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Posts tagged The Plainsman

Auburn Police Standards and the Shooting of Melissa Boarts

I picked up a copy of the most recent Plainsman the other day on my way to an appointment on campus. Behold the most predictable headline in the history of newspaper headlines.

Here's a copy of the front page of the Auburn Plainsman, with the headline "AUBURN POLICE SAY SHOOTING JUSTIFIED."

It’s a reference to the Auburn police who followed, confronted and killed Melissa Boarts on the highway last week. The police were following her because her parents called 911 out of fear that Melissa might be suicidal. The police followed her for miles until she stopped, then they saved her from harming herself by confronting her and shooting her to death.

The headline is more predictable than Dog Bites Man. If you programmed a Police Shooting Response robot that took police shooting reports as input and produced a claim of justification 100% of the time, only filling in the blanks with facts taken from the input and not adjusting the template in the slightest, you’d get the same headlines that you actually get from local police statements. Based on the extremely limited information that has been released so far, it’s possible that the police went overboard even by their own standards; it’s also perfectly possible that when the dash cam and body cam footage is released, it will turn out that the killing meets the police’s internal standards for justification — but if so, the police standards themselves are the problem. We don’t know how much police officers knew about how she was armed. The weapon that La Jura keeps talking about, always as a quote-unquote weapon without further clarification, was actually a small knife. Melissa’s parents and their lawyer say that they told the 911 dispatch that she had a knife; police claim that when she got out of the car they didn’t know what weapon she had in her hand. It may be that she brandished the knife in a way that would meet the police’s policies for using lethal force against her. But if so, then morally I think the problem with police procedures is that they take no real account of who initiated the confrontation, who escalated it, what other less-forceful options were available. We have here a case in which police pursued a woman who had committed no crime, followed her car for miles out of their own jurisdiction and into Macon County, cornered her when they were told she was upset and panicked and lightly armed, and then shot her to death when, they claim, she charged them. For ordinary people like you or me, a claim of self-defense requires that someone else is the aggressor; but police standards never take that into account.


Stories on the police shooting, what the police claim they knew, and what the family says they know about what happened, have appeared in the Huntsville Times (April 4), the Montgomery Advertiser (April 5), and The World According to Vladimir Putin (April 5). According to the Opelika-Auburn News (April 7), the family was desperately trying to reach Melissa’s car on the highway but the police cornered her and shot her before they could arrive; the OA News story also reports that there is both dash cam footage and body cam footage of the confrontation and the shooting. But the footage was given to the Alabama SBI, so that state police can investigate local police, and will not be released to the public until or unless the Macon County District Attorney decides that it should be. (The Macon County DA is putatively in charge of this decision because Auburn police followed her out of Auburn and pursued her on the highway into Macon County, where they shot her.)

See also.

War Hawks Fail to Make the Case

Editors, The Plainsman:

In a recent letter to the editor of The Plainsman, Jonathan Melville took a rather odd tack in his support for war against Iraq:

As for the argument that Iraq doesn’t pose a threat to us, this statement is completely irrelevant with respect to whether we wage war.

Mr. Melville may not believe that it is relevant whether the United States is unleashing its deadly military might in an act of self-defense or in an act of unprovoked conquest. This is, however, an odd position to take, and requires some explanation. Unfortunately, nowhere in his letter does Mr. Melville support his claim that the United States can be justified in waging wars based on aggression rather than self-defense. Nor does he provide any principle which he thinks is relevant to whether we wage war.

I would like to propose the following test for whether or not the United States is justified in going to war with Iraq. A war is justified if all of the following conditions are met:

  1. The Iraqi government possesses, or is likely soon to possess, significant weapons of mass destruction.
  2. There is a specific threat that the Iraqi government will use such weapons against citizens of the United States.
  3. There is good reason to believe that a war will substantially remove this threat.
  4. There is good reason to believe that the destruction caused by the war will not be worse than the threat left without a war.
  5. There are no options for removing the threat through less destructive means than war.

Now, neither Jonathan Melville nor myself is a U.N. weapons inspector. Neither of us has any particular access to whether (1) is true or false. As it happens, Hans Blix, who is in charge of chemical and biological weapons inspections, and Mohamed El-Baradei, who is in charge of nuclear weapons inspections explicitly deny that they have discovered anything which should prompt a war against Iraq. Since Mr. Melville claims to know that Iraq does in fact possess banned chemical and biological weapons, and also claims to know that they are about to have nuclear weapons, perhaps he has access to secret intelligence that the U.N. weapons inspectors do not. But he can hardly expect us to take his assertions on blind faith.

But even if (1) turns out to be true, neither the Bush administration, nor Jonathan Melville, has bothered to present any evidence whatsoever for (2)-(4). There is no evidence at all that Saddam Hussein has any more plans to attack the United States now than he did for the past twelve years. Has something changed in that time to transform a broken, beaten, third world country into an imminent threat to the world’s last unchallenged superpower? If something has changed, then the War Party should point it out. But, as far as I can tell, no-one has shown that anything has changed except the belligerence of the ruling party in Washington, DC.

How about (5)? Are there any options other than war? Certainly there are. For example, the United States can step back and let the inspections process continue to work–as Hans Blix and Mohamed El-Baradei have indicated they would be willing and able to do.

Mr. Melville and his fellow epistolator Charlie Vaughan do not present any evidence for believing that (2)-(5) are true. Instead, they both try to use an analogy with the struggle against fascism as a historical backdrop for the Bush administration’s plans for war–by accusing peace supporters of favoring appeasement of Saddam Hussein, as Neville Chamberlain favored appeasement of Hitler.

The attempted comparison is a grotesque abuse of history. Saddam Hussein is certainly a ruthless dictator with a lot of blood on his hands. However, comparing him to Hitler simply blanks out one minor detail: while Hitler stood atop a massive military machine that conquered nearly all of Europe in a few short years, Hussein is the tinhorn dictator of a devastated third world country, completely surrounded by hostile and militarily superior forces. There is no appeasement of Hussein to be done, because he poses a threat to no other country. What peace supporters ask is that we do not go out of our way to unleash the destruction of war on the Iraqi people when we can deal with Saddam Hussein through peaceful means.

Mr. Vaughan also angrily accuses Dr. El Moghazy of comments that are a slap in the face of those currently serving in our military. But El Moghazy never criticized women and men in the military–rather, his criticism was directed against the Administration that is dead-set on putting those brave men and women in harm’s way. It seems to me that it is no disrespect to our troops to try to keep them from being sent off to die in another dumb foreign war. If I were in the military, I’d rather have people support our troops by keeping me alive, rather than by giving me a medal after I’m dead.

Sincerely,
Charles W. Johnson
Auburn Peace Project

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