Opinion

The miracle in the Walter Scott tragedy

Were Feidin Santana and his smartphone just what was needed at the right moment in North Charleston, S.C.?

By now, the video has been seen by millions. As the camera’s jerking movements settle down, we see the man beginning to run from the police officer. He’s middle-aged, we can practically see his brain trying to will his legs to move a little faster, move like they used to, thinking, "Damn, I used to be a good runner, doesn’t time fly, gotta cut down on some of that snacking." The policeman takes, well, a police stance, fires a bunch of times at the back that is receding at not quite the sort of speed we’ve been conditioned to expect from action movies. The middle-aged guy takes a few more of his inefficient arms-swinging-too-wide steps, falls. And of course, soon after, the officer of the law drops an object near the body.

It's a document: Michael Slager killing Walter Scott, filmed by Feidin Santana, who was on his way to work. If I had been in Santana’s position, not being as brave as he was, here are some of the things I would have considered: Getting out of there pronto, before that cop saw there was a witness; who knows what else that guy’s capable of? If staying to watch, keeping that cellphone deep in my pocket; if filming, erasing it; who knows what else the cop's capable of? If keeping it and turning it over to the authorities, doing so anonymously. Who knows what they’re all capable of?

But instead, Santana did what I wouldn't and now we know.

The Scott family has made a number of statements including, breathtakingly, that they forgive Slager. Walter Scott’s mother, Judy, seemingly a deeply religious woman, has had something to say about Santana: “He was there. God planned that. He’s the ram in the bush -- I truly believe that.”

The ram in the bush. Those of us raised on the Old Testament immediately recognize it. God gives Abraham and Sarah, in their vast old age, the thing they’ve always wanted -- a son, Isaac. And then, in an episode that helped drive so many, including me, to atheism, God asks the impossible of Abraham. That he prove his love by sacrificing Isaac to him. Abraham obeys, all the way to the point of raising his knife to slaughter his son , when an angel intervenes, shouting for him to stop. And Abraham suddenly sees a ram caught in the bushes, a sacrificial alternative to Isaac. End of scene.

Thus, “the ram in the bush” is generally interpreted as the miraculous appearance of exactly what is needed at the right moment, a divinely monumental act of good timing. Which, thanks to Judy Scott’s metaphor, makes a painfully subtle point about the state of things.

Walter Scott prepares to run, Slager prepares to shoot and, within the framework of this religious interpretation, a miracle occurs. It could have taken many forms -- Slager’s gun could have jammed; he could have missed eight times; he could have stopped himself just as his brain was about to command the muscles in his index finger to contract, realizing he was about to shoot an unarmed man in the back. But he shoots, and Scott falls.

And thus Judy Scott has summarized the state of things. In this world -- where an unknowable number of times a police report that said, “He went for my weapon, my life was in danger” was a grotesque lie -- this time, there’s a video. For someone like Judy Scott, for her son to still be alive seems perhaps beyond the power of God or is too much to ask of a deity. Just being able to prove what actually was done to her son seems miraculous. This is what we’ve come to.

Robert M. Sapolsky, a Stanford Unversity neuroscientist,  is a contributing writer to Opinion.

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