Commentary: Tragedy, in the most human terms

By John Krull 

INDIANAPOLIS – Life would be much easier if tragedy fit itself into tidy packages.

Unfortunately, tragedy often is every bit as complicated and messy as life and death are.

John Krull, publisher,

That’s the situation regarding the death of Aaron Bailey, the unarmed black man who was shot by two Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officers after a traffic stop in the wee hours of a June morning.

So many people seem certain about what happened that night – what Bailey’s death meant.

One camp argues that Bailey’s death is just another instance of police murdering an unarmed black man in America and getting away with it. Another contends Bailey himself was responsible for his death, and no one else.

The only thing the two sides share is their certainty.

When I look at the record of that night, though, I see confusion, the confusion of fallible human beings making decisions driven by fear and mistrust.

Even the special prosecutor’s announcement that he wouldn’t pursue criminal charges against the two officers isn’t clear-cut.

He said there was insufficient evidence to challenge their account of the shooting – hardly an exoneration.

This is as it should be. When a person’s freedom or even life is at stake in a criminal courtroom, the burden of proof falls heavily on the state – the prosecution – to demonstrate that someone has committed a crime. Historically and constitutionally, we Americans have preferred a few guilty people go free rather than have innocent ones punished.

Often, the burden to provide abundant evidence a person committed a crime frustrates police. In this case, it may have protected them.

In a civil case, where plaintiffs don’t bear as heavy a burden, the outcome could be different.

Bailey’s death itself is a product of forces in American life that are tragic in themselves.

Some argue Bailey shouldn’t have fled, that he would have been fine if he’d just listened to the police officers.

Maybe, but the numbers of unarmed black men in this country who have been shot and killed by police wouldn’t encourage a frightened black man to trust his safety to men in blue.

Sadly, this episode will serve to erode that trust even more.

On the other side, police officers also have cause for fear. In a country in which there may be 400 million guns in private hands, it’s reasonable for officers to assume any encounter could turn deadly in a hurry. Not surprisingly, many choose to err on the side of their own safety and open fire whenever they see a panicky twitch or spasm easily mistaken for a weapon being pulled out.

This easy abundance of firepower creates a cycle in which a moment’s misjudgment too often produces a corpse – and grieving families and friends by the thousands.

That this cycle benefits only those who manufacture or sell firearms somehow eludes our lawmakers, who fear the muscle of the gun lobby more than they do the outrage of the grief-stricken.

But this is about more than guns or an easily cowed or corrupted political system.

It’s about a problem as old as our republic, the fear, animosity and lack of trust that divides our communities along class and, most often, racial lines.

The night Aaron Bailey was killed a group of people who had every reason to fear each other and too few reasons to have faith in each other came together.

Tragedy followed for all involved.

The police officers will carry tainted names for the rest of their careers and lives. They also may face judgment in civil courts that could add tangible weight to their burdens.

Aaron Bailey, of course, won’t carry anything forward. His story ended when the bullets hit him.

More such tragedies are likely to follow unless we begin to deal with the forces – the anger, the fear, the lack of trust, the easy access to deadly weapons – that have produced so much grief in our land.

We won’t get there by assuming there are easy answers to our problems as a community and a country.

It wasn’t one moment, one act or one person who put us in this situation.

And it won’t be one moment, one act or one person who gets us out of it.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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