by David Klinger
“Before I pulled the trigger, I figured the guy was going to die,” David Klinger told Dave Davies on NPR’s Fresh Airyesterday. “That was a very harrowing moment for me: I’m about to kill somebody. Part of it was very dispassionate and another part of me was just overwhelmed that something so horrific could occur that early in my police career.”
Klinger is able to discuss Edward Randolph, whom he shot twenty years ago shortly after joining the Los Angeles Police Department, with a disarming degree of honesty and measured self-reflection. In fact, it’s the first line of his new book, Into the Kill Zone: A Cop’s Eye View of Deadly Force: “Edward Randolph was twenty-six years old when I killed him.” Klinger, who has since become a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri, was acting to save his partner’s life that day. You might think he’d have suffered less remorse than officers involved in more ambiguous cases.
Not so. In addition to “diffuse” anger and sorrow, Klinger felt “a sense that I’d done something horribly wrong. Before I went into law enforcement, I was deeply involved in Christian evangelical tradition and one of the notions in that is that everyone gets a second chance. But once they’re dead, they don’t get a second chance. And so basically, by taking a life, I’ve cut off this individual’s opportunity for redemption. And that was very hard for me to deal with for a long, long time.” After being “in purgatory” for two decades, Klinger is just now able to look at it more neutrally, as an event he wished hadn’t happened, but one he could finally accept.
This experience prompted Klinger to interview 80 officers involved in over 100 cases. His sympathy for his subjects is evident. In fact critics claim he’s overlooked the other side of the issue: the people who get shot. He readily acknowledges that police brutality is a real problem. But his concern is with the officers and the scarcity of research done on the circumstances that prompt them to shoot; how they’re trained to avoid it; and what happens to them after they do. In a morbid instance of serendipity, Klinger’s interest in the variables of officer response to shootings, is lately becoming of wider relevance.
Last December, Spirituality & Health’s Louise Danielle Palmer recruited the magazine’s feel-good theology for the effort in Iraq: “Spirituality Becomes ‘Resilience’ and Joins the U.S. Army.” If prayer is a weapon, as the old song goes, then the spirituality Palmer describes is a kind of ammunition. One easily measured by Dr. Jared Kass’s Spirituality Resilience Assessment (SRA), a self-test meant to measure the importance spirituality or faith has for an individual, and how that corresponds to their “resiliency,” their motivation as soldiers and their resistance to depression or despair. Lt. Col. Gregory Black, Army chaplain of Fort Detrick, Maryland, adopted the SRA for military use in suicide-prevention programs, in an attempt to address what had become a serious problem. According to Palmer, 803 soldiers committed suicide in the 1990s, and for each death, there were between 40 and 100 unsuccessful attempts or other instances of self-harming behavior. But thanks to the SRA, Palmer writes, “the Army can now put numbers to the words, ‘spiritual fitness,’” which is where they hope their answer lies.
The test is useful among non-suicidal soldiers too, identifying trainees “who did not seem to have a good connectedness with God or other people,” and referring them to support groups moderated by therapist/theologians. Captain Scott McCammon, another Maryland chaplain, uses the test, and reminds his soldiers about the atheist/foxhole adage. “You can know how to dig a foxhole,” he told Palmer, “but unless you are spiritually fit, you won’t have the courage to stick your head out of the hole…[I] encourage them not to wait until they get into one to start praying. Soldiers need someone or some being stronger than themselves to lean on. They must come to grips with the fact that they are warriors. Is the war just? Do they see a difference between killing and murder, and if so, can they articulate it? Are they ready for death? True character builds through struggling with these questions. They must practice spiritual fitness to live the life the Army calls them to. There is no other way.”
But “this isn’t about religious conversion,” claims McCammon. He says it’s about developing the “inner strength,” the “worldview,” the “spirituality” that make for a better soldier, one who will excel, one who will fit in. To what end? A better fighting force? Sure, Lt. Col. Ronald Smith, an Army chaplain at Aberdeen Proving Ground, tells Frederica Saylor of Science and Theology News. But this kind of spiritual conditioning is not so much for the military’s benefit as for the soldiers. “They need to know that what they’re doing fits in with their own spiritual values and beliefs and is not a contradiction.”
Unless, of course, it is.
David Klinger struggled with such questions not in the absence of belief, but because of his religious convictions. He still did not come easily, if at all, to the conclusions McCammon and Smith expect will follow. The current rate of suicide among G.I.s serving in Iraq is much higher than Army average. The incidences of suicide, and the crises of conscience that may inspire them, are likely to become more common as soldiers and cops take on the duties of domestic security, and police departments across the country para-militarize themselves with the development of rapid-deployment teams, trained to use preemptive and deadly force rather than traditional negotiating tactics. Klinger, who is still involved with law enforcement as a lecturer at tactical unit training conferences, fears for cops forced to “adopt the military mindset. The military basically kills people and blows things up. I don’t want the police to do that.”
Presumably, that’s not his idea of spiritual fitness.