America's angst


By Kenneth Tiven in Washington

Certitude is a noun meaning to be confident or convinced of something with complete assurance and freedom from doubt. Certitude is the mental and active state of the behaviour of various parts of American society this year. One act of violence by five black American police officers in Memphis, Tennessee, illustrates perfectly how certitude has divided America.

The Memphis cops stopped Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old black American, driving to his mother’s home. Their body cameras capture their menacing behaviour and attitude. At one point, as they roughed up Nichols, one cop says on the video: “I hope they stomp his ass. I hope they stomp his ass.” They did! He died in the hospital several days later.

Is this an example of police certitude about treating anyone if they feel like it? The five have been fired from the department, charged with second-degree murder, and faced with state and federal civil rights crimes. “It is going to remind many people of Rodney King,” said Ben Crump, a noted civil rights lawyer representing Nichols’ family, referring to the 1991 beating by Los Angeles Police Department officers. 

This reporter, one of the many covering that story, remembers it as an early viral video before the Internet, taken by a neighbour with a video camera. That tape went global on TV news reports after the Los Angeles Police Department refused to accept it. This event ignited the Los Angeles riots and crystallized the idea of the widespread adoption of body cameras for police officers in America.

The January 7 encounter begins with a traffic stop at an intersection, during which the police approach Nichols’ car, yelling and threatening him with their guns raised. An officer yanks open the driver’s side door and pulls Nichols out of the car as he protests that he “did not do anything”. Nichols was a serious photographer, an avid skateboarder and, at age 29, unlikely to resist. He did not.

A woman watching the video said she transitioned from fear to disgust to anger as she watched, “I am thinking of my cousins, my brother, my family, you’re driving down the street, and people break traffic violations. But death? To lose my life because of that?” The ambulance crew arrived 22 minutes after being called, but the emergency medical team waited another 16 minutes before beginning any treatment. Was it their certitude that he was beyond help?

This came in a month when several mass shootings have already taken 30 lives, focusing again on the issue of gun control violence. President Joe Biden watched the video, saying that it left him “outraged”. With his own version of certitude, he said Nichols’ death is “yet another painful reminder of the profound fear and trauma, the pain and the exhaustion that Black and brown Americans experience every single day.” The president added that his heart went out to Nichols’ mother and stepfather, with whom he spoke earlier on Friday, adding that they “deserve a swift, full and transparent investigation.” 

The video from the body cameras shows that the police went beyond any sensible response, despite knowing that the footage could hold them responsible. One video shows a police officer approaching Nichols while officers restrain him on the ground. Another officer threatens to baton him, and then does. At another point, while Nichols was held down on the street, the video shows a third officer kicking him in the head at least twice.

The police chief in Memphis demonstrated her certitude by summarily firing the five without waiting for an internal investigation. Prosecutors in Memphis quickly charged them with second-degree murder. Contrast this with the King beating in 1991—not only did the white officers not get suspended, but a California Jury found them innocent of misconduct. Only after a federal jury convicted them of civil rights violations that Los Angeles paid King several million dollars in compensation. 

Regarding violence, the transcript of Virginia Thomas’ appearance before the January 6 insurrection investigating committee has been released. The wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas produced a tour de force of intellectual certitude. Despite a lifetime advancing right-wing political causes in concert with other arch-conservative activists, she claims not to discuss her political activities with her spouse. Perhaps it is a coincidence that her husband, an arch-conservative jurist, has used his lifetime seat on the US Supreme Court to advance those exact right-wing political causes. Despite a lifetime in elite conservative politics, her testimony to the house panel stayed focused on Trump’s MAGA movement. She recounted election “fraud and irregularities,” citing no evidence; revealed deep resentment of political and media elites who are not like-minded conservatives; resorted to unabashedly opportunistic lapses of memory; and provided a warm recounting of her morning spent on the Ellipse on January 6, 2021, before the Capitol attack began.

Thomas described her political efforts in 2020 as “minimal and mainstream”. However, after Trump lost the election, her views changed. She appears in multiple text messages the committee obtained encouraging top-level Republicans to fight hard to overturn the election. She texted Trump’s White House chief of staff about her appreciation of Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, the axis of a Trump legal team described by Attorney General William Barr as a “clown car”.

She sent robo-emails to Republican state legislators, urging them to participate in the false electors scheme created by Justice Thomas’ allies John Eastman and Cleta Mitchell to halt the democratic transfer of power. Eastman clerked for Thomas after law school. She has been incredibly close to former Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Connie Hair, the longtime chief of staff to recently retired Representative Louis Gohmert of Texas. Gohmert is a pro-insurrection Republican known for frequently making unfounded and offensive pronouncements.

We cannot apply certitude to the new House Speaker, Kevin Mc­Carthy, for he appears willing to flip and flop on any issue, the way a driver might seek a momentary advantage by changing lanes in a traffic jam. Democratic representatives who were instrumental in the Trump impeachments did not get reappointed to their usual committee by McCarthy, who made it clear it was retribution. 

Perhaps the greatest example of certitude in the new Congress comes from George Santos who was elected from a Long Island, New York district, with a fake resume, and was ousted two months later by media reporting. He’s not resigning, he said, because “the voters elected me”. Which “me” is the issue. 

Covid-19 is a global viral killer of people, but certitude is a killer of democracy and its institution.

—The writer has worked in senior positions at The Washington Post, NBC, ABC and CNN and also consults for several Indian channels