A few days ago film director and provocateur Michael Moore foolishly jammed a stick in the wasp’s nest by saying that all snipers are cowards (take that Chris Kyle). The comment is equal parts false and incendiary. But what most intrigues me are the responses that Moore’s comment elicited. Consider, for example, Don Mann’s response in the CNN-published article “Michael Moore is wrong about ‘American Sniper’“. Don Mann is a combat veteran and author of several books with the words “Seal Team” in the title so he predictably tears a strip off Moore.
What most disturbed me about the article was the way that Mann appropriated the tripartite division of human beings into wolves, sheep and sheepdogs, while assuming that Kyle and other American snipers are all sheepdogs while those they kill are all wolves. Consider this passage:
“Chris Kyle was a champion sheepdog. Every time Kyle pulled back on his trigger and fired a shot that neutralized a ‘wolf,’ he was saving countless lives and protecting the sheep. Every wolf he put down was no longer capable of causing harm or death to the sheep, the innocents.”
What most disturbed me about this passage was not simply that Mann maintains the simplistic analysis, but that he extends it to encompass the nature of the killing itself. Thus, Kyle is not executing a human being, he is “putting down a wolf”.
That tripartite division between sheep, sheepdogs and wolves used to be common on the streets of North America. On this domestic version the police were sheepdogs and the people they arrested, interrogated, roughed up, searched, questioned, pulled over for having broken taillights, put in chokeholds, racially profiled, etc., were all wolves. Occasionally, a sheep might get pulled into the dragnet as well, but if you’re a sheep, you knew that was the price to be paid for the comfort of having the sheepdogs protecting you from the wolves.
That simplistic tripartite division is no longer sustainable given the overwhelming evidence of police who behave like wolves. Examples are easy to come by: from the fabled corruption of the New Orleans PD, to the New Mexico police who face murder charges for killing a homeless man, to the police choking death of Eric Garner to a sheriff’s deputy who agreed not to arrest a woman in exchange for oral sex to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, and on and on.
Most of us recognize that police aren’t all sheepdogs and those who get roughed up, searched, arrested, killed, convicted, etc. aren’t all wolves. Can you imagine somebody claiming that Eric Garner was simply a wolf and the police officer who choked him to death was simply a sheep? Few people would tolerate such offensive, blunt categories to define this tragedy. So why is it that many people warm up to those same blunt categories when they are invoked to describe equally complex violent events that occur outside our national borders?