat of violence against NON-COMBATANTS by sub-state actors; the definition of insurgency, on the other hand, is a “struggle between a non-ruling group and the ruling authorities in which the non-ruling group uses political resources and violence” and is a “protracted political-military activity.” The victims of terrorism are the truly innocent, and the intent, by definition, is to induce mass terror.
September 11 is a high-profile example of a terrorist operation, as is the London Subway bombing, or the multiple suicide bombings in marketplaces across the Middle East.
An insurgent, on the other hand, is an individual fighting back against someone he perceives to be an invader or part of an oppressive regime. He engages only with the enemy, not innocent civilians. When Bush sent us to Iraq to fight an Al-qaeda threat that did not exist at that time in the country, many citizens of the Middle Eastern nation felt threatened. As the war dragged on, thousands of innocent civilians were caught in the crossfire of the U.S. military engagement, either directly, via drone, or by the terrorist response to the American presence. Portions of the threatened population became understandably furious as their shelled-out homes – and often their wives and children – became pawns in a battle constantly waged on their neighborhood streets. In response, many took up arms to fight BACK – not to terrorize.
However, with the flutter of the tongue, and the conflation of the two in repeated speeches here at home, the two soon become one; enemy combatants become terrorists, terrorists become insurgents. It’s a brilliant rhetorical move that instantly creates tens of thousands of “bad guys” where, in reality, there are perhaps only a few.
On January 16, at a movie theater in Florida, there was no bad guy and good guy.
There were only two fathers, one conflict, and one horribly criminal act.