by Barry Edelson
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To Be Human



Who would have thought it possible that a simple, spontaneous act of compassion from a judge toward a defendant could provoke outrage? But that was the reaction to Dallas County Judge Tammy Kemp's hug of police officer Amber Guyger, who had just been sentenced to 10 years in prison for the murder of Botham Jean. Outrage from the left that a police officer should be shown any kind of mercy for yet another murder of an unarmed black man. Outrage from the right that a judge should descend from the bench and display kindness in such a public way towards a convicted criminal. Outrage from African-Americans because forgiveness only ever seems to flow in one direction. Outrage even from church-state separation fanatics who objected to the judge handing the defendant a Bible in the courtroom.

In a normal society, like the one we used to think we lived in, the context would matter. But we no longer live in such a society, where circumspection is not automatically suspect and the wisdom of experience isn't the moral equivalent of selling out. For the sake of those who do not spend their lives in the hair-trigger terrain of the Internet, and are therefore still capable of exercising, and appreciating, deliberate judgment, consider the actual substance of what took place in Judge Kemp's courtroom.

Amber Guyger was convicted of killing a black neighbor in his own apartment. She claimed that she mistakenly thought she was in her own apartment and was shooting an intruder. This defense was insufficient to prevent a guilty verdict, but perhaps a mitigating factor for the jury in not recommending an even longer sentence. For some, this was cause enough for outrage. At the sentencing hearing where the now infamous embrace took place, the brother of the victim was the first to hug the defendant in an unrestrained act of forgiveness. Some in the courtroom were very moved by this scene, including the judge. (Others took offense: why is it that people of color are always expected to forgive their oppressors?) Only after this unusual display of sympathy did the judge come off the bench and approach the defendant.

Video shows that it was Amber Guyger who sought solace from the judge, after the judge had spoken to her for a few minutes. As the judge said later, there was no way she was going to refuse. They talked for a long minute or two in between hugs. Though there is no audio, it seems from the judge's assertive demeanor that she is admonishing the officer to make something positive out of the rest of her life, and, as we learned from the judge's statements afterwards, to seek redemption through faith. She spontaneously gave her the Bible that she had in the courtroom, saying that she had others at home and could spare it. (More outrage ensued from this act of generosity, which was construed by some as inappropriate proselytizing.) Judge Kemp did not tell Officer Guyger that what she did on the night of the shooting was okay, or that she deserved a different fate. In her own account, she was moved by human impulse and merely extended mercy as one Christian to another, as she felt it was her obligation to do.

It seems clear that many more commentators on anti-social media are believers in the vengeful God of the Hebrew Bible than in the loving and forgiving God of the New Testament. It would no doubt come as a shock to the white supremacists and other purveyors of hate online that in their views of crime and punishment they have much more in common with ancient Judaism than with traditional evangelical Christianity.

Does context even matter any more? The Twitterverse depends upon an absence of context. This is the stripped-down sphere in which so much of the so-called public debate takes place now. Where is the room for context in 140 or 280 characters? Most digital reactions are now overreactions because there isn't time or space for reasoned argument. Outrage is the default mode, and the echo chamber in the conventional media means that even those who do not get their news online and who do not check their phones all day, every day, to check the latest buzz are nonetheless treated to the worthless opinions of the professionally offended. Thus the public rhetoric to which most of us are exposed daily is geared toward more division, more distrust, more hatred.

Much of the "commentary" about Judge Kemp's laudatory act of mercy, like much of the "national conversation" surrounding many issues of social importance, are neither commentary nor conversation at all but a poisonous stream of invective. Some of the news broadcasters who covered the proceedings in Judge Kemp's courtroom live on October 2 were overwhelmed with emotion by the sight of Brandt Jean embracing his brother's killer, and of the judge's unrehearsed display of human feeling. Only later, after they had the opportunity to be enlightened by the online hate machine, did the on-air talent discover that they had had the wrong reaction to this moment of human clarity. Imagine their embarrassment over allowing their humanity to show up on television.

One would have to have a heart of stone — or a Twitter account — not to have been touched. Perhaps the suffering of black people over the centuries has left some with cold and unforgiving hearts, and perhaps this is understandable. Perhaps the poor and the dispossessed have good reason to question the motives of everyone involved in the justice system. But sometimes it falls upon an individual to do the right thing: to transcend history, disregard the crowd and defy expectations. Judge Kemp did just that, and has been refreshingly unapologetic about it. We can go on for generations with our well-earned bitterness, and can dwell forever in our impregnable fortress of cynicism. We can demand retribution, the settling of scores, perfect justice. But at what point do we allow ourselves just to be human?


October 15, 2019


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