By any measure, what happened in Ferguson is deeply disturbing. It is nothing less than a monumental tragedy. How could the death of yet another unarmed black teenager fail to ignite widespread outrage and, unfortunately, violent demonstrations? The death of one unarmed black teenager is one death too many. However, there is another aspect of the tragedy that I also find disturbing. This aspect has received virtually no acknowledgement, and hence no discussion at all. As we know, there are essentially two widely conflicting and, on the surface, at least, deeply incompatible stories of what happened. For most people, to believe one story is to automatically judge the other totally wrong. …
By any measure, what happened in Ferguson is deeply disturbing. It is nothing less than a monumental tragedy. How could the death of yet another unarmed black teenager fail to ignite widespread outrage and, unfortunately, violent demonstrations? The death of one unarmed black teenager is one death too many.
However, there is another aspect of the tragedy that I also find disturbing. This aspect has received virtually no acknowledgement, and hence no discussion at all. As we know, there are essentially two widely conflicting and, on the surface, at least, deeply incompatible stories of what happened. For most people, to believe one story is to automatically judge the other totally wrong. In contrast, I believe that both stories are “right” and “wrong” in the sense that both have elements of credibility. That is, neither is totally right or totally wrong. Of course, merely to say this is to incur the wrath of both sides, for how could they be equally credible, if indeed they are?
In one story, Michael Brown is clearly the villain. According to this version of events, Officer Darren Wilson acted out of dire fear for his life. Brown had just committed petty theft. A surveillance tape shows him pushing a convenience-store clerk and making off with stolen cigarillos. According to his friend Dorian Johnson, who was with him during the theft and at the encounter with Wilson, Brown was planning to use the cigarillos to roll marijuana cigarettes. Because Wilson had been alerted to the recent theft over the police radio, he was on the lookout for the perpetrator. When he came upon Brown and Johnson walking in the middle of the street, he realized Brown fit the profile. When Wilson, sitting in his car, asked Brown to step out of the street and onto the sidewalk, Brown, instead of complying as he should have, became belligerent. Wilson attempted to get out of the car, but Brown slammed the door shut, knocking Wilson back into the car. Brown then violently confronted Wilson through the car window, savagely punching him in the face. Rightly fearing for his life, Wilson reached for his gun, but Brown wrestled him for it, and in the tussle the gun went off in the car and left an unmistakable injury on Brown’s thumb, demonstrating that he had indeed been at close range at the time. Brown fled, and Wilson got out of the car and pursued him, firing multiple shots when Brown turned back around and appeared to be charging Wilson. At least one of the shots was fatal. Brown’s intimating size and weight figured into Wilson’s decision to use deadly force. Because the grand jury believed Wilson’s testimony, they voted not to indict him. The grand jury also voted not to indict so as not to undermine police authority.
In the other story, Officer Wilson is the clear villain. According to this version of events, Wilson was the aggressor. Unaware of the convenience-story theft, he came upon Michael Brown and Dorian Johnson walking in the middle of the street and, from inside his car, rudely ordered them to get on the sidewalk using profanity. When Brown didn’t comply quickly enough, an enraged Wilson attempted to get out of the car, but the car door ricocheted off Brown’s body, knocking Wilson back into the car and further enraging him. He seized Brown through the car window, and a tussle ensued, with Wilson’s gun going off inside the car and Brown fleeing, fearing for his life. Wilson got out of the car and pursued him, firing multiple shots. Realizing he’d been struck, Brown stopped and turned back around, facing Wilson and putting his hands up in surrender, but Wilson fired several more shots, killing Brown. The death of another innocent and unarmed black teenager understandably outraged the black community. Michael Brown was not a thug, as some in the media portrayed him, but a “gentle giant” who was getting ready to go off to college. There is no way that he was a threat to law and order. The grand jury was wrong in failing to indict Wilson. If Wilson had been brought to trial, then he would have been cross-examined in a proper manner. Once again, black people were denied justice. The shooting of Michael Brown is another example of the racism that is rampant in American society.
On the surface, it is seemingly impossible to reconcile these two sharply conflicting stories, yet this is exactly what we must do if we are to learn from the tragedy and get beyond it, if one can ever truly get beyond a horrific tragedy.
Both stories have elements that ring true. Brown clearly committed a theft, for which he needed to be apprehended and arrested. Moreover, his considerable size and weight would have intimidated most officers, who, by virtue of the nature of their jobs, live in perpetual fear for their lives. On the other hand, it is not difficult to believe that Wilson also inappropriately provoked Brown, thereby leading to an avoidable tragedy. For this reason I believe that Wilson should have been indicted, if only on a lesser charge like involuntary manslaughter, so that he and the witnesses to the tragedy could have been cross-examined publicly in a court of law.
One of the most difficult tasks for human beings is to accept that there are elements of truth in widely conflicting accounts of horrific tragedies. But that is the task with which we humans are charged repeatedly. What single story ever has a monopoly on truth? If there is ever anything approaching the truth, is it not arrived at and known through the clashing of two widely conflicting accounts of events?
All of this suggests what is required if we are to move on, and why it’s so difficult for us to do so. Those who believe the first story have to accept that in not indicting Wilson, justice was not done in the eyes of those who believe the second story. And those who believe the second story have to accept that Michael Brown was not entirely innocent. But in no way does the theft justify his being shot, let alone fatally.
In short, both sides have to accept a fundamental part of the other’s story.
F. Scott Fitzgerald put it best when he wrote that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” We are far indeed from even approaching a society with “first-rate intelligence.”
Ian I. Mitroff is a professor emeritus at USC. He is a senior research associate in the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at UC Berkeley. He is currently at work on a book, Dumb, Deranged, and Dangerous: A Brief Guide to Combating Dumb Arguments.