A blog about life, language, writing, and other trivia.

Friday, February 06, 2009

(Potential) Injustice and the Rhetoric of Duty

I found the "Officer Down Memorial Page"--and specifically this entry on Pierce City, Missouri police officer R.J. Chappell--after doing some research to find out more about the Pierce City race-cleansing of 1901, in which a gun-toting, torch-wielding mob drove around 200 blacks out of town. In the process, the mob killed three black residents of Pierce City and attempted to kill many more, after the alleged murder of a white woman by a black man.

One of the people killed by the mob was Pete Hampton, who was suspected of having killed Chappell the year before. But, given Southwest Missouri's racial climate at the time, how, I wonder, can people today be so sure that Chappell was a faithful public servant? His memorial webpage reads: "You have served your country and community with devotion, courage and valor. You will not be forgotten. I know the Lord has said to thee, 'Enter faithful servant in whom I am well pleased.'"

Assuming that Pete Hampton was involved in Chappell's killing, is it really not possible to imagine a scenario in which Hampton acted in self-defense against someone he perceived, possibly even rightly, as a threat to his life? After all, since even in turn-of-the-20th-century SW Missouri, Hampton was only suspected and not tried or convicted, the details of the shooting must be unknown. Without having done a lot of archival footwork about Chappell himself, how is it possible to know that he was a fair man and not a petty thug? How is it possible to know that he wasn't trying to kill Chappell or to pin a crime on him that he didn't commit?

Such a seemingly innocuous tribute is to me a chilling illustration of how the rhetoric of duty, of "devotion, courage, and valor," can (even if only potentially), by virtue of its blanket applicability and immunity to context, allow specific acts of injustice to be exonerated by the broad blanket of honor wearing a uniform seems to provide.

The August 25, 1901 St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a detailed story of the Pierce City race cleansing. The text is reproduced on the Chappell memorial page, but below is a (very big) jpeg image of the original article. Some time I'll write about the events themselves:

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