Recently a Perth woman died and her 16-year-old daughter was critically injured as the result of a police car chase to recover a stolen vehicle. This is the fifth death this year related to a police pursuit. Civil libertarians have been calling for restrictions on chases for years, but what is it about stealing cars that provokes one of the strongest and most dangerously punitive responses from our police force? What are we trying to control here?
I spent most of last Saturday night listening to young boys driving fast along streets not far from mine. This is a regular accompaniment to our local mystery drunken opera singer and the whooping cough barking of the terrible small dogs next door and their lonely little friends down the street.
I lie there hoping the boys won’t kill anyone, including themselves, that my cat is inside and that if they do hit something, could it please be my bomb which is still insured as if it were worth insuring.
I don’t know why we allow police pursuits of speeding or thieving drivers. No one I’ve spoken to seems to know either. There is a great void of understanding in most people’s minds when you ask them why they believe chasing a car already going at speeds that risk deadly harm achieves anything except to multiply the risk of violent death.
So there must be something precious and little understood that we won’t let go of in our tolerance for this stupid and indefensible game of chasey.
A quick trawl through youtube offers up a vast array of bloody police pursuit videos. The blindingly fast, the crunchily awkward, the drunkenly uncertain and the fatally mangled. When we inquire as to why we still support police pursuits, when formal investigations are made into the deaths of uninvolved motorists, we are typically given two explanations: We can’t let them get away with it and If word gets out that they can get away with it, then it will be a free for all.
So justice needs to be seen to be done, whatever the cost, in order to ensure that the principle of law and order is upheld in some kind of brutal psycho-social education campaign. It’s form before function and the defence of private property before the protection of human life. It’s a belief that left to our own devices, we will do wrong. It’s nonsensical but we are following something here that is more mysterious than the simple pursuit of justice. I think we may be involved in a misguided struggle for our freedom.
Most of us want to drive. Getting our driver’s license can be about freedom and independence. It’s a right of passage to the adult world, but not all of us make this transition smoothly. Some of us have had far too much freedom thank you very much and driving makes us afraid. But for others, the world is small and tight and any restriction feels like suffocation.
When we don’t have real freedom in our lives we can mistake escape, theft and speed for independence. There is something about the act of stealing a car and driving fast that feels incredibly exhilarating and convincingly like being free. Most young men who steal cars and risk their lives and the lives of others are not people we would describe as free. They are usually constrained by circumstance and already limited by loss. They may have dreams, but not many of them have come true.
Think of your own dreams about cars. Most of us have them. The ones where you’re going too fast and can’t stop. The ones where your car just crawls along no matter how hard your foot hits the pedal. The cars that swerve uncontrollably and the cars that simply won’t move.
In dreams our cars are often representative of our ability to move in the world and to control our destiny and our destination. They can represent our bodies, our drives and our power.
Our real dreams are not so different from our nocturnal ones. We want to drive our lives in the direction we want them to go. We want to move at the pace we feel comfortable with, not too fast and not too slow. Sometimes we want to put on the brakes.
But if we can’t own our freedom, if we can’t take responsibility for our own lives, the problem always becomes the other bastards on the road. They’re getting away with breaking the rules, driving like idiots, getting in our way. And we want to stop them because we believe they’re the ones standing in the way of our freedom.
So in our desperation to avoid the responsibility for our lives we risk loving this public spectacle of the car chase, this kind of coliseum event that so often ends in a ball of fiery death.
We envy the driver of the stolen car and we want to see him hunted down. For those of us who support the law and order defence for this bloodshed, we want the brakes put on anyone who appears to be making an escape. We can’t bear to see anyone have a moment of freedom while we haven’t even begun to take responsibility for ours.
ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.
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