On Tuesday, I led my discussion section in a stupid activity I called \First Impressions."" I showed pictures of people and then asked my classmates to invent a biography for the person in each photo.
After a mere glance at the picture of a stubble-chinned guy playing a guitar, the class decided he drove a VW bus, drank organic herbal tea, worked as a camp counselor and listened to Phish. And, of course, he was a liberal.
On Wednesday, I watched a one-act play in which a janitor finds two men'one white, one black'sleeping in the basement of Humanities early one morning. The janitor calls the police, and the officers head straight for the African American.
The black man explains he had just been jogging with his white friend and that they were napping before their morning classes. The officers continue to interrogate the guy, even after the other runner wakes up to corroborate the story. Eventually, the black man snaps, wrestles one officer, takes his gun and points it at the policeman.
Coincidentally, during the week before the show, on the real-world, water-flanked stage called Madison, Mayor Sue Bauman had vetoed an allegedly discriminatory loitering ordinance. The law, passed in 1997 with time limits, was aimed at people loitering to deal drugs.
Though the City Council had voted 11-7 to make the law permanent, Bauman squashed the measure over concerns that the law was ineffective and targeted blacks. The Wisconsin State Journal reported that, of the 77 loitering citations issued last year in Madison, 80 percent were to African Americans.
But South Police District Capt. Randy Gaber told the State Journal that the police are specially trained to observe suspicious actions.
""We base our contacts on behavior,"" Gaber said. ""It's not like we start walking down the street ... stopping people.""
On Thursday, I was arrested by an article in the Washington Post. It reported that last week, U.S. officials at the United Nations gave U.N. Security Council committee members a ""high-tech slide show"" detailing evidence of Iraq's illegal military build-up. I shuddered, recalling President Bush's condemnation of Iraq and its ""co-axial"" compatriots. I realized that this is just another step in convincing the international community that Iraq is justifiably the next enemy in our war against evil or terrorism or ... something.
It's hard to laugh at the casual seriousness of journal articles like ""The Dos and Don'ts of Attacking Iraq"" in Foreign Policy, and ""Next Stop Baghdad?"" in Foreign Affairs. The latter, by Kenneth Pollack, submits, ""The United States should invade Iraq, eliminate the present regime and pave the way for a successor..."" Thankfully, the campaign ""would be straightforward and well within U.S. capabilities"" and casualties would ""unlikely be catastrophic.""
On Friday, as I sat down to write this, I wondered: Why suffer casualties, however uncatastrophic? For what would soldiers die but a whim? And for what would a black man be arrested but a look? A nation that shrouds itself in secrecy, abuses its people and stockpiles weapons is not necessarily a threat to America. A black man who wears a hooded sweatshirt, carries a duffel bag and hangs out on a corner is not necessarily a drug dealer.
That rogue nation and that black man have done very little to harm Americans. (Indeed, a case can be made that the United States has hurt them far more.) And while there may be reason to believe that the man and the country are both ""up to something,"" to have suspicions is one thing, to act on them aggressively is another. Vigilance is one thing, vengeance for acts not yet committed is another'and to persecute on actions undone is the undoing of justice.
The American justice system shines under the glittering rule that we are innocent until proven guilty. Why aren't our social and international policies based on this principle? Why would we pass laws that put police officers in a position to judge citizens, basing their ""contacts on behavior""? Aren't we inviting them, imploring them, begging them to racially profile? Are we to trust their judgments on who is dangerous and who is not? Can we even trust ourselves with that judgment? If not, how can we trust our government to judge what countries are dangerous and which are not?
Imagine a world where everybody acted upon slim suppositions and thin assumptions (and when are they thick enough?). Imagine a world where you and I, all officers and all countries, lash out at every shadowy figure and figurative shadow. Is that a just world? Is that a moral world?
Today, I hope these questions give you doubt. Sure and blind convictions'or worse, willfully short-sighted ones'do less to punish the guilty than to abuse the innocent. But doubt, often vilified as weakness, is the pause in which reason can speak. That hesitation is the killer of the swiftest of killers: the ""first impression,"" the act of prejudging.
Call me na??ve, but I'd like to think humanity has been trying, slowly over the millennia, to build societies of shrinking prejudice.
It's going to take a few more days.