Wednesday, July 6, 2005

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

So I read this book called Blink by Malcolm Gladwell or something. It was the first selection in an online book club I got exposed to at work. It’s work-related so I don’t think I’m going to specifically track it here, but I did have a personal reaction that I would like to mention. The book is about the snap judgments we all make in the blink of an eye and about how some of them are amazingly accurate, about how some are downright wrong, and the physiological and observable differences between the two. One chapter is about cops, and about how they are trained to avoid stressful situations, because a highly-stressed state of mind is one of those physiological conditions which make our snap judgments go bad. It made me think of a novel I would like to write. Something about cops and their “good guy/bad guy” view of the world and how it leads to more not less confrontation and violence.

Blink talks about how police departments across the country are eliminating the option of chasing suspects who run, not because it’s dangerous to civilians (which, if in cars, it is) but because it produces a hyper-stressed state in the police officers and destroys their ability to make good snap judgments. That’s why so many chases end in gunplay. He was going for his gun. I swear he was.

Blink tells one story about a cop who chased someone who ran, and when he finally got them to pull over, he broke every regulation about how to approach a suspicious person on a traffic stop and wound up killing the driver, convinced he was pulling a gun on him. Look, he complained during the investigation, being a cop is hard. I put my life on the line every night and I couldn’t take the chance and let the guy pull his gun on me. It was either him or me. Which, Blink points out, is all bullshit, because the cop used poor judgment and violated procedure to put himself in that situation. If he had shone his high beams on the suspect’s mirrors, kept himself behind the driver’s left shoulder with the car’s door post always between them, and shone his flashlight on the suspect’s hands—all as he had been trained to do—he never would have “seen” a gun (there wasn’t one) and never would have shot the suspect.

At the same time, the cop’s actions were not part of some racist attitude, even though he was white and the suspect in question was black, so that usual refrain is also faulty. His snap judgment that the suspect had a gun was based partially on his perception of him as a black man and the stereotypical associations our culture has pummeled into him his whole life, but no more or less than any other white person in the society. His action was not a result of his individual racism, but more of a cultural racism, and in his highly-stressed condition and in the milliseconds he had to make the decision, he could no more control his ingrained associations than he could control his heart rate.

This is the story I want to write. The cop, steeped in his “bad guy out to get me” view of the world and the victim, in the wrong but not deserving to be killed, moving slowly towards each other until they collide in this three second encounter that leaves one of them dead and the other forever changed.

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