Killing Me Softly: In a hair-trigger society, the stress is quicker than the eye

December 28, 2014
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

Last week as I was doing a live podcast with Dr. Sophy, a listener called in wondering if Americans today are less trustworthy. This got me thinking about two competing ideas about American society. One is that notion of neighborly bonding associated with barn raising, quilting bees, the Great Depression, and WW2.  You help one another, and the strong help the weak. It’s the assumption thatwe’re all in this together. Today as in the old days, the notion varies from place to place, and it’s always under pressure.

The New Deal and WW2 treated society as a system. If we pull together, as the chorus goes, we can lick any problem. That mentality gave us Social Security, a winning war effort, and then postwar prosperity. When he died, FDR was envisioning basic rights to employment and health insurance.

The opposite idea, privatization, worked best for the rich. It meant individual responsibility, but also every man for himself. Pulling together was for Communists and socialists. Polls show that the lies of the Vietnam War undermined trust in government, and that spurred President Reagan to demand that “big government” (we’re all in this together) be privatized. The idea was to put Wall Street in charge of Social Security, punish welfare parasites, and lower taxes, especially on wealthy investors.

Privatization encouraged Scrooge McDuck, but ordinary salaries have been flat for three decades. Starting in the 1980s a family needed two wage earners to hold its own. MBAs preached that job insecurity is good for business, whereas an employee voice—organized labor—is bad. At Walmart the pay is now so low you need government food stamps to survive.  Even so, Walmart’s been caught cheating employees on their pay stubs (an estimated 5% of companies cheat their workers).[1] Any new expense may be the bullet that cripples or kills you.

When living standards are under stress, everybody’s tempted to cheat and fib. Privatization gets rid of regulations, so that when businesses advertise “A name you can trust” and run amok as the banks just did in 2008, nobody is punished. When you’re downsized, you suspect that maybe we’re not all in this together. You worry about trust.

But there’s a deeper problem. Pure trust is a fantasy. Even babies scream at their trusted parents when they’re scared and hungry. Trust is always a best guess, an estimate of how reliable others are. We want to believe that we’re all in this together—or that a privatized “free market” will police itself. But these are enabling fictions. In a psychological age, the ad industry manufactures belief. The advertising costs more than the beer in the bottle. People feel manipulated, unsure which corporate talking head to vote for. They worry about trust.

You can see these ideas shaping the turmoil over police killing young, unarmed black males. At the center of things, trust is in trouble.  If we’re all in this together, police are supposed to protect everyone, not victimize a stigmatized group of the poor. Yet alone on the street, his life at risk, the cop’s situation is radically privatized.

If he kills an innocent person, the law privatizes his role, too, by judging whether he felt his life threatened. Pulling together and privatization are desperately confused. In different ways, both sides are in denial about the reality of risk, the role of guesswork, and the overlays of prejudices that distort their assumptions.

The nationwide protests aren’t just about the numbers of victims (a few hundred a year versus 33,000 traffic deaths in 2012) and racism. The police killings, I think, dramatize a kind of hair-trigger oppression that’s becoming pervasive in the US. It feels like a betrayal when forces that should help you make a life are instead pushing you toward social death. Corporations send your job abroad or refuse you a living wage. Politicians shred the safety net to force you to settle for crumbs. Wall Street cheats on mortgages, then takes your house. The corporate military takes your social security trust fund to spend on endless futile wars. The law itself shoots first and asks questions afterward when it replaces the jury trial—every citizen’s right—with hair-trigger plea bargains that force you to plead guiltyor we’ll lock you up forever. [2] Police broke up Occupy Wall Street’s lawful demonstration with rough-house arrests and courthouse harassment.

I call this hair-trigger oppression because its violence seems to happen too fast for a response, let alone accountability. Any number of processes now are structured so that deadlines or rates are triggered, as if nobody is responsible. Financialized mortgages disguised risk so that it blew up in somebody else’s hands. Inquiries or problem-solving efforts meet with a phone tree (“Your call is very important to us, please wait“). A Cleveland police spokesman on TV expressed the underlying fantasy when he warned that nobody would be killed “if people would just obey us when we tell them to stop”—even though two Ohio cops had just been caught on film shooting first and asking questions afterward.

TV allowed no follow-up to determine if the spokesman was lying or just in denial. He assumes that you’ll sympathize: You can’t expect obedience from those people.

This is the formula for our undeclared wars, as in the invasion of Iraq on the false suspicion that Saddam Hussein had terror weapons.  As in police killings, with hair-trigger panic, soldiers cut down innocent civilians without punishment. The Cleveland spokesman implies that as in warfare, policing is all about obedience, at a time when police departments are becoming militarized by acquiring equipment from the armed forces. More chillingly still, when a deranged black man ambushed two New York policemen in retaliation for publicized black victims of police bullets, NYPD spokesmen purportedly threatened that the protesters’ concern for justice had caused the officers’ deaths, and that the NYPD would “become a ‘wartime’ police department. We will act accordingly.” They vowed that protesters and New York mayor de Blasio had blood on their hands. [3, 4]

Notice what happened: denying the agonizing guilt of killing innocent civilians, the police accuse the protesters and the mayor of being murderers. Retaliating for the deranged killer’s retaliation, they indirectly threaten to escalate their killing. This is of course how real wars start, in a cycle of fear and wounded self-esteem. At the same time, in a calmer mood, they’re actually demanding more support (Support Our Troops) to cope with their fears: they too want to believe that we’re all in this together.

You can understand the cops’ denial. Who wants to wake up every morning thinking, I killed a 12-year-old boy with a toy gun in a playground? In countries free of American mania for guns, cops are rarely if ever killed. When people try to privatize policing by being armed to the teeth, suspicion and terror are explosive.

Even if it’s only an enabling fiction, it’s useful to maintain that we’re all in this together as a way of defusing paranoia and that devilish cycle of retaliation. It helps keep morale up and stress down. American police are scared, especially in cities, among racial “strangers.” Risk is real, yet ironically polls show blacks generally trust police, while police overestimate the criminality of blacks, especially black males.

When living standards are under pressure, racism is inflamed, especially with a mixed race president to blame for any ills. The invective hurled at Obama shows that gut-level mistrust of blacks is surfacing again. Race also spurs some to blame minority victims rather than cops. Maybe they were lazy parasites sucking your money out of the system. Maybe they were competitors for scarce jobs and status. In any event, scared citizens don’t want to blame police. They don’t want to know that a scared and unreliable cop killed someone by mistake. They want to feel protected, whatever the cost.

Trust, belonging, race, crime, hair-trigger oppression—you can see why people dream of escape from such stress. In the PBS documentary “America by the Numbers,” Maria Hinojosa interviews folks in Coeur d’Alene Idaho, once a bastion of Aryan Nation white supremacy, now a civilized suburb that is, nevertheless, 94% white. The citizens say they’re not racists, they just feel more comfortable among people like themselves. We’re all in this together—as long as you’re in my family, my exclusive suburb.

The problem is, differences and “strangers” are everywhere, and they compete, sometimes to the death. Like the nation, Coeur d’Alene is reluctant to acknowledge the economic injustice minorities face (since the 2008 banking disaster, net worth has shrunk by 25% vs. 43% for minority families).[5] It’s particularly perverse since haves feel so much mistrust and contempt for have-nots. Cops don’t gun down Wall Street crooks with attaché cases.

The air today sizzles with images of excessive force. In Montana a man named Kaarma shot to death an unarmed German exchange student, enraged that the kid might pilfer something out of his garage. Meanwhile the “global policeman” uses hair-trigger drones to whack “enemies” who may turn out to be visiting aunts. Hair-trigger CIA has tortured innocents off the street. Oh, and by the way, NSA has you and me under surveillance.Just obey when they tell you to stop.

Across the planet, like children, humans react to strangers with mistrust and hair-trigger nerves. It’s how we’re built. Even with our big brains it’s not easy to understand that it doesn’t have to be that way.


Resources used in this essay:

Kirby Farrell, The Psychology of Abandon (soon to be out in paperback from Leveller’s Press)

Kirby Farrell/Leveller’s Press

Also in this series, “Who Can You Trust?” (September 15, 2014); “The Child and the Monster” (November 29); and “Guilty Games” (December 5).

1. Laura Klawson, “Walmart ordered to pay $188 million in Pennsylvania wage theft lawsuit,”Daily Kos, December 16, 2014.   <<http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/12/16/1352314/-Walmart-ordered…

2. Jed S. Rakoff, “Why Innocent People Plead Guilty,” New York Review of Books, November 20, 2014.

3. Steven Thrasher, “Two NYPD Cops Get Killed and ‘Wartime’ Police Blame Protesters.” Guardian UK, December 22, 2014.

4. Michelle Conlin, “Off Duty Black Officers in New York SayThey Fear Fellow Cops,” Reuters, December 23, 2014.

5.Quentin Fortrell, “Americans Are 40 Percent Poorer Than Before the Recession,” MarketWatch (December 16, 2014).



  1. When will the book be available in paper in UK. Can’t find a date and hardback is prohibitive.

  2. Reblogged this on Joseph Ratliff's Notepad.

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