When Feeling Threatened Leads to Violence and Death

By Becky O'Malley
Friday April 13, 2012 - 10:42:00 AM

Panic attack! In recent days we’ve been bombarded with examples of how the late 20th century pop-psych emotion of “feeling threatened” has turned into a license for armed men to do stupid things with dire consequences. 

Example One: George Zimmerman, terrified beyond reason by a Black kid with some skittles walking home through his ‘hood. He “felt threatened”, and thanks to the generosity of the state of Florida’s laws, he had his very own legally acquired lethal weapon. He hadn’t been trained, as a real peace officer would have been, in ways to solve problems without killing. It’s sadly likely that his expressed belief that he was acting in self defense was genuine, honestly held. It’s just that he was wrong—and because he had a gun he could turn the error of his ways into murder. 

His lawyer’s job will be to convince a jury, if the case gets that far, that his mistaken belief that he was in mortal danger was enough to trigger Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” defense. More than likely, as in most criminal cases, a bargain will reduce the charges to a plea of guilty to voluntary manslaughter, and he’ll go to jail for a few years. 

Example Two: Whoever shot 24-year-old Devin Whitmire in front of Bob’s Liquors in South Berkeley. Did someone signify disrespect or threaten the killer? Will we ever know who did it or why? But no matter, the killer had his gun, and he acted on his fears. 

Example Three: The person who gunned down Kenny Warren next door to the Berkeley barbershop where he worked, filling his prostrate body with many more bullets than were needed to kill him. The word on the street—no secret—is that the shooter was Ken’s ex-wife’s new boyfriend, thinking he could settle a child custody dispute with his weapon. There’s no explanation that makes sense to me of why the Berkeley Police Department can’t arrest him. 

Example Four: The two losers in Tulsa who cruised the streets in Black neighborhoods shooting at random. One of them felt threatened by Black people because a Black man shot his father in a fight which the father probably provoked. His buddy just seems to have “felt threatened” by Black people in general—and they both had guns. 

Example Five: The re-named One Goh, who might have felt dissed by a school administrator. He bought right in to the American Dream, bought himself a gun, and mowed down a bunch of his fellow students for no particular reason. 

And now we come to the tricky ones: less violence, more apparent authority, no guns used. These are a couple of police-involved shows of force, under color of law but actually in disregard of legal specifications about how such force may be used. 

Example Six: 

UC Berkeley’s Keystone Cops, who broke into the Long Haul anarchist collective’s building, which housed its decades old newspaper, on the merest suspicion, totally unjustified, that the organization might have something to do with email threats some UC researchers had received. Break in first, ask questions later? Made sense to them, but not to me—or to the court which oversaw a $100,000 settlement: cheap at the price. 

And also, 

Example Seven: Another branch of the apparently only semi-pro University of California police force, this one at UC Davis. These jokers were royally lambasted by an investigating committee headed by former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso. The committee recommended review of all of the University of California police operations systemwide, not just at Davis. 

(In fairness, we should mention that it was not only the armed men on the police force who did wrong. The chancellor and the police chief, both female, deserved and got their own share of the blame, and presumably some female police officers as well took part in the last two cases.) 


Example Eight: This one’s about collateral damage, not directly an instance of abuse of force: the lamentable case of Peter Cukor, killed by a disturbed individual while Berkeley police were distracted elsewhere because their UCPD colleagues “felt threatened” by an unfounded rumor that demonstrators might attack the campus police station. 

And this is just within the last month or so.  

It’s a laundry list of recent incidents where Feeling Threatened was emotional, not evidence-based, but was used as the justification for bad decisions made in panic mode. In six of the eight examples, easy access to weaponry—guns, pepper spray—aided and abetted those who substituted force for foresight. 

(If you think pepper spray is not force, you didn’t hear the Iraq War veteran, now a student at Davis, say on KQED radio that it was more painful than anything he’d experienced in the service.) 

As far as the police are concerned, it probably boils down to better planning and better training, which the Reynoso report and the UCPD settlement could expedite. When peace officers Feel Threatened, they should be taught how to stop and think before acting rashly. 

What’s the remedy for the rest? Well, for the non-official culprits, the problem is starkly clear, and it’s not new. Guns, guns, damnable guns. 

I rarely—almost never—agree with Chip Johnson, who writes about Oakland in the Chronicle, but today I do.  

In his latest column: “I’m just saying there is too much death, and too much of it comes at the end of too many guns. And there are too many guns in too many hands in Oakland.” 

And also Sanford, Florida, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Berkeley, California, and in fact in the whole United States of America.  

Do you doubt it? 

A reader passed along this comment found on HuffPo, with no author’s name or citations but eminently plausible: 

"… I was debating with an anti-gun law guy. He amazingly chose to quote events in the UK and Japan to illustrate his point that gun laws had no influence on gun deaths. So I googled the numbers. Here they are:

Deaths per 100,000 people per day:

America - no worthwhile gun laws - 10.27

Australia - laws restricted to auto/semi-auto guns - 2.94

UK - comprehensive gun laws - 0.46

Japan - comprehensive gun laws and strict import controls - .07

It doesn't get much clearer does it?" 

No, it doesn’t.