An American Video that Was Not Funny At All

March 14, 1991|By GARRY WILLS

WASHINGTON — Washington. The scene looked like a news clip from South Africa -- uniformed whites beating and beating a helpless black man as he rolled away from the kicks and the nightstick blows. Only a minute or so was shown on television, but it seemed to go on forever.

There was calculation in the beating -- an officer was seen moving his stick tentatively about until he found the right tender spot to give his full attention to. He looked like a paterfamilias searching for the exact jointure to attack in carving the turkey.

There was also a calibration of effort. The police set themselves, swung back, and put their whole bodies into the blows, from their stance right up to the follow-through. Golf pros make demonstration tapes. These men could make athletic how-to films on the proper form for beating helplessly tethered victims.

There was also enthusiasm for the work. In less than two minutes more than 50 blows were given with the nightsticks. At least seven kicks were delivered. These are men who relish their assignment. Their heart is clearly in it.

A single aberration, the Los Angeles chief of police lamely argued. Who can believe that? Only an accident gave us an amateur's videotape from his house near the scene of the ''arrest.''

Without that visual evidence, who believes any of the police present would have told the truth about what happened? If such a policeman had the will to tell the truth, he would have had the will to stop the brutality or to protest it in some way.

Was it just a fluke that brought together the only 15 men willing to participate in this orgy at the same spot at the same time? Can anyone doubt that they are representative, not anomalous?

The police chief, after first trying to minimize the affair, is bringing criminal charges only against three identifiable beaters, not against the supervising sergeant who presided over the scene.

An ironic juxtaposition puts this native bit of South African-style brutality on our screens just when the nation is preening itself on the vindication of human rights and freedom abroad -- a vindication achieved by fighting forces with a heavy minority component. This is our way of saying welcome home to black soldiers, who were greeted with this sight on their screens the day they returned.

America is good at national pride. What it needs, as Lincoln said during the Civil War, is some lessons in a sense of national shame.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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