Sunday, October 25, 2015

Not Zen 176: Projection

"I'm not even interested in how it started," the prosecutor said. He trailed the detective through her office doorway. The reek of rotting food hit him as soon as he stepped in.

"With ordinary fights. About a year ago," answered the detective. She carried a blue notebook under her left arm and a coffee cup in her right hand.

"Really, no. Just why."

Over her shoulder, she flashed an impatient glance. She was short woman with broad shoulders. Her hair was brown, probably dyed from the uniform color of it, and she had what he guessed was a nice face ruined by her constantly cynical expression. She downed the dregs of her cup.

"You want to know why adults encouraged kids to fight?" She leaned over her desk and shoved a stack of notepads and wax paper sandwich wraps to one side. She set down her current case notebook. Her right hand pushed the empty cup next to it. "How is that going to be part of your court case?"

"Motive is always important." He hesitated. She was a cop. He didn't have to explain. "You're right, I don't really care." 

She snorted. With a wave of her arm, she indicated the shelf next to her office window. There, she kept a serving tray like the ones in the police canteen. It held a coffee maker with a half-full carafe, two bags of sugar cubes, a thermos mug of cream, and three empty cups.

She looked like someone who cared about her coffee - not that it was good so much as it was available. He wondered if she'd stolen the elaborate service. He couldn't believe that she'd swiped all of the pieces from the canteen. The other cops wouldn't have stood for it.

"I'm trying to ease off," he said. He waved away her offer.

"Suit yourself." She kicked her rolling chair, swiveled it, and took a seat.

"Back to the motive." He raised his index finger as he made his point. It was a habit he'd established in the courtroom. "I'm sure that those charged will get attorneys. They'll try to plead they had bad childhoods or something. I want to be ready."

"I've talked to all of the scout troop leaders, pack leaders, and administrators."

"I know."

"It's simpler than you think." She crossed her legs. Her fingers intertwined over her belly. "There's no bad childhood necessary." 

"You think ordinary people could do this?"

"Ordinary people did." She nodded.

"That can't be right," he snapped. "The ringleader, the main guy, he has to be cruel. He had no sympathy for the kids."

"He was manipulative." Her full stare fell on him. "We know that manipulative people have good empathy. That's not the same as sympathy."

"It's close enough." He thought he ought to make himself comfortable. He looked for a guest chair. There were two, both filled, one by a stack of notebooks and manuals, the other with fast food wrappers and bags. He chose the one with the food.

She shook her head.

"What's wrong?" He put his hands on an empty cup and a greasy napkin. "Are you still using this stuff?"

"Help yourself to the chair." She shrugged. "I just don't think I should have to explain that regular folks do bad crap all of the time."

The prosecutor stacked the cups and wrappers into the two bags. His gaze swept the room for the trash can. She had to have one, he was sure. He found it under the ledge of the desk, half hidden and more than half full. He added the fast food bags to the top. Now the can was overflowing with white bags, papers, shreds of lettuce, a bit of tomato, and plenty of grease.

"So he's normal," he guessed. He needed a place to wipe his hands but he resisted using his pants. They were charcoal grey. Oil stains would probably show. "The scout leader understands what he did. What happened to his sympathy for the kids who he made fight?"

"His sympathy was overridden by how he projected himself into the situation. This is one of those guys who doesn't remember how young and confused kids are. Instead, he imagined his forty-year-old self in their circumstances. He didn't understand that the losers would feel confused and hurt. He didn't imagine that the winners would feel like bullies. He thought everyone was a prizefighter. He gave them all badges."

"You're kidding."

"That's what he told them they were, prizefighters. That's how he says it when you meet him. You'll see. He's all gung-ho."

The prosecutor swiped his hands on the side of the chair so he felt less greasy. Then he sat and crossed his legs like the detective. He tried to picture the sort of defense opposing attorneys would make at the bargaining table. The evidence was good. It probably wouldn't come to a full trial, only a plea. But during plea bargaining, a prosecutor's job was to disprove as much as he could of the defense narrative.

"Is he a war hero?" he worried. That story was all too common in these hearings. "Any kind of veteran?"

"He wishes he was." She knew he liked hearing that. Her lips curled in a smug half-smile. "He thinks the kids were losing honorably and winning through virtue and all that."

"There's got to be something else wrong with him." He uncrossed his legs. He felt like he wanted to get up and pace the floor. "No, no, not really. Not that I wouldn't beat that argument in court."

"Rest easy. It's not abnormal." Her hint of a smile disappeared. She returned to being completely analytical. Her left hand rose to brush something off of her blue shirt. "People project themselves into situations. Authorities condemn kids all the time for making decisions that would be terrible for adults. Of course, they're not grown-ups."

He listened to the tone of her voice with a growing sense of suspicion.

"Are you the one I heard about?" he asked. "The detective who's against charging kids as adults? We have to do that."

"Morally, it's about the same as this guy." She laid open her hands as if she were welcoming his argument or maybe surrendering to it. "I know judges say that it's fine if we charge a twelve year old with murder. And we do it. But we're doing the same thing as this fight guy. We're beating up kids because we imagine that they make decisions like we do."

"Oh, come on." The line of reasoning disturbed him mostly because he'd read a psychology article about brain differences by age. He worried there was something to it. It was his job to defeat the scientists in court even if they were right. "Don't they think a little like us?"

"A little. But if you think they should be sentenced as adults, you've got the same mentality as this guy organizing a fight club for kids."

"'Fight club for kids.' Good turn of phrase. I'll use that."

He rested his hands on his necktie for a moment. When he remembered the grease, he moved his hand. The tie looked clean. He sighed.

"Context is everything," said the detective. She ignored the catch-phrase she'd given him. Her pretty hands rose up when she spoke as if she were framing her argument with them. "This guy thought that his scouts were full of stoic virtues and honor. That made him watching them fight seem reasonable. You think sentencing kids to life in an adult prison is reasonable because of the same bias. We've all got the problem. We're all flawed. Every person projects their wisdom onto those who can't possibly have it."

"You seem to be arguing for leniency in a serious crime."

"No, I'm not worried about that. The police are judged for split-second decisions by people who don't make any. This guy will be judged by folks who sure don't want to hear about Greek history, Sparta, Athens, or any of that crap. They're going to project themselves into the situation. And they're gping to hate him. It'll make your job easy."

"You know, I think I will have that coffee." The detective had gotten him sidetracked for a moment. He needed to return the focus to his case arguments. He rose. "You want a cup?"

She gave him a shrug. He ambled to her half-full pot. As he touched the handle, he turned and raised an eyebrow in her direction. She met his gaze for a moment. Then she squinted into the depths of the dark, glass carafe. It revealed the level of her temptation. She had a serious habit. He waited.

"Yeah, what the hell." She blinked.

He grabbed the pot and one of her cups. After he poured, he plopped in a sugar cube and wondered just how sweet she wanted it.

"How many?" he asked.

"None." She scowled and waved him off. Whatever good will he'd been earning from the deed was gone. "That one is yours now. I drink my coffee with cream, no sugar."

"What? You've got all these sugar cubes." He indicated the tall bag of fancy sweetener. The cubes were half purified white, half natural brown. They looked expensive. Were they a gift from a fellow officer? They weren't standard issue.


"No one keeps sugar cubes anymore. Jeez, if I kept them in my office, they wouldn't be just for my guests." The situation irritated him. He'd been trying to be nice. "I thought you'd have at least one."

She cocked her head to one side and gave him a meaningful look.

"People make that mistake all the time," she said. "That's my point exactly."

"What point?"

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