Recently the police’s use of force in America has received a great deal of media attention. This matter is, of course, philosophically interesting.
People typically find the images of police subduing people to be disturbing and they often comment about how excessive the force seems. In some cases, like in the Rodney King incident, the force was excessive. However, almost any use of force will look rather bad. Although I am not a cop, I’ve had years of experience in the martial arts and can attest that subduing a person is generally neither pretty nor easy.
If things have come down to “the hands being on”, then there are three basic ways to subdue another person. The first is force. In order to subdue a person by force, you have to use your strength against the other person and simply overwhelm him or her. This can be rather difficult to do even when you are actually stronger. If you also need to have a hand free to handcuff the person, it becomes much harder-you are using just one arm and they can use two. Obviously, overwhelming someone with force is typically going to look fairly brutal-that is because it generally is. The second means is to use pain. In the martial arts, most holds depend not on force but on pain. If you establish the right sort of grip, the person can resist, but the resistance will hurt a great deal. There is also the obvious problem of dealing with people who are intoxicated or whose adrenalin levels are high-they are less affected by pain and hence more has to be used to subdue them. Obviously, inflicting pain is not a pretty thing. The final means is fear. A person can be subdued by his or her fear that something bad will happen if they do not comply. Fear is typically created by threats of force or pain (“set down the knife or I will shoot you”). Obviously, threats are also not pretty.
The main point I am trying to establish is that the means used to subdue people who are resisting will almost always look ugly. That is the way force, pain and threats are. The important matter is, not surprisingly, whether the force was justified.
While some might regard me as a liberal, I endorse the use of justified force. Aristotle got it right when he argued that some people will listen to reason and be ruled by fine ideals. These are not the sort of people you see being slammed against police cars on Cops. But the many are not ruled by reason or fine ideals. They must be ruled by pain. Yes, this is a harsh and brutal view. Sadly, that is what is needed to deal with those who would hurt others. This is, of course, something that can be empirically tested. We could try to have a society in which police are not permitted to use force to deal with criminals. Let us then see how well that would work.
Being an idealist and anarchist at heart, I would prefer a world without violence. I do believe that we can work towards a better world by becoming better people. Unfortunately, not everyone wants to be a better person.