Yesterday over at The Watch, Radley Balko reported on a story from Aiken, South Carolina, where police pulled a car over for having a temporary tag (something that's not illegal), abused the inhabitants, called the African-American adult male passenger "boy", and on the pretense of searching for drugs digitally probed his anus on the side of the road:
The anal probe happens out of direct view of the camera, but the audio leaves little doubt about what’s happening. Pontoon at one point says that one of the officers is grabbing his hemorrhoids. Medlin appears to reply, “I’ve had hemorrhoids, and they ain’t that hard.” At about 12:47:15 in the video, the audio actually suggests that two officers may have inserted fingers into Pontoon’s rectum, as one asks, “What are you talking about, right here?” The other replies, “Right straight up in there.”
Pontoon then again tells the officers that they’re pushing on a hemorrhoid. One officer responds, “If that’s a hemorrhoid, that’s a hemorrhoid, all right? But that don’t feel like no hemorrhoid to me.”
As I said when a man in New Mexico was violated at even greater length and with shameful medical assistance, inserting your fingers into somebody's anus against their will is rape. It doesn't stop being rape because the cops did it; it's just rape under color of law.
The Aiken Standard — the local newspaper of Aiken, South Carolina — was snide and defensive about Radley's work and minimized the events and their significance in an unsigned editorial. The Standard noted that the lawsuit has not yet been adjudicated, the claims have not been tested, and we're finding out what's going on. It praised the police department for "transparency" and closed with this paen to civic discourse:
Police officers face danger every day. They’re not perfect, but they lay their lives on the line every day so we can be safe.
As stated by Council member Lessie Price in a meeting with the Aiken Standard, shortly after the story broke, “This is a town where we can talk to each other, we can come in a room, have a conversation, you may not like what’s being said, but we can come together and talk to each other.”
The Standard does not appear to dispute that the Aiken police probed the man's anus on the side of the road looking for drugs. The dispute, rather, is what cause they had to do so, and whether they did so in a way that is notably less cordial than forcibly probing someone's anus on the side of the road would be as a matter of course.
This leads me to ask — is the civility the Standard celebrates helpful?
Civility is a good thing, even when discussing controversial subjects. It's a goal I often fall short of, but a goal nonetheless. Civility even on heated subjects is a good thing because of humility: we may be wrong about the things we are angriest about. It's a good thing because of proportionality: our sense of what is outrageous enough to provoke incivility may be idiosyncratic. It's a good thing because of perspective: the world is full of people ready to be uncivil to us about things we have every damn right to do, and if we encourage incivility we'll get what we ask for. It's a good thing because of human frailty: too often incivility is about the self-image of the uncivil, not about justice or persuasion. Put another way, while I vigorously defend the right to rant about woodchippers, I recognize that invoking them is more often the self-indulgent wankery of poseurs than not.
But civility can take pernicious forms. It's pernicious if we shy from calling out outrageous and despicable conduct. It's pernicious when we give armed government officials the benefit of the doubt because the culture tells us they're brave and nice. It's pernicious when we don't demand public explanations for conduct because the conduct is horrifying and unseemly. Most of all, it's pernicious when we decide that civility is substantive rather than procedural. Civility weighs against gratuitous shouting, insults, and threats. But civility does not require that we let the government beg the question. It does not require that we accept, as true, the premises about government power that have been served to us since birth.
Civility does not require that I presume cops had a reason to do things. Civility does not require me to be automatically skeptical of accusations against them. Civility does not require me to refrain from calling forcible anal intrusion a rape. Civility does not require me to refrain from saying that a white cop who calls a black passenger "boy" is a bigot. Most of all, civility does not require me to accept the devil's bargain proffered by the state and the press: that if the police can conjure up evidence that they had some rational grounds to believe this man did have drugs shoved inside of him, that would justify raping him on the side of the road. Civility does not require me to accept that a law that would permit the police to act this way — even if everything they say is true — is right or moral or just or minimally tolerable. Civility does not require me to accept the proposition that the amount of drugs that would fit in a man's rectum can justify the state forcibly intruding there to look for it. I decline.
I don't care if the Aiken police had twelve eyewitnesses and a video tape showing this man shoving drugs up his ass. If they bent him over on the side of their road and shoved their fingers into him looking for it, they're rapists. I don't care if the law says they can do it, it's wrong. And I don't care how many rape apologists like the Aiken Standard tut and shush and shrug. A society that says this is okay — a society that says it's acceptable for armed agents of the government to rape a man on the side of the road in search of a golf-ball sized bag of drugs — deserves scorn.
Pardon the incivility.