Culture At Large

Laquan McDonald and the erosion of empathy

Ted Williams III

I have a bad habit. After reading news articles, I often find myself scanning the public comments that follow. I am aware of the kind of vitriol that is present when people anonymously post their unfiltered thoughts on controversial issues, yet I often read anyway, against my better judgement. However, after witnessing the acrimonious conversation surrounding the shooting of Laquan McDonald, I think I will forego participating in any further unfiltered public forums.

A firestorm of emotion greeted the belated release last week of video from the Chicago Police Department, in which officer Jason Van Dyke can be seen firing 16 shots at McDonald as the 17-year-old was walking away. McDonald died on the scene and Van Dyke has since been charged with first-degree murder. Protesters and pundits alike have created a cacophony of voices that can be heard loudly from coast to coast. Many are appalled by the level of brutality evident in the video, while others feel the police officer was justified in his use of force. This debate doesn’t bother me. We are all entitled to different perspectives. What is problematic is the level of racial animosity that has been unveiled in the reaction to these events. As the wound surrounding our nation’s persistent issues of race, inequality and injustice has been re-opened in recent months, an extreme level of anger has surfaced. Many Americans are livid about a perceived inconsistency in police misconduct, specifically towards people of color. However, there are those who are equally enraged by what appears to be support for miscreant behavior and a mentality of victimization and racial division. Whether we disagree or not, both perspectives must be heard.

We all are best served when we step outside of our own experiences.

Like many I was perplexed, saddened and angered by what appeared to clearly be an excessive use of force in the video. I am also saddened by the personal story of McDonald, who had lived a very difficult life up until that fatal day. As a Chicagoan, I am aware that these stories are often more complex and far-reaching than discussed, as the families of both the teen and the officer will be impacted in ways the public may never fully understand. As a result, the order of the day is empathy.

In my opinion Van Dyke was able to shoot 16 times because, to him, McDonald had little humanity. He did not see McDonald as someone that could have easily been his son, neighbor or mentee. The racial animosity that has followed this tragedy reveals the same empathy deficit. It is rooted in frustration, insecurity and a lack of understanding of our imago dei. As in many cases that involve violence, the lack of compassion human beings display towards each other is undoubtedly the greatest problem.

Jesus offered us a solution by modeling a compassion rooted in empathetic love. It is the theme that runs deeply through His ministry. Without such empathy, the conversations surrounding tragedies such as the killing of Laquan McDonald are futile, as they are rooted in myopic perspectives that see the world solely through individualistic and selfish lenses. We all are best served when we step outside of our own experiences. We must begin by asking ourselves: can I understand the perspective of marginalized youth, of law-enforcement officers, of victims of police brutality and of victims of crime? Only after answering can we consider our obligations to hold both our government and ourselves accountable for a more peaceful and just society. If we truly want to move beyond vitriol in our national conversation, Christ-like empathy is the most productive place to start.

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, Justice, North America, Politics