To traumatized law students: How does it feel?

Many years ago, the greatest philosopher of all time, Bob Dylan, asked the most important question of all time. “How does it feel?”

For the law students who suffered trauma regarding the Garner/Brown tragedies, I have a similar question. How does it feel as you contemplate the shooting death of an Asian and Hispanic cop by a crazy black guy? If you answer the question seriously, and I truly intend it as a serious question, you might learn something worthwhile.

Honestly, no snark intended: How does it feel? This old white guy is curious.



36 responses

  1. I wish it hadn’t come to violence, but I’m not surprised. The more we change, the more we stay the same.

  2. I’ve heard lawyers discussing this on the street and in hallways. There was a good article in the Atlantic about this as well. If a student expects to litigate, they need to toughen up or realize that they are in the wrong profession. Actually, I’ve met transactional types who are really brutal and even estates and trusts could have difficult family issues. In my career, I not only have been screamed at my judges and lawyers, I’ve also had to deal with really difficult photographs of murder victims and day in the life films, locked in children after being hit by cars, etc etc. The most traumatic thing about law school is that we all had to stand up individually and be grilled. That was hard. I do remember a rape case where the student was being grilled and finally said: “I guess it was this guy’s lucky day” because the evidence was insufficient. Everyone laughed and he went on to be a public defender.

  3. I am not a law student, but it is reasonable to expect that violence generally feels the same to all who suffer it, and it seems to be a virile infection that replicates itself (metaphorically speaking).

    The question was posed to Sandra “who” very recently won a case based on a Writ of Habeas Banannas in an Argentine Court (Argentine Orangutan Unfazed by Right to Freedom Ruling).

    Some nations have at times refused that right even to human beings, nations that claim supremacy when it comes to understanding rights (e.g. 27% of U.S. Presidents owned human slaves).

    That is culture in a nutshell (Choose Your Trances Carefully).

    It is all over the place.

  4. Chicagolawyer,

    To be clear, I am honestly interested in how the law students who felt trauma over the death of Garner and Brown feel about the death of the police officers. Why?

    As SHG put in a comment a while back, it always helps to see more clearly by putting the shoe on the other foot (and mixing metaphors along the way).

    All the best.


  5. it is easy to be insensitive to the law students who got extensions on their exams; the atmosphere around my law school was mostly incredulous, occasionally spiteful, rarely supportive. I have not heard a single law student make an insensitive or obtuse statement about the murder of the two NYPD officers – I cannot say the same thing for the Garner/Brown deaths.

    Perhaps the most cold-blooded comment I’ve heard from a law student on the NYPD officer murders was along the lines of: “Well, they have been teaching us that rule of law was supposed to replace self-help; I guess if people feel that the rule of law is abrogated then those people will feel that self-help is an option.”

    Overwhelming the discussions about these issues in the halls and lecture rooms have been thoughtful and generally well-reasoned. I don’t think that my classmates are outliers. I do not understand how the trauma of hearing about injustice or suffering can act as an intellectual paralytic; but then again, it takes much less for the internet commentariat to renounce any semblance of civility or logic (or grammar!). I feel sorry for the students who have difficulty in working for exams because of the harshness of reality, but I would be surprised if any of the law students who have decried the excesses of police tactics welcomes the news that police are being targeted by anyone for violence. If anyone did welcome greenlighting cops, they’d be real a real asshole (at least).

  6. In many ways this is a confused question since it equates being shown that the system you are trying to commit your life to can be brutal, unfair, and deadly with another instance in which untreated mental illness produces death of a bystander. The fact the victims were police officers is not central to the story of guns and mental illness unless with the PBA you want to score cheap political points. That said as the grandson of a police officer and the great grandson of two I would share with students the devastation of these families and the deep sense of loss other officers feel. Intemperate hostility to police will not produce any good.and a deep sense of respect for the good they do should be as much a part of your view of the system as revulsion of it at its worst.
    Given the number of students who claim to have been devastated by faculty hectoring I will treasure Chicagolawyers defense of law school and I salute his courage in facing the cruel real world, another wounded warrior of the bar.

  7. Mike,

    I am honestly asking law students who suffered trauma over the Garner/Brown incident to be introspective for a moment. How do they feel about the death of the cops? If their feelings matter on the Garner/Brown killings, then their feelings matter on the cop killings, don’t you think?

    All the best.


  8. RL,

    The question is not confused. Oh, no, it is apt.

    I simply want to know about the feelings of the otherwise traumatized law students about the death of two non-white cops. This is not a hypothetical where I am asking anyone to pick apart the differences in fact patterns. I am concentrating only on death, and the feelings that death evokes. I want to know about feelings since that is the coin of the realm for many law students.

    My question is not hard. I wish some otherwise traumatized law student would answer it. Tell me honestly: How do you feel.

    All the best.


  9. Judge:
    As an add-on to your request, I would like to point out (as was mentioned in an online article) that the two police officers officers in question were hardly “avatars of white privilege” given that one was Hispanic and the other Asian. I wonder if that even factors into the discussion about law students’ feelings…

  10. The question is only apt if some of these fragile law students claimed to be “traumatized” by the Brown and Garner killings. To my recollection, none were. I hope you’ll correct me if I’m wrong. As I recall, the fragile law students claimed to be “traumatized” by the non-indictments of Brown and Garner’s killers, which is a very different thing.

    If my recollection is right, then your question is confused, because although you’re saying you’re concentrating on the feelings that death evokes, you’re really comparing the feelings that death evokes in one situation, with the feelings that non-indictments due to a perceived systemic flaw in the criminal justice system evokes in another situation.

  11. Do you have a link to anything discussing a law student who claimed to be traumatized by the deaths of Garner and Brown? I don’t recall ever seeing anything like that. I do recall students claiming to be traumatized by the non-indictments of Wilson and Pantaleo, but that’s not exactly comparing apples to apples.

  12. Judge, Very little evidence that the students from whom you seek answers are among your readers. No student who felt emotionally overwhelmed has responded to the several posts on this subject. It might be interesting if a number would respond, but the pain humans feel toward the death of others
    is some times profound and some times uncaring. This morning I became teary talking about my Dad who has been dead since 1968, and I barely glanced at todays obits. The students were not overwhelmed by death which is a surd which comes to all, but by injustice and the feelings of impotence that it engenders because it should not be but is. and there is so little anyone of us can do about it. Or so I suspect, but at my age I am just guessing about the younger folks.

  13. This question reminds me of the (likely apocryphal) story about the CNN reporter who interviewed a Marine Sniper and asked “What do you feel when you shoot a terrorist”?

    The Marine shrugged and replied “Recoil.”

  14. Doug,

    Me too! But, the “original” that I found was not very good–or at least that’s the way it sounded to my old ears.

    All the best.


  15. RL,

    You write: “Judge, Very little evidence that the students from whom you seek answers are among your readers. No student who felt emotionally overwhelmed has responded to the several posts on this subject.”

    You are absolutely correct. Perhaps I ought to STFU about the issue given those facts. Sorta reminds me of the tree falling in the woods but nobody is around to hear it. Irrelevancy comes in many forms.

    All the best.


  16. They would certainly be interesting to hear, no doubt. I’m sure the Harvard Law Review folks are willing to pen another op-ed for our edification as needed.

  17. Judge, this subject makes me wonder if “trauma” has gone the way of “awesome” in that it means much less in today’s world than it did when you and I were students. It now seems to be more aligned with “dismay” and “upset” than it did when it was used to describe the effects of being a POW, the victim of a brutal physical attack, seeing a fellow soldier step on a land mind, etc. I’ve been an attorney for over 30 years and started to consider if anything that ever happened to me in court could be considered “trauma” and couldn’t come up with anything. On a few occasions I walked in with a client and he/she was unexpectedly taken into custody but that didn’t keep me from promptly taking action to try and secure a release. I’ve seen some very emotional situations, such as a child being taken from a parent with the inevitable keening and crying but I can’t come up with anything that prevented me from doing what was required as an attorney. I’m sure the classic case would be representing a person in a death penalty case but even then, you would have to know the possible outcome and be prepared for it. I know I’m a bit off topic and might even be rambling but I wonder if you or any seasoned readers can say if anything they’ve seen or done as attorneys/judge(s) could be classified as “trauma”

  18. Judge:

    I respect this blog and your writing a great deal, and as someone who appears before quite a few federal judges it is always interesting to hear what happens on the other side of the bench. However, this post has as it’s premise a built in trap that quite frankly is unworthy of you. “How does it feel to learn that two people were gunned down by a crazy person?” I assume for anyone who is not a psycho-path the answer is going to be, “I feel bad for them and for their family.” It is the blog equivalent of, “So Mr. Jones how long have you been beating your wife”?

    I understand that you think that the Columbia law students got a break because of their reaction to the lack of indictment for those police officers. However, calling out students like this is like kicking puppies. It’s not like they can actually defend themselves and especially against a sitting Federal Judge. They quite frankly don’t have the chops yet. Isn’t it Christmas? Isn’t it time for some peace on Earth- Goodwill to Man?

  19. Duke I am not sure that your question is relevant to the issue. In challenging profession situations the lawyer usually can do something in response or at least recall doing what he could. The students would not be doing anything about what distressed them in taking an exam, and probably viewed exams as trivial diversion from their moral outrage. 50 years of lawyering has dampened my ability to feel moral outrage, necessary to practice but a loss never the less.

  20. David You have a point but regular readers including law students have learned that here the deal with a fine gentleman and not the business end of a Federal Judge.

  21. Repenting: You’re correct that my comment was not fully on topic. It had just occurred to me, with all the discussion about the trauma felt by the law students, that the understanding of the word might be generational. I’m now off to drink an awesome container of coffee and not let others get their kicks for me.

  22. Duke, As a matter of usage of trauma I suspect the matter is not generational per se but does result from popular sources like People or. I also suspect the trial bar may have had a hand, since trauma seems more $ worthy than distress. tell all tv talking about the trauma of this or that

  23. I think that L makes the correct observation about your question, Judge. You don’t seem to have grasped the issue if you are asking it. When police officers are killed, as they tragically are too often, we promptly investigate, arrest, and convict the killers. The objection of the black community is that this high level of care is not afforded to them.

  24. The answer is obvious. The law students are not responding because they were not traumatized. They used the non-indictments as a poor excuse to delay their finals and give themselves an advantage over their classmates who were not so dishonest. They used the events to their advantage to get ahead. I am sure they will all make excellent attorneys, who will lie, cheat, and steal to get ahead and win their cases.

  25. N,

    With respect, I know the legal issue and the cultural issue as well. I am also aware that the black community rightly sees the objective difference between the treatment of black victims and white victims. However, what I am interested in is how the law students show and feel empathy for victims no matter the context. I am trying to force an examination of implicit bias, but in another direction. My didactic reason for asking the question was to probe the nature of empathy in the legal context. I had hoped to force an introspective examination, and discussion, of why we feel true empathy for some, but not for others, when both sets of victims are morally blameless.

    Let me put the point in a different and broader context. Do we as lawyers and judges feel the same empathy for the victims of the Rwandan Genocide as we feel for victims of the the Holocaust in Germany? If not, why not? My intent in posing the question in the post was to look at that question at the micro level.

    All the best.


  26. I’m not one of those “traumatized” law students in the sense that I did not participate in any of the numerous on/off-campus protests, sign the open letter to President Obama that was drafted, agree with the op-eds written, and perhaps most importantly, feel any particularly overwhelming emotion regarding Ferguson or other events. Having said that, I do not doubt my classmates’ sincerely held feelings and emotions over the matter. And I respect their feelings.

    Some commenters here have suggested ulterior motives for the move to delay exams. Though I did catch myself rolling my eyes a few times after my school email inbox was flooded with emails about this push to delay exams, I do not doubt for a second that every move taken by HLS students was done out of legitimate feelings and activism as opposed to strategic moves meant to “get ahead” or subvert the exam administration system.

    To answer your question Judge, I do not know. I am not traumatized. My personal views are that the deaths of the officers, as well as Garner and Brown were tragic and unnecessary. The officers were the intended targets of a clearly unstable or malicious individual. Many at HLS believe that Garner and Brown were the intended targets of deep-rooted and perhaps subconscious racism that still permeates all facets of American society, including police forces.

    I am not sure if the latter is true. I am not sure if it matters it is true. What matters to me is that a bunch of people have viewed things in that particular way and as a result, our jobs should not be to ignore or tell the parties feeling the injury to get over it or to throw facts in their faces. This is an emotional injury. It cannot be solved by reason. It cannot be solved by facts. Nor should it be.

  27. Harvard 3L,

    Thanks for your engagement. I truly appreciate it.

    My interest is not to convince people, particularly law students, “to get over it” or to “ignore . . . feelings.” For the moment, I am even willing to to stipulate that “Garner and Brown were the intended targets of deep-rooted and perhaps subconscious racism that still permeates all facets of American society, including police forces.” That said, the Asian and Hispanic cops killed by the black madman were, so far as I can tell, morally blameless. If empathy is to be celebrated or encouraged as a component of law learning, we must all ask ourselves (including especially me) why some morally blameless people warrant our empathy and others do not. If we fail to make that deeply difficult self examination, I doubt that we understand what true empathy means.

    All the best.


  28. Judge, let me start by saying how much I wish all discussions about this topic could be as thoughtful and civil as the exchanges I’ve seen you engage in here.

    I still think the very question you ask is a loaded one. Evidently, you are confused about how certain Columbia law students must feel about 2 police officers being tragically shot to death. This strikes me as odd. I share the outrage of those students on the events in Ferguson and Staten Island, and yet I certainly harbor no such confusion. I assume, unless someone points to contrary evidence, that they are not narcissistic psychopaths. Therefore, I assume they feel the same way all of us do: saddened. Do you think they might be psychopaths? Please point us to evidence of that if it’s the case.

    I would challenge you to ask yourself another question, in the same vein: how do you show and feel empathy for the unarmed, innocent, teenage victim of a senseless shooting by a convicted felon by the name of George Zimmerman? Is that a fair or unfair question?

    I really appreciate the discussion.

  29. N.,

    I actually asked myself the same question about the killing of young Mr. Martin shortly after his death. I hated the answer that I got back.

    I was all too ready to make excuses for the shooter even though his behavior, “patroling” the area with a gun, was idiotic. And then I listened to the boy’s mother. After listening to her, I felt heart sick for that brave woman and her dead boy. And I was ashamed that my initial reaction to the death of this boy was so completely lacking in empathy for him and his folks. And then, I thought of my own son and our family.

    By the way, this was not, to my shame, the first time I found myself utterly lacking in empathy. Sadly, this was only a confirmation of what I had observed about myself throughout my life. I have come to believe that truly feeling empathy for others is a life long struggle–at least that has been my personal experience. And, I think the problem is compounded when the person for which empathy is warranted is not of your own tribe.

    As far as how I show empathy, please understand that there are certain restraints in my daily job that are limiting. That said, and particularly when I sentence people, I try hard to really listen to them but sometimes that is just too painful for me. See My dirty little secret: How I obscure the suffering of the defendant during allocution. When I do show empathy at sentencing, I have to be very careful that I am doing so for the right reason. See When a quasi-sick sap sentences a really sick controlled substance seller. One of the other ways I try to show and feel empathy is to be candid in this blog about who I am, how I think (or don’t think) and what I do or fail to do as a judge.

    I trust this answers your question. If not, pursue it further, and I will try to do better. All the best.


  30. Blaw In my experience, 42 years teaching, the longer students have to stew about an exam the more screwed up they get. Sorry to rain on your parade.

  31. Judge,

    Thanks for your reply (as a side note I read your blog quite often). I think the answer is that we all have priorities and sore spots that make us give more or less empathy accordingly.

    As you said earlier, we may have differing levels of empathy for victims of the Rwandan Genocide than Holocaust victims. But I don’t think this is an intrinsic value judgment about the nature of the offense, status of the victim, etc. Nor do I think the decision to give or not give empathy on different situations is inherently wrong.

    I distinctly remember reading an article that stated that Americans donated almost 10 times as much for victims of Hurricane Katrina (which were predominately black) than victims of the Pacific Tsunami (Asian). Given that victims of the tsunami outnumbered hurricane victims by a factor of 100, I doubt this could be viewed as Americans believing blacks are more deserving of empathy than Asians.

    I think the empathy decision depends on the closeness of connection. We had a strong connection to Katrina victims through the common bond of being Americans, but we lacked that bond for the tsunami victims. In current events, I do not doubt that black Americans have that connection with Brown and Garner (perhaps on the basis of color), and lack that bond with the officers. Others may have that connection with the officers (perhaps on the basis of law and order) but lack that connection with Brown or Garner. Having or lacking these bonds is not wrong, nor is it right, it just is. And the reason for the formation of these bonds (whether on the basis of nationality or race) is also morally banal.

    In short, I do not think moral blamenessless is needed for empathy. If anything, recent events have shown empathy can function even with moral blame (Brown was not a poster child).

  32. Your Honor, not to get sappy on you, but we should all be so lucky to have judges as thoughtful and introspective as you overseeing our cases. I don’t know if your inner-most conclusions about each of these situations (Trayvon, Ferguson, Staten Island, Columbia Law) are in line or not with my own personal conclusions. But the most we as a society can expect of all of our citizens, and certainly its lawyers and judges, is to search deeply to find the truth whatever it may be. That, I’m firmly convinced, you always do. So, thanks.

  33. Thanks. Some fine knotty thinking for me to engage with here. Good to see Bob recognised as a philosopher! Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox (a series of posts on BD there).

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