What do ‘I know that I know’? Really, nothing

My heart breaks, again, for our nation.

In August, police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot Michael Brown, a civilian, in Ferguson, Mo. On Monday afternoon, I was listening to sports talk radio when the grand jury’s decision not to criminally prosecute Wilson first came to my ears.

Sportscaster No. 1 simply read the national release. Sportscaster No. 2 said, “That’s a bunch of horse doogie. They executed that boy!”

And I thought to myself, “Here we go.”

Epistemology is my favorite philosophical study. Epistemology is wrapping your brain around how we can “know what we know.” Epistemology brings to the table a necessarily urgent humility — and restraint — about our relationship with knowledge. Simply put, epistemology cautions me to think before I start shooting my mouth off about, let alone violently acting upon, what’s true and what’s false.

And that’s a good thing.

When human emotions make thinking impossible, we talk as if we know things. And I, a guy whose emotions regularly make reasoned deliberation impossible, know that firsthand.

And so, Sportscaster No. 2, let me say that I understand the emotionality of your public radio remarks. But my understanding doesn’t make your remarks any less inexcusable. Or any less irresponsible.

Because you weren’t there. Neither was I. You know only what I know. That Michael Brown is dead. What the media reported. That the grand jury found no probable cause to prosecute Darren Wilson. You, like me, are free to read the 1,000 page grand jury testimony of some 60 witnesses, DNA, toxicology and ballistics experts. We are free to believe these reasoned conclusions or to disbelieve them. But in neither case will we “know that we know” anything.

You and I know that Ferguson, Mo., suffers from a long-standing mistrust between a largely white police force and a largely black citizenry. We know cases, nationally, that self-evidently confirm the mistrust and evoke righteous outrage for any true patriot. But neither you nor I can know if this case was one of those.

We know that America was founded on noble ideals and, from its inception, the blatant hypocrisy of those ideals (see slavery). We know that the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery, and then was immediately replaced by entrenched, egregious, often murderous racism, a moral stain that wasn’t made criminal until the ’60s brought us the Civil Rights Act.

And, if your worldview is Judeo-Christian like mine, then we both know the “sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.” (Numbers 14:18)

“We are a nation built on the rule of law,” says my president, Barack Obama.

“There is no constitutional right to resist arrest,” says my friend, a federal law enforcement agent.

If a police officer approaches me, I’m not allowed to curse him or threaten him verbally. If the officer instructs me to back up, stop, freeze, put my hands up or behind my head on the hood of the squad car, get down on the ground, etc., I have to do it. If that officer is a sociopath, a sadist, a racist, a paranoid punk — then God help me. I’ll have to determine later what legal recourse, if any, I have. Or my survivors will.

It behooves me to follow the officer’s instructions. I think of arguing with a police officer pretty much like I think of times I tried arguing with a basketball referee. Except the police officer has handcuffs and a gun.

I understand how, when emotions collide with long-standing desperation, people shoot guns and set fire to cars and innocent business establishments. Or strap on a dynamite vest and go for a bus ride in Jerusalem. Or fly commercial planes into buildings deeply believing that God will reward you for doing so. Or make videos of beheadings.

I understand. But it doesn’t make it right. Nor is it helpful. Nor is it in any fashion part of a redemptive, reforming dialogue. It is a mere childish tantrum. Sometimes with deadly consequences.

Racism is real. And, although I take pride in the advances, the hope and healing I’ve seen wrought in my lifetime, the stain of racism — the psychic wound — still pingpongs through our life together as Americans.

But I don’t “know that I know” the death of Michael Brown was a case of this. Or was not.

I know only what the grand jury concluded. And that the city of Ferguson is suffering. And that my heart breaks for all of us.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 702-227-4165 or skalas@reviewjournal.com.

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