I couldn’t stop thinking about the allegory of the metals in Plato’s Republic as I read the op-ed piece in The Washington Post written by Los Angeles Police Officer, Sunil Dutta. He was writing to express a police officer’s point of view in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri. I kept thinking Plato nailed it; Mr. Dutta, though plenty spirited, is incapable of leadership. He understands his role, but not the reasons for the role he plays.
The Republic is one of western civilization’s great meditations of a well-ordered state and a well-ordered soul. In a world governed by philosopher-kings, all other members of the community knowing their place; in the well-ordered soul, reason governs. Yet we are more than reason, we have appetites, base desires, groveling instincts that drive us this way and that. And we need protection not just from ourselves, but from others – it takes a spirited, courageous soul to play the role of guardian.
Plato divided his ideal polis, or community, into rulers, guardians and workers; the soul is composed of rational, spirited and appetitive elements. Put in terms of the allegory of metals, there is gold, there is silver and there is bronze. Each has a value.
The point of this side trip into classical antiquity is to highlight spirit, the guardian’s defining attribute. Any society needs loyal protectors, folks who can follow orders without second-guessing those who give the orders. I think of police officers as playing this role. They have a place, enforcing the law. But they aren’t philosopher-kings. When they try to make the law, things get ragged. You end up with misplaced priorities.
Sunil Dutta is a case in point. He wrote the following in an op-ed piece in The Washington Post:
“[I]f you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me.”
I am sure Mr. Dutta means well. His web site reports he’s been a member of the Los Angeles Police Department for 17 years, and he teaches in the Homeland Security Department of a small Colorado college. But his words strike me as little more than the snarl of a vicious dog. In Platonic terms, Mr. Dutta is trying to talk like a philosopher king, but he is equipped with the soul of a none-too-well trained attack dog.
Police officers play a necessary role in our world. I get that. They are also entitled to use force. I get that, too. But to suggest an officer’s default position is to assume that in the absence of cooperation, or in the presence of a mere assertion of one’s first amendment right to give an officer a piece of one’s mind, violence is to be expected yields the conclusion that Mr. Dutta just doesn’t get it. He’d look better in a dog kennel than a police uniform.
The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, may or may not have been justified. It will take a complete factual record and a trial to make an educated judgment about just what happened in the moments before Mr. Brown died. What we don’t need are unleashed attack dogs snarling at those who question whether the police acted properly, either in shooting Mr. Brown or in reacting to those who protested the shooting.
Mr. Dutta apparently also has a Ph.D. in plant biology, according to his web site. He should go back to tending plants. He’s not to be trusted with people.