“Why did you shoot me?” was the question Charles Kinsey asked of the Miami police officer standing over him.

The answer he received surprised him: “I don’t know.”

As you may know, Kinsey is a behavior therapist from Miami who works with autistic individuals. One of these, a young man, wandered away last week and sat down in the street. Kinsey attempted to retrieve him, and police arrived, called to the scene by someone reporting a man who looked suicidal, and who may have a gun.

Kinsey explained to police that this was not the case, but to no avail. At the time that police fired, he was lying on his back, empty hands in the air, explaining loudly that the young man sitting next to him was autistic, that he was playing with a toy truck, and that Kinsey was his therapist.

All of this is clearly seen and heard on video (see here).

Kinsey begs officers not to shoot. He pleads with his client to stay calm. He continues to explain the situation, and he does everything imaginable to demonstrate that he is not a threat.

Well, perhaps not everything. He does not cease to be a black man.

Reports later showed that the police officer who shot Kinsey fired not once, but three times. Then after Kinsey was shot, he was handcuffed and laid out on the pavement for twenty minutes while bleeding from the bullet wound. Thankfully, he survived.

Later, when pressed about the incident, the police union claimed that the officer had shot Kinsey by mistake, while aiming at the unarmed autistic man, who they believed to have a gun. (This, despite clear audio of Kinsey explaining that it was a toy truck, and despite the fact that police then handcuffed the wounded/unarmed man (Kinsey) whom they were reportedly trying to “rescue”).


Much more could and should be said about this incident. Yet, surprisingly, this is not a post on racism and police misconduct, at least not exclusively.  (See here for that.)

For the record, my assumption is that most cops (indeed, the vast majority) perform their thankless jobs with honor, and that they deserve far better than the blanket blame that often dogs them. As I’ve said before, acknowledging real cases of police misconduct, should be a way of protecting good cops whose reputations are sullied by the actions of a few, and who are subject to cowardly acts of retribution.

In looking at this case, however, I want to focus on something few have covered: the odd RESPONSE to Charles Kinsey’s simple question: “Why did you shoot me?” Answer: “I don’t know.”

While some may read this explanation cynically (he and his lawyers had not settled on a “reason” yet), or skeptically (perhaps it never happened), I want to explore another possibility: Perhaps this strange response was honest. And perhaps—as the officer initially implied—he was genuinely baffled as to why he fired three times on an unarmed and fully compliant Good Samaritan.

If this is so, then maybe it says something important about the murky motives behind even our snap decisions.


My proposal is this: In many cases, and especially under stress, humans do not make decisions by weighing the actual evidence. Especially when fear and conflict are involved, we simply react, and we do so based on a mental and emotional database of subconscious intuitions and assumptions.

And, while this gut-reaction, fight or flight reflex, may be life-saving if there is a lion in the bushes, it can be deadly to men like Charles Kinsey.

In truth, this proposal is not new. As best I can tell, it is corroborated by both psychology and brain science.[1] Here, the data suggests that in many cases, our subconscious mind makes decisions for us, and we may not even be aware of the real motives behind them. In short, we see what we have been conditioned to see by a wide variety of prior forces and (yes)prejudices.

Someone reported a gun.

There is a black man.

Is he lying?

That young man is not responding.


“Why did you shoot me?”

“I don’t know.”

To be clear, this does not excuse the officer for shooting Charles Kinsey. He should be held responsible.

Yet it may mean that all of us should pay more attention to the what is being fed into our subconscious, for as one psychologist notes (here), “that is the information that our brain uses to make decisions, before we even realize [that] we’ve made [them].”


In it’s own way, Scripture also supports this line of thinking.

In the book of Acts, a mob forms near Paul and company in the city of Ephesus. Things get tense, people see what they want, and by the end, Luke tells us that

“Some were shouting one thing, some another. [And get this…] Most of the people did not even know WHY they were there” (Acts 19.32).

Did you catch that last line?

Elsewhere, Scripture claims that the heart of fallen man is desperately wicked (this much should be obvious), yet the verse finishes like this: “who can know it?” (Jer. 17.9)

Note that the question is not “who can tame the wicked heart?” but rather “who can KNOW it?”

Sin has noetic side effects (Rom. 1.18). Perception is affected. And sometimes, even our full motives are unknown to us.

As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote:

“Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving yourself.”

This explains why one thing most all racists have in common is the belief that they are not racists. “Not me.  I don’t burn crosses.”


What then is the solution?

In the gospel, transformation comes not through the revamping of behavior, but through the “renewal of the mind” (Rom. 12.1). Thus repentance (meta-noia) is literally a turning of the nous (or mind) of the believer, so that it is conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8.29).

In short, even our subconscious must be reprogrammed by God’s grace, and by the careful searching of the Spirit. This may happen slowly, but it must happen, not just for people like the officer who fired on Charles Kinsey, but for all of us.

All of us must become more aware of the hidden assumptions, preconceptions, and prejudices that guide our thinking.

Lest the risen Jesus look down on us—as he did from the cross—and intercede once more: “Father forgive them, they know not WHY they do.”


[1] See C. S. Soon, M. Brass, H.J. Heinze, & J.D. Haynes, “Unconscious Determinants Of Free Decisions In The Human Brain,” Nature Neuroscience, 11:5 (2008), 543–5; J.L. Voss & K.A. Paller, “An electrophysiological signature of unconscious recognition memory” Nature Neuroscience, 12 (2009), 349-355.

3 thoughts on ““I Don’t Know”–Charles Kinsey, and the danger of our unknown motives

  1. So very true:
    “In many cases, and especially under stress, humans do not make decisions by weighing the actual evidence. Especially when fear and conflict are involved, we simply react, and we do so based on a mental and emotional database of subconscious intuitions and assumptions.”

    As is this!
    “Even our subconscious must be reprogrammed by God’s grace, and by the careful searching of the Spirit.”

    Grateful for this piece. Scripture, true and relevant to our most pressing problems.


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