The Premature Demonization of Scot Peterson Revisited

The Stoneman Douglas High School Shooting, aka the Parkland shooting, took place on February 14, 2018. At the time, I wrote four blog posts posing unanswered questions about the shooting, questions that (it seemed to me) weren’t being asked or answered by press reporting at the time. Here are the first, third, and fourth. I could well have written another four, but lost track of the issue for lack of time and initiative.

The second of those posts was on what I called the “premature demonization of Scot Peterson.” Peterson, you’ll recall, was the police officer assigned to the high school as security (the “SRO,” or School Resource Officer), and accused of “cowardice” for his “failure” to enter the building where the shooting was taking place. In my original post on the subject, I raised questions about the appropriateness of both of these judgments. It wasn’t obvious, at least from the facts reported at the time, that Peterson had “failed” at anything, nor was it clear that he was guilty of “cowardice.”

Nor did it become clear from facts reported thereafter. If anything, Peterson seemed to have been exonerated by subsequent reporting–not that you could tell by a face value reading of the reporting itself. It is at the very least a reasonable hypothesis that Peterson’s “inaction” or “failure” can be explained by real-time uncertainties about what was happening. I commented at length about this in a couple of comments to the original post. I won’t try to summarize; feel free to wade through it all. It’s only by wading through it all that you get a sense of the complexity of the issues involved.

But in a certain sense, the issues involved are not that complex. They might be summarized this way: the more uncertain a situation, and the greater the duress involved, the more cautious we should be in making harsh judgments about the people on the receiving end of the duress. In other words, you can’t legitimately call someone a “coward,” especially in a case like this one, unless you can be absolutely certain that his actions really exhibited cowardice. In that case, you need clear criteria for cowardice, along with a comprehensive, doubt-free account of the facts that prove that the person in question satisfied the criteria. It’s more obvious that we lack those things than that we have them in Scot Peterson’s case.

Even if someone is a coward, there is an outstanding issue of standing to criticize or blame: not everyone has the moral standing or moral right to call someone a coward even if he is one. It’s not obvious that people who have never faced life-threatening danger have the moral standing to call someone who has a coward, regardless of the truth of the claim. Few of the people who are calling Peterson a coward have ever faced, or will ever face, events of the kind he did face.

But the bottom line is that I don’t think anyone has really proven that Scot Peterson was delinquent in his duties, much less a coward. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement/Broward State Attorney’s Office investigation into Peterson’s actions is still pending; maybe it has the answer (and maybe not). But the fact that it’s taken this long to produce a report suggests that the issues couldn’t have been as simple as they’ve so far been made out to be.

At the end of my Scot Peterson post, I had this to say:

What I don’t quite understand is how so many people in my shoes are so confident that Scot Peterson is a disgusting coward who ought to take the fall for the Parkland killings. It isn’t obvious. It’s probably false. But I’m willing to be enlightened on the subject–by someone who knows what they’re talking about. I merely note that such people appear to be in short supply.

I just got some enlightenment from a former Broward County Deputy Sheriff, Kevin Bolling, in the form of an enlightening 90 minute phone conversation with him. Enlightenment received: Bolling says that I was right! Like me, he believes that Scot Peterson was and is the victim of a rush to judgment by his law enforcement colleagues, by the press, and by the now-energized forces of mob rule (my phrase, not his). Unlike me, he has the experience and insider knowledge to know exactly what he’s talking about. Kevin and I disagree about a lot of things, including issues in law enforcement, but I’m happy to discover that a cop and a philosophy professor can agree that justice requires fairness, and fairness demands an open mind toward facts.

As readers of PoT know, I’ve used this space fairly often to defend people falsely or unjustifiably accused of malfeasance. I know I sound like a broken record, but you never know what it’s like to be falsely (or unjustifiably) accused until you’re the one on the receiving end of a rush to condemn. If anything, I probably haven’t been adamant or systematic enough in my attempts at defense or exoneration–in Scot Peterson’s case or any of the others. There’s always too much else to get done. The age of social media has liberated us, but also liberated mass irresponsibility and character assassination. Those phenomena deserve a more concerted response than any one individual can provide–and a more intelligent one that our press seems able to provide.

Just to be clear: I am not Scot Peterson’s defense attorney or his union rep. I have no particular stake in the outcome of his case, except in the sense that I think justice should be done in an impartial and procedurally correct way. I am not saying that I know for certain that Peterson acted properly. I am saying that he has the right to an impartial inquest that takes stock of all relevant facts, that we shouldn’t be stampeded toward any pre-ordained conclusions, and that even if the worst turns out to be true, it is a miscarriage of justice to pre-judge his guilt or innocence. It is one thing for the worst to turn out to be true. It is another thing to fast forward to the most adverse judgment before you know what’s true. Our lust for condemnation is turning us into a nation addicted to snitching and defamation. It’s time to find an exit ramp off the highway to hell.

P.S. Just checked my inbox, and there’s an email there from Scot Peterson himself. I’m half inclined to re-name the blog J’Accuse, but I guess “Policy of Truth” fits the bill just as well.

5 thoughts on “The Premature Demonization of Scot Peterson Revisited

  1. Hi, Irfan — Thanks for your continued clear thinking on these issues. For a book-length elucidation of a similar rush to judgment, but deliberately magnified for purposes of political exploitation, you might want to take a look at AMERICAN CIPHER, on the Bowe Bergdahl case, co-authored by your fellow Pingry alum Michael Ames ’98. (He references J’Accuse as well.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Proof that American prosecutors are capable of remarkable ingenuity, at least when it comes to the promotion of cruelty and injustice:

    I’m confident that fifty or a hundred years from now, this case will stand out as a vivid symbol of the distinctive combination of paranoia, vindictiveness, maudlin sentimentality, and sheer irrationality of American life in the early 21st century. For now, I can only shake my head in disbelief.

    Like

  3. Pingback: The Unwarranted Demonization of Scot Peterson (3): An Ongoing Series | Policy of Truth

  4. Pingback: The Unwarranted Demonization of Scot Peterson (4) | Policy of Truth

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