Over at Vox, Max Fisher has indulged in what is becoming an increasingly common left-of-center pastime: smugly insinuating that the United States’s favorable impression of itself as a stable and developed nation is in some serious way misplaced. “How,” Fisher asks, “would American media cover the news from Ferguson, Missouri, if it were happening in just about any other country?” Substituting “province” for “state,” “sect” for “party,” and “village” for “city,” Fisher answers his own inquiry by fashioning a “satirical” description of “the restive American province of Missouri” — a backward, fractious sort of place that hosts “simmering sectarian tensions and brutal regime crackdowns,” and in which “ancient communal tensions have boiled over into full-blown violence.” “Officials,” Fisher jokes, “are warning of a potential humanitarian crisis.”
The intention of these linguistic games is typically twofold. The first is reasonable: To point out that domestic coverage of foreign politics is often hopelessly simplistic. (One suspects that as an employee of Vox, Fisher understands this well.) But the second, far less benign in nature, is to indulge the grotesque, asinine, but fashionable conceit that the United States is a dangerous outlier among the developed nations of the world — a country that is exceptional, but for all the wrong reasons. In this imagining, America simply can’t get with the program, its antediluvian people refusing, inexplicably, to be disarmed; declining to countenance any restrictions on the “hate speech” that their betters just know needs prosecution; insisting, stupidly, that their representatives spend vast sums of money maintaining the military; clinging doggedly to their religious liberty, thereby holding back scientific and cultural advancement; dissenting from the central-government takeovers of health care and education that are de rigueur elsewhere; and, to their eternal shame, hosting a society that is so inherently racist that it is still suffering riots in 2014. Channeling this instinct perfectly, Bill Maher lamented on CNN last year that “there’s a great, smart European country in America; it’s just surrounded by a bunch of rednecks.” Those “rednecks” are at the heart of Fisher’s joke.
In reality, though, his is a strange reaction. What is happening in Ferguson is complex and it is delicate. I have offered a few earnest criticisms — on the one hand of the police response and of the Right’s reflexive tendency to change the subject; on the other of the tendency to presume that the cop must be guilty, and of the willingness to extrapolate out from this one incident trends that simply do not exist — and I stand by them. It being simultaneously true that justice is a process and not an outcome and that America’s history makes skepticism toward the police inevitable in times such as this, there is little we can do other than to react to the information as it comes to us. I do not know what happened between Officer Wilson and Michael Brown, and neither does almost anybody else. What I do know, however, is that it is a significant mistake to presume that there is something unique about the situation we are witnessing in Missouri. There is not. Other developed countries have precisely the same problems with rioters as does the United States, and — funnily enough — they tend to cover them in almost precisely the same way, too.
We do not need to look for examples, as Fisher suggests that we might, to “Iraq or Pakistan.” (Vox rather likes this idea today: It just posted an “Iraq or Missouri” piece.) Instead, we may cast our eyes across the Atlantic. In 2011, after a black man named Mark Duggan was shot dead by London police, England was rocked by rioting and looting. Critics charged that the officers had overreacted — possibly as a result of latent racial animus — and that they had then refused to investigate the incident in a timely and professional manner. The police’s response to the subsequent unrest was also denounced, with many suggesting that the show of force was responsible for making the discontent worse. Mark Duggan’s friends took to chanting “there can be no peace without justice”; local leaders complained about the breakdown in trust between the police and the black community, specifically describing widespread “stop and search” policies as being problematic. “Many of those involved,” a Guardian survey reported, “said they felt like they were participating in explicitly anti-police riots.” The original grievance having been cynically hijacked by troublemakers, the rioting spread outside of London — to Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol, and beyond. Five British civilians were murdered, and at least 20 civilians were hospitalized. One hundred and eighty-six police officers and ten firefighters were injured. More than 100 houses, four buses, and a host of stores and public buildings were burned to the ground. More than 3,000 people were arrested, of whom around 1,000 were charged. How did the media in Britain and the United States react to these incidents — taking place, as they were, in “any other country”? In almost exactly the same way as they have to Ferguson — some critical of the riots, some defensive, some taking a middle path.
Serious riots have been started in Britain over trifles. The previous year, on November 10, a mob had broken into the Conservative Party’s headquarters in London. There they smashed windows, lit fires, and vandalized the reception area. A few among the group made it up to the roof, from which they threw shards of broken glass and fire extinguishers at the police. This, alas, was just the beginning. Twenty days later, a related group vandalized Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, threw bottles and fireworks at riot police, and, in South London, set off smoke bombs. And, per Time magazine, on December 9, 2010, London was once again beset by “chaos.” Specifically, rioters
broke through metal barricades and used them to smash windows at the Supreme Court. They urinated on a statue of Winston Churchill. And they scaled the Cenotaph — the sacred memorial to the nation’s fallen soldiers — to rip down the Union Jack. As the night progressed, a mob of 50 demonstrators — many wearing full-face balaclavas — attacked the car carrying Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, denting its doors and pelting it with paint bombs. To anyone standing outside Parliament, amid riot police, injured students and plumes of smoke, one thing became clear: London was burning.
Why was London “burning”? Because Britain’s parliament had “passed a bill to triple university tuition fees to $15,000” per year.
Europeans, Bill Maher claimed during the aforementioned interview, possess a “sort of wisdom and that savvy, and they don’t get excited.” This would presumably be news to the French. In October of 2005, rioters in Paris started two months of unrest, after two black men who were attempting to escape arrest died in an electrical power substation. During the initial turmoil, agitators threw Molotov cocktails and shot live rounds at police, whom they promised to “kill.” Later, the discord spread to 274 separate French jurisdictions, and arson became rife. Almost 9,000 vehicles were burned. Just under 3,000 people were arrested. Two men were killed. One hundred and twenty-six firefighters and police officers were injured. The violence was echoed in serious disturbances in France in 2006, 2009, 2013, and 2014. Over that period there was similar discord in Canada; in Germany; in Australia; in Italy; and repeatedly in Great Britain and even in Scandinavia. How have the tumults in these “any other countries” been covered in America? Again: In much the same way as have been the riots in Ferguson.
Outside of narrow circumstances that are tricky to hypothesize, rioting is an unmitigated ill — a breakdown of trust, of order, and of civil society that all enlightened people should resist. Insofar as the United States is the venue for such behavior, it reflects poorly on the country, and, for the most part, reveals that there is room for improvement here — as, human nature being immutable, there always will be. What there is little room for, by contrast, is flippant equating of the free world’s leading nation with the tribal, backwards, war-torn nightmares of the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. There are riots in Missouri; but Iraq is still a long way away.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.