2020: A tale of two deaths

Amidst the high numbers of Covid-related deaths in 2020, two non-Covid deaths have stood out:

One incident started when a black, 46-yr-old male attempted to pass a fake 20-dollar bill (he had previous convictions for crimes including armed robbery). The shopkeeper judged that the man was high on drugs, and, being concerned that he was unfit to drive, called the police. Floyd resisted arrest, wrestling with the officers, and refusing to get in the police car while repeatedly saying “I can’t breath”. At that point he was not being restrained, so whether the words related to the effect of drugs, or were part of a charade to evade arrest, is unclear. Eventually he fell to the ground and was kept there by a policeman placing his knee on Floyd’s neck, while he continued to repeat “I can’t breath”. He suffered a heart attack and died.

The prosecution will argue that the pressure of the policeman’s knee caused the heart attack. The defence will argue that force from the knee was minimal, and that the heart attack resulted from fatal levels of fentanyl and methamphetamine coupled with a pre-existing heart condition. I’ll wait for the jury to decide which of those is closer to the truth. Whatever, the on-going restraint by the police seemed unnecessary and excessive. By European standards, the US police do seem under-trained and overly aggressive (though of course they do have to deal with an armed populace). Despite that, while the US police make over a million arrests per year, the number of black males killed who are not armed and not resisting arrest is pretty much zero.

Samuel Paty was a Parisien school teacher tasked with teaching a civics lesson about freedom of speech. He showed his pupils cartoons from Charlie Hebdo, a magazine that subjects all forms of authority — including governments and religions — to critical and satirical scrutiny. But mainstream Islam sees their prophet as perfect, too perfect for satirical scrutiny. The taboo on depicting Mohammed is part of a wider taboo on questioning Islam. The word Islam means “submission” and the duty of a Muslim is not to question Islam or ponder whether it can be improved, but to submit to teachings regarded as the revealed words of God. A Muslim from an immigrant family, to whom France had granted protection and refugee status, attacked Samuel Paty with a knife, decapitating him. His motive was to “avenge the prophet” with the hope that “Allah accepts me as a martyr”. Ten other people have been charged with supporting or assisting him. The murder of Paty was one of four Islamist attacks in Europe within a month.

The reaction, in the English speaking world, to the death of George Floyd has been near-universal horror and condemnation. Politicians, businesses, sporting organisations, scientific institutions and many others have all issued statements and expressed their concerns about policing in Minneapolis. Failing to join the chorus, or even expressing opinions as uncontroversial as “all lives matter”, has been seen as close to heresy.

More than six months later, Britain’s leading soccer teams still start each match by kneeling down. And yet, statistics show that the ratio of blacks versus whites killed by the US police is pretty much in line with the share of violent crime that they commit. The killing of a black person, though, does, attract typically nine times as much media coverage as that of a white person. And, as a result of the calls to “defund” the police, and the resulting police “pull back”, there has been a surge in crime that has led to hundreds more black people dying.

Meanwhile, the reaction, again in the English-speaking world, to the death of Samuel Paty has been tepid (the reaction in France has been notably different, with a strong defence of secularism and free speech). Canadian leader, Justin Trudeau, opined that free speech is “not without limits” and that we should “act with respect for others”. America’s leading newspapers, the New York Times and Washington Post, both looked for ways of putting the blame on Charlie Hebdo and French society, saying that the killing was a response to French discrimination against Muslims.

In the UK, few of the politicans, businesses or institutions that have denounced the death of Floyd, and what it might indicate about wider society, have said anything about the death of Paty and what it might say about the killer’s religion. Not a single sports team has kneeled in memory of Samuel Paty. While many UK universities have issued policy statements about “systemic racism” after the death of Floyd, not one (that I’m aware of) has issued a policy statement supporting the right to criticise religion in the wake of Paty’s murder.

Yes, we should be concerned about police brutality (though we should also assess the extent of it on the actual evidence, not just on what garners the most media attention), but freedom of speech and the right to subject religion to the same critical scrutiny that is routine in politics is fundamental to a free society. #JeSuisSamuel

Addendum: The Islamists are gradually getting their way: “Almost half of French secondary-school teachers have self-censored to avoid angering Muslim pupils.”

6 thoughts on “2020: A tale of two deaths

  1. Brent Meeker

    It may be that the difference in reaction is because the Islamist is perceived as an irrational alien outsider. As if Paty had been killed by a crocodile. While Floyd was killed by a policeman acting on our behalf and authority.

  2. Robert Brown

    We have two problems, two deadly mind viruses that we need to defeat: racism and religion. I’m guessing racism will be overcome before religion. I’m glad we can all protest about what happened to George Floyd. We should protest. It was terrible. But its different with religion. At the moment we’re just not allowed to say anything negative about religion. We can say how we feel about a white cop in America choking a black guy to death – awful! – but we’re not allowed to say that crazy religious beliefs are responsible for Paty’s brutal murder which was equally awful . And yet religion clearly was responsible for his murder. People who believe crazy things, do crazy things.
    I have no idea how to inoculate people against the religious virus or how to rescue them once they’re infected. Maybe the craziest of them need to be humanely restrained until cured so that they are not a danger to the rest of us.

    1. Ron Murphy

      “At the moment we’re just not allowed to say anything negative about religion.”

      This is simply not true. You can say pretty much anything about Christianity, and Jesus, with no significant impact … except in some countries that still have blasphemy laws.

      The difference is with Islam. Death for blasphemy reaches beyond “Muslim lands” (a term used by Muslims).

  3. Schlafly

    There was a big public reaction to Paty’s murder, and it was indeed much greater than for ordinary murders. Perhaps France should take a much more drastic action. That has not happened.

    Floyd had tested positive for Covid-19 before his death, so he would have been listed as a Covid death, the way such deaths are counted.

    Contrary to the above commenters, the cops did not kill Floyd. He died of a fentanyl overdose, and was already dying before the cops got near him.

    1. Coel Post author

      I think there’s a fair argument for the “overdose” explanation, and of course the defence only have to raise “reasonable doubt”. A “not guilty” verdict is very possible, but the reaction to that could be ugly.

    2. Schlafly

      Yes, the 1992 Rodney King riots killed 63 people and destroyed $1 billion in property. We could see something similar.

      I cannot find anyone who can explain how the cops had anything to do with Floyd’s death. Did the cop block the carotid artery in the neck, blocking blood flow to the brain? Did he block the trachea, so air could not get to the lungs? Was it something else? What force was applied, and what force would do these things? Why didn’t the autopsy show any evidence of serious neck trauma?

      I don’t see how the prosecution can present a good argument that the cops caused the death.

      Even if such arguments are given, the cops don’t just have the reasonable doubt defense. They will also say that they acted according to their training and to generally accepted procedures, and that they believed that they were protecting Floyd while waiting for the ambulance that they called.

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