Mask Up or Drop Dead

Some readers may remember the dispute I had here back in April with Jason Brennan and Phil Magness over the use of lethal force to enforce social distancing orders. The issue was: are there any circumstances such that lethal force would be justified in enforcing such orders?

I said yes: if someone refuses compliance, and then not only resists an order to comply, but escalates resistance to the point of serious physical danger to others, it can be justifiable to shoot them dead. I say “shoot them dead” because under the rules of engagement that apply in police work, every shot is intended to be a kill shot: if an officer draws a weapon, it’s understood she had no choice but to do so; if she fires, she aims at the subject’s torso, which is the largest and most easily-hit target; and given the nature of standard police firearms, and the likelihood that the officer will fire more than once, the subject’s death is highly likely, whether literally intended or not.

Granted, I don’t think death should be intended, but when the line between the intended and the foreseen is this fine, the circumstances are this fraught, and mental states are this hard to identify even for the person who has them, it’s hard for an outsider to issue categorical imperatives with any great standing or authority. I’ve never shot anyone, so I don’t know what goes through the mind of someone who does. So I assert what I just did with some hesitation.

To this day, months after the fact, it remains unclear how Brennan and Magness intended to answer the italicized question, or if they ever intended to answer it all. What they seemed more interested in doing was defaming me, raising a bunch of red herrings, grandstanding, and working hard to evade the issue. So I’m glad to raise it again.

In our original exchange, Brennan had asserted airily that everyone was distancing anyway, so there was no need for distancing mandates.* That was dumb enough when he said it, but lately, in his crybaby tirades over Georgetown’s measures to ensure distancing, Brennan has flatly contradicted what he so confidently asserted. Now, he tells us–with great, worldly-wise authority–that we all know that, among college students at least, compliance with distancing measures is not to be expected.** (Here, here, and here too.)

Can’t quite make up our minds, can we? I get it: the temptations of each polemical moment can overwhelm the desire for consistency. But inconsistency is a problem when translated into Brennan’s favorite subject, policy.

So here’s an article about policy in today’s New York Times regarding the violence used by people defying mask orders in the New York City transit system. This is one very, very small tip of a much larger iceberg, one that’s widely been reported in the months since Brennan-Magness and I discussed the issue. No one can at this point reasonably pretend that those defying distancing orders have done so non-violently, not that anyone could reasonably have pretended it back then.

This is the situation that New York City bus drivers face (but read the whole article for fuller context):

Since then, the outbreak has receded in New York and 45 percent of the bus network’s usual ridership has returned. But disputes among passengers over wearing masks have become common, forcing drivers to intervene.

When someone boards their bus without a mask, drivers say they are faced with a grim choice: say nothing and risk that an infected rider will spread the virus, or tell the passenger to put on a mask and risk a violent reaction.

“When you confront someone, it can escalate quickly. He could spit on you, he could throw something at you, he could hurt another passenger,” said Alexander Kemp, a bus driver in Brooklyn. “But what if that person is sick and contaminates everyone on this bus? And you could have prevented that?”

Recall Brennan’s comment: “People already avoid strangers on the street. Strangers don’t interact unless they voluntarily choose to do so. No one is walking up to Irfan and coughing on him.” Right–except when they don’t avoid strangers, and don’t engage in voluntary interaction, and aren’t walking up to strangers and coughing on them. Otherwise, Jason, you’re spot on.

Here are the stakes:

In France, a bus driver in Bayonne, a city in the southwestern part of the country, was beaten to death by four passengers in July after he asked them to put on masks. The same month, a passenger in Lubbock, Texas, hit a bus driver with a two-by-four and smashed her window after she asked him to put on a mask.

In San Francisco, three men beat a driver with a baseball bat when he ordered them off a bus for refusing to put on a mask — one of 72 mask-related altercations the authorities have logged on streetcars and buses in the city between the end of April and beginning of September.

Brennan: “I wonder what Irfan considers “resistance”?” Answer: that’s what I consider “resistance.” Clear now?

Thought-experiment: You’re a police officer assigned to a bus, and your job is to make sure that people comply with the mask mandates.***

  • Four guys refuse compliance, and come after you, one apparently intending to disarm you. You struggle and try to “subdue” them (Brennan’s idea of advice), but oddly enough, it doesn’t work. I wonder why. As one reaches for your gun, you wrest it away from him, and doing your best to avoid bystanders, shoot him. What would District Attorney Brennan and Assistant DA Magness do at this point?
  • Someone wields a 2×4 and comes after you, hoping to smash your head in. You reach for your baton and smash their head in. You hit them so hard that they suffer permanent brain damage. Morally wrong?
  • Three men come after you, one with a baseball bat. Neither a baton nor a Taser, you judge, is going to work here. You reach for your revolver and shoot. Immoral?

If it’s wrong to shoot or badly injure people under these circumstances, I’m really curious to hear from Brennan and Magness what they think should be done in the moment. What would they do? In fact, skip the verbal description, guys. I’d love to see you physically enact the advice you give. Have three guys come at Jason Brennan, one with a baseball bat, and see what Jason does about it. Have four guys come at Phil Magness, intending bodily harm. What would Phil do? Just an FYI: mean tweets about the historiographical defects of the 1619 Project probably won’t work here.

I know what I’d do, or try to do. In the first and third instance, I’d like to think that I’d shoot. In the second, I’d like to think that I’d use the baton. Of course, in truth, I have no real idea what I’d actually do, and don’t particularly want to find out. Precisely for that reason, I don’t go around confidently passing moral judgments on people, whether cops or non-cops, who have to deal with such situations. They’re not the kind of situation made for easy armchair judgments.

What if the attackers in these scenarios had been black? What if they were low income? What if they were black and low income? I really could care less. If you come at a police officer (or anyone) with a baseball bat (assuming that you’re engaged in a first-use of force), and the would-be victim has a revolver, she should shoot you. If you die, or get your brains reduced to jelly, that’s your problem. Your ethnicity and economic status don’t matter. Next time, put the bat down–if there is a next time.

To be blunt, I’m not all that sympathetic to the routine left-wing excuse-making on this subject, much less to right-wing attempts to co-opt that excuse-making for polemical purposes. From the Times article:

Still, the increased patrols have also fueled concerns that punitive measures could fall disproportionately on the city’s Black and brown communities, given the police department’s history of racial bias in cracking down on fare evasion and low-level offenses in the subway. Many bus riders, especially outside Manhattan, are people of color.

“The police’s record here in terms of fare evasion was conclusively not equitable,” said David Jones, an M.T.A. board member and president of the Community Service Society of New York, an antipoverty nonprofit. “Things could be exacerbated now even further because the people using public transportation are lower-wage workers. Now suddenly you are going to be giving out fines people can’t afford to pay.”

Yes, the NYPD’s punitive measures have often fallen disproportionately on the city’s black and brown communities, and could. I’ve written about that before (see the fourth footnote below). But then, riders’ violence has also fallen disproportionately on transit workers, who come from the same exact communities (as the Times article, among many others, makes clear). So have some of the worst epidemiological effects of COVID-19 itself. So these considerations cut in various different directions. They don’t add up to an injunction not to enforce the mask mandates on mass transit.

“Many bus riders, especially outside Manhattan, are people of color.” Right, but buses also happen to be laboratories for the spread of contagion. That rich white people don’t ride them, or ride them as much, is really beside the point. When white people in white-segregated towns on the Jersey shore throw beach parties that spread the virus, I’m all in favor of raiding those parties and breaking them up. I’ve said as much before.**** (See this too, and this.)

But there’s no reason to hesitate about enforcing the law because the people breaking it aren’t part of the demographic that you wish you could target. There’s no shortage of black and brown assholes on mass transit in New York City, and no reason they should get a pass because they’re black or brown, or because white people elsewhere are getting a pass. American liberals should stop being so falsely pious about the moral character of black and brown people–especially since they have no problem at all killing black and brown people the minute those people are labeled “foreign terrorists” (as, I might add, at least some of them are).

I’ve been around “people of color” my whole life–partly because I am one. No sane “POC” turns off her moral radar simply because she’s around other POCs. Neither should non-POCs. “Judge not that ye be not judged,” only works on people who fear judgment. The response to it is: “What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?”***** There’s nothing more sickening than to watch ingenuous white people cringing before the malfeasances of POCs, contriving to generate excuses for them that they would never dream of invoking if the people in question were white. It may be that only POCs can know what monumental assholes POCs can be. But you’ll have to trust me on this: it really is knowledge, and knowledge entails truth.

So whether you’re a “person of color” or white as the driven snow, and you’re on a bus or in a subway car, you should be wearing a mask. If you aren’t, you should be told to put it on. If you don’t, you should be kicked off the bus or whatever. If you resist, you should forcibly be dragged off. But if you then come after a driver or police officer with a baseball bat, no one should feel sorry for you, regardless of your ethnic identity, if you end up hurt or dead. In short, put the mask on, and no one gets hurt.


*Brennan: “What does Irfan even have in mind? People already avoid strangers on the street. Strangers don’t interact unless they voluntarily choose to do so. No one is walking up to Irfan and coughing on him.” Brennan seems not to have heard of mass transit. I get it–the DC subway doesn’t go to Georgetown. But what about the rest of the world?

**Brennan: “Big surprise: Students aren’t following the protocols.” Oh, but Jason–I thought people already avoid one another? And strangers don’t interact unless they voluntarily choose to. Transcendental question: under such assumptions–your assumptions–how is non-compliance possible?

***Anarchists who regard the police as inherently illegitimate may want to read this dialogue. I agree with Simpleton’s adoption of The Principle of Relevance. (That said, my own views are in some ways divided between the two interlocutors. I hadn’t meant to defend a fully conclusive argument there, but I think the Principle of Relevance is plausible enough.)

****In four posts, the last of which (at the bottom) lists the other three in chronological order. (They’re best read in chronological order.) A day after writing that paragraph, I went for a drive in my 98% white, heavily pro-Trump neighborhood, to observe locals holding lawn parties in plain view without distancing or masking.  Did the cops show up? Of course not. These are the same cops who spend their time busting people for possession of less than 50 grams of marijuana with “drug paraphernalia.”

*****Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene 1, line 87. Of course, Shylock’s line only works if the speaker hasn’t done wrong.

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