July 24th, 2016

Charles Kinsey, Heroism, And The Value of Life

My breath caught when I heard the news. My eyes welled up. If I hadn’t been at work, I might have allowed myself to shed a few tears over what Charles Kinsey has done. His appalling victimization doesn’t surprise me, but his heroism is shocking. Mr. Kinsey did something stunning and wildly counter-cultural: he risked his life to save a man with significant disabilities.

Kinsey must have understood that he was stepping into a volatile situation. The average police officer, like the average civilian, like the 911 caller who manufactured an emergency out of prejudice and fear, is irrationally afraid of people with certain kinds of disabilities. People who are feared have a lot of encounters with police. Encounters between police and people who can’t answer verbal commands with quick compliance end in violent death. Taking the officer at his word as to what he was thinking, he discharged his weapon with a person he thought was an innocent bystander in the line of fire. I have my doubts that this would-be action hero would have gone the extra mile to avoid that if he had caught Arnaldo Rios alone. If Kinsey hadn’t intervened, it’s hard to imagine an outcome for his client outside of the nearest morgue.

Kinsey must also have been aware of the particular risk he was running. The historical reasons are different, but Black men are irrationally feared, too. They are often viewed as threatening, with deadly consequences, even when they’re not doing anything wrong. Charles Kinsey put himself in the middle, mediating between his client and the officers on the scene and trying to keep everyone calm, knowing how likely it was that things would end in gunfire, knowing that conscious or subconscious bias could turn those bullets toward him. That would have been an act of uncommon courage if the story ended there, but it doesn’t. Kinsey didn’t risk his life for just anyone. He did it for a person for whom most of society wouldn’t go through a minor inconvenience.

If someone had told me this time last week that there was a single nondisabled person in our society whose split-second, visceral calculus of morality and compassion would have come out that way, I would have laughed. That isn’t to say that I can’t imagine people dying for their children, parents, siblings, or very close friends who happen to have disabilities. Add a few more degrees of separation, though, make the relationship shorter and paid, and it becomes hard to imagine because people with significant disabilities aren’t valued at all in our society.

Disabilities that don’t necessarily shorten life or correlate to worse compliance with doctors’ instructions still factor into medical care where professionals must decide which of a limited number of lives to save. Some systems for allocating scarce medical resources place an explicitly lower value on disabled life.

Even when no one’s life needs to be on the line, nondisabled people are constantly asking why anyone would want to be alive with a disability at all. Posters for Me Before You, the movie about how death is better than being disabled, young, rich, attractive, and in a great relationship, are still up at the theater in my neighborhood.

The image is a poster for Me Before You beside a poster for another film

There are still prominent individuals who consider involuntary euthanasia for certain kinds of people morally acceptable. It often seems like practically no one cares about people with significant disabilities, especially people who are past the age of cute, especially people who have challenging behaviors.

American and Western norms are powerfully against Kinsey’s actions, but he overcame them. When he collided with our culture, his conscience proved the stronger of the two. It isn’t a secret that equality is still a distant dream in our society and in most of us, but some people are ahead of the curve. When adrenaline is flowing, and there may not time to overcome any hesitance to do the right thing, the visceral reaction of an exceptionally accurate moral compass sometimes reveals a hero. Last week, in Charles Kinsey, we found one.

I hope the disability community will rally around him and commend and commemorate his actions as much as is comfortable for him. If you run an organization, he probably belongs on the short list for your awards banquet this year. If he and his family need anything at this difficult time in their lives, volunteers should come out of the woodwork. It turns out that there is at least one nondisabled person in America who will risk his life for someone with significant disabilities who isn’t a first-degree relative or very long-term friend. We found a rare, special person in our midst when he saved a member of our community from almost certain death. That debt isn’t possible to repay, so the best we can do is respond by taking care of him.

Update: the GoFundMe is right here.

Leave a Reply