“There is no possible justification for these kinds of attacks or any violence against law enforcement. Anyone involved in the senseless murders will be held fully accountable. Justice will be done.”hat the President expressed is a conventional wisdom meme, and it is both inadequate and false in so many ways, but it reflects the unhealthy American zeitgeist all too well. Probably this argument will offend some people, but its purpose is to get beyond the popular willingness to be offended and get to a more considered place of comprehension. But first we have to find our way out the mental squirrel cage that keeps our public discourse from viewing our country, our world, and even ourselves with any kind of healthy sense of wholeness and interconnectedness.
– President Obama, at the NATO summit in Warsaw, July 8, 2016
In contrast to the political and media world, the Dallas marchers represent millions of people whose voices are not heard, have not been heard almost forever, but need to be heard and heeded now. The President could have chosen that path. Instead he went the well-travelled way of ritual division and either/or thinking.
“There is no possible justification” – Nonsense. There are many possible justifications. There may be no justification that the President or others would accept. But Dylann Roof and his ilk would accept a “race war” justification, and that meme is openly floated in right-wing circles as a good thing. As far as we know, Micah Johnson made no particular effort to justify shooting random Dallas police officers, but he reportedly considered white people his enemies. That is NOT an irrational perspective for a black person in America to have, even though it’s also not universally true. There are millions of white people of good will who are unlikely ever to shoot a man with his seatbelt on, reaching for his wallet. And there are millions of white people who are unlikely ever to protest such an execution-by-cop by standing up against the dominant culture (as illustrated in this viral video with over 9 million views).
Unacceptable justifications in one context are acceptable in other contexts, again regardless of their basis in truth. Jihadist terrorism is widely accepted on the basis that the West is the enemy of Islam, or that Shia are the enemy of Salafism, or that Israel is the enemy of Palestine, and there are no doubt other contexts as well where the killing is far less targeted than it was in Dallas. And American presidential assassination-by-drone is widely accepted on the basis of killing the enemy, even when we don’t know who we’re killing. The President retreats to meaningless cliché with the “no possible justification” meme, since there are a multitude of justifications and the question is what makes them valid or comprehensible.
“these kinds of attacks” – That’s threat inflation, fear-mongering. There has been one such attack, only one, and it happened in a city where the black police chief has worked hard for years to improve race relations with the Dallas police. To speak of “this kind of attack” is to anticipate more, almost invite more, when the prospect of more is unknown. What’s the best thing to say to head off another potential urban sniper, insofar as that’s possible? Out of hand condemnation is hardly an incentive for anyone to have second thoughts. Out of hand condemnation from the top of the power structure is more likely to harden the notion that the power structure is the enemy. There may be no way to head off anyone committed to a sniper attack, but surely an acknowledgement that the grievances are real and longstanding has a better chance of diffusing such a threat if it’s real. Ultimately there’s nothing that will assure perfect safety anywhere; even Norway has had its mass killing. But comparing the American experience to Norway’s or any other advanced country’s has to suggest that others are doing a better job of providing fairness and security to their populations (although the immigration wild card may change all that).
“any violence against law enforcement” – This categorical condemnation is not only thoughtless, it goes to the heart of the problem of racial policing in the U.S. The absolute prohibition of “any violence against law enforcement” is rooted in a hidden assumption: that law enforcement is always fair, measured, just. This assumption is as false as an assumption that all white people or all Muslims are “the enemy.” Law enforcement does not inherently deserve an assumption of probity. Law officers need to earn trust on a daily basis, just like anyone else. If Alton Sterling or Philando Castile had used violence against law enforcement in their particular circumstances, they would have had a credible defense of self-defense instead of being dead for no coherent reason. Is there a “possible justification” for those police executions? No doubt there are, and no doubt they’ve been deployed, and no doubt some will find them credible, and that nexus is also part of the problem. A culture in which resort to deadly force is an early option, not a last option, is a culture that is inherently unstable and unsafe.
“Anyone involved” – Demagogic rhetoric, this feeds conspiracy speculation. This is irresponsible when facts are unknown. “Anyone” is too vague, “involved” is too broad, the chest thumping is too loud. Of course we want whoever did this to be caught and held accountable. Early Dallas police reports said there were probably several shooters. There turned out to be one. He told police he acted alone and was not affiliated with any group, which police have not disputed. Why did the President, thousands of miles away, choose to cast a wider net?
“in the senseless murders” – Not only a very tired cliché, this is false and feeds denial. These were murders, as were the deaths of Sterling and Castile, but none of them were “senseless.” These were not random acts of chance, they were acts with a history – however tortured and irrational, a history all the same. Getting at that history is hard, perhaps impossible in some cases (Micah Johnson will never explain what brought him to a homicidal end in downtown Dallas), but that history is worth searching for and understanding. To call the murders “senseless” is to dismiss their history, to deny its worth, to leave a black hole where there could be knowledge. For America’s “first black President” to perpetuate America’s denial or its racist past, present, and future is beyond ironic.
“will be held fully accountable” – Appropriate enough, but a routine promise, often empty. Here, the words were hardly out of the President’s mouth (or maybe it was before), that Micah Johnson was dead, killed by a police robot with a bomb. There seems little reason, if any, to regret this result beyond the loss of any life and the possibility of understanding. There’s no apparent injustice in the end of Johnson’s life after he has executed five police officers for no other apparent reason than that they were police officers. There is no reason to believe any of them had done anything wrong, much less wronged Johnson. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time in a random universe, like any other victim of most shootings and bombings.
What is striking is the difference between the President’s tone here – “full” accountability for the perpetrator(s) – and his tone just the day before when reacting to the cop-executions of Sterling and Castile:
All Americans should be deeply troubled by the fatal shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. We’ve seen such tragedies far too many times, and our hearts go out to the families and communities who’ve suffered such a painful loss.
The President did not say there was “no possible justification” for shooting a man lying flat on his back or a man strapped in the passenger seat of a car. Yes, there are always “possible justifications,” no matter how far-fetched, and we’ll be hearing them soon enough, as we’ve heard them so many times in the past. But these are not “tragedies.” It is not a tragedy when a cop chokes a man to death or shoots a man in a dark stairway or blows away a twelve-year old with a toy gun. These are innocent, unarmed people killed in cold blood. These are not tragedies, they are something more like negligent homicide, or murder.
“Justice will be done.” – That’s what they all say, but justice must also be seen to be done, and that’s less common by far. In Dallas, whatever justice there is for Micah Johnson has been done. It’s over. For the five dead Dallas police officers, there will never be any justice. Their deaths and the rings of hurt rippling through their families, friends, fellow officers are there forever. What bitterness that will breed is immeasurable, but will almost certainly make it harder for Dallas police to continue their progressive efforts at building any sense of racial community.
The President spoke to this issue before the Dallas shootings, in the context of Sterling and Castile: “… what's clear is that these fatal shootings are not isolated incidents. They are symptomatic of the broader challenges within our criminal justice system, the racial disparities that appear across the system year after year, and the resulting lack of trust that exists between law enforcement and too many of the communities they serve. To admit we’ve got a serious problem in no way contradicts our respect and appreciation for the vast majority of police officers who put their lives on the line to protect us every single day. It is to say that, as a nation, we can and must do better to institute the best practices that reduce the appearance or reality of racial bias in law enforcement.”
This is certainly the beginning of an explanation, if not a “possible justification,” of attacks against law enforcement, uncommon as they are. This is a description of the reality that Dallas police chief David Brown, who is intimately familiar with these issues and has led Dallas to become, in Mayor Mike Rawlings’ words, “one of the premier community policing cities in the country,” a method designed to develop interaction and trust between police and residents. It is not a new method, but police departments nationwide have resisted or rejected it (sometimes in favor of the more polarizing “stop and frisk” approach). Implementing a more communal policing policy in Dallas was sometimes resisted by the local police union, but the police department continued to improve by most metrics, including decreasing crime, fewer arrests, and fewer complaints of excessive force by police. The last time a Dallas police officer was killed was 2009. A lone sniper killing five officers this week now threatens to de-stabilize one of the best police departments in the country when it comes to healing race relations. No small irony for a black veteran to do the work of white supremacists.
Also contributing to the tolerance of white supremacist sentiments is the national Fraternal Order of Police (known among other things for its years of personal jihad against Mumia Abu Jamal). The 330,000 member Fraternal Order of Police, like police unions all over the country, keeps its wagons circled tightly around cops, good or bad, in the same way the NRA defends gun owners at almost all costs. The day after the shootings, FOP executive director Jim Pasco called for the Department of Justice to investigate the Dallas shootings as a hate crime, posthumously, and criticized President Obama for his handling of the week’s events:
We’d like to see the president make one speech that speaks to everybody instead of one speech that speaks to black people as they grieve and one speech that speaks to police officers as they grieve. We don’t need two presidents, we only need one. We need one who works to unify the United States.
One of the best ways to unify the United States would be for police organizations to restore trust by purging the racist thugs in their ranks and make cops as accountable for their actions as anyone else. The Blue Wall of Silence prevents that from happening and reinforces the spiraling fear and anger at police by protecting the minority of thug cops at the expense of the safety and wellbeing of the majority who do their job honorably. How mad is that?
If its madness we’re after, consider the global context of this week’s events, when the President was in Warsaw for a meeting of NATO members apparently determined to continue the two decades of NATO provocation of Russia, regardless of the consequences. If the U.S. can’t stop playing Russian roulette with nuclear war, sooner or later American race relations will be immaterial.
At home or abroad, it’s really not helpful for the bully pulpit to be on the side of the bullies.
William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.