Ferguson Is Not Iraq
Contra smug liberals, riots in Missouri are a far cry from sectarian violence in the Middle East.

Arresting demonstrators in Ferguson on August 18, 2014. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)


Charles C. W. Cooke

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.

Clashes in Ferguson
TUESDAY, AUGUST 19: The daily protest gatherings appeared to heed calls for calm on Tuesday evening, only to see a return to violence aimed at police forces and a resulting crackdown that once agin filled the air with lights, sirens, and tear gas.
As with previous days, the gatherings and marches during daylight hours were largely peaceful affairs, punctuated by heated rhetoric directed at law enforcement, as authorities strove to keep demonstrators moving through the usual location.
Some arrests were made during the daytime demonstrations.
Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson again walked among the crowd to call for an end to the violence.
Law enforcement and Ferguson community leaders appealed for a night of calm to help ease tensions. A noticeably smaller crowd remained after dark, changing the mantra “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” that has become the protesters rallying cry throughout the unrest.
A young demonstrators waves a sign that reads “Justice!”
After clashes broke out with police, some in the crowd stove to prevent further escalations, locking arms and confronting those in the crowd bent on violence.
A man stands between police and protesters to appeal for calm.
An older man appeals for calm from a group of younger men wearing masks and face coverings.
Some demonstrators and onlookers took shelter inside a nearby business.
A business owner tussles with a young demonstrator, forcing him outside.
Verbal confrontations escalated later in the evening after bottles were thrown at police.
A policeman speaks with demonstrators as tensions escalate.
Authorities reported that some protesters had thrown urine at police, and additional threats were made from a passing vehicle. In all police made 47 arrests on Tuesday evening.
MONDAY, AUGUST 18: More clashes shook the streets of Ferguson on Monday as the arrival of the Missouri National Guard and the cancellation of the midnight curfew failed to quell the growing crowd of protesters and the growing anger surrounding the investigation of the death of Michael Brown more than a week ago.
Authorities report at least 31 persons were arrested in renewed clashes, which saw the air along Florissant Avenue once again filled with smoke and tear gas as police and demonstrators vied for control.
Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson told reporters that there was information that some of the more disruptive participants had travelled to Ferguson from as far away as New York and California. Pictured, protesters tip over a porta-potty onto Florissant Avenue.
Johnson had been sent to Ferguson to try and reduce tensions between police and local residents, but that mission appears to have failed as clashes have only increased in intensity since the weekend.
As on previous days, earlier demonstrations were largely peaceful, though arrests did take place as police tried to keep people moving along Florissant, where most of the unrest has taken place.
Rapper Nelly arrived on Monday to join the protests.
Among the large group of demonstrators, a man with a megaphone speaks to the crowd.
Anger rises among the demonstrators.
A melee ensues as police move to arrest a demonstrator.
Heavily-armed special police units were once again out in force.
Police units form a line to prevent demonstrators from moving further.
Riot police advance on the crowd.
Police wear gas masks as they deploy tear gas in the crowd of demonstrators.
A man reacts to the effects of tear gas.
SUNDAY, AUGUST 17: After the curfew on Saturday evening broke down into more clashes and arrests, police increased their presence on the streets on Sunday. But as night fell the situation again turned violent, with demonstrators taunting police and drawing a firm response from police.
After another day of violent clashes and flaunting of the town's midnight curfew, Missouri governor announced late Sunday evening that he is deploying the Missouri National Guard to restore order.
Said Nixon: "Given these deliberate, coordinated and intensifying violent attacks on lives and property in Ferguson, I am directing the highly capable men and women of the Missouri National Guard ... in restoring peace and order to this community,"
Police with riot gear assemble earlier in the evening to deal with the gathered crowd.
Special units prepare to head out as a tear-gas shell streams from behind an armored vehicle.
Police respond to reports of looting at an area business.
SATURDAY, AUGUST 16: By Saturday, Missouri governor Jay Nixon announced a midnight curfew in an attempt to gain control over the streets of Ferguson in the wake of Friday's continued unrest and growing anger over emerging details of the investigation. Pictured, police maintain order during daylight.
Local business owner Mustafa Alshalabi cleans up his store, Sam’s Meat Market, the morning after looters ransacked it.
Local shopowners brandish firearms to protect their property from further looting.
Two groups of demonstrators march down Florissant Avenue.
Demonstrators pass a line of police.
Captain Ronald Johnson talks with demonstrators earlier in the evening in attempt to head off more clashes with police.
Police stand guard at the 911 Hair Salon.
Police stand guard at area businesses.
Police stand guard at area businesses.
The energy level of demonstrators remain high.
Demonstrators hold up homemade signs.
Police shoot smoke cannisters into the gathered crowd.
Demonstrators run to grab smoke cannisters and hurl them back at police.
Demonstrators and journalists run as police fire tear gas into the crowd.
FRIDAY, AUGUST 15: By week's end, the stronger police presence had returned after several businesses suffered damage and crowds of demonstrators continued to challenge law enforcement.
A demonstrators wears one of many tee-shirts with the image of Michael Brown.
A demonstrator wears a bandana as a mask to conceal her identity. Some have also used masks to cope with smoke and tear gas fired by police.
Fellow Ferguson residents try to restrain energized demonstrators.
Demonstrators stand and kneel in front of law enforcement officials.
Demonstrators climb vehicles travelling Florissant Avenue.
Cars crowd Florissant Avenue as rain begins to fall.
Capt. Ron Johnson, joined by Missouri Congressman Lacy Clay (at left) uses a bullhorn to appeal for calm.
Looters among the demonstrators raid an area liquor store.
Looters emerge from a local business.
Looters flee the scene.
Law enforcement prepare to move against the demonstrators.
A police officer chases a demonstrator.
Particles from a concussion grenade explode into the air.
A demonstrators walks amid gas cannisters fired by police.
THURSDAY, AUGUST 14: Protesters walk down Florissant Avenue as demonstrations continued.
Demonstrators show the "Don't Shoot" hands-up gesture to gathered media.
Demonstrators gather near the location where Michael Brown was gunned down by a Ferguson police officer on August 9.
Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ronald Johnson walks among demostrators as night falls. Johnson, a Ferguson native, was brought in to take over security from local police in an attempt to quiet tensions.
A child's train joins the demonstrations on Florissant Avenue.
Tear gas spreads through the crowd.
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 13: Some 500 demonstrators gathered Wednesday to continue protests against the shooting and delays in identified the police officers involved. Protesters vented their anger and in some cases taunted police.
Local police and other law-enforcement personnel have stepped up their presence on city streets over the past several days. But some observers wonder if the show of force, including military-style weapons and tactics, is only exacerbating tensions.
Though confrontations have been loud and vocal thorugh the week, there has as yet not been a repeat of the looting and arson the broke out on August 10, when some two dozen local businesses were damaged and a convenience store was gutted by flames. Nine persons have been charged in those incidents.
Throughout the night, as they have done since the demonstrations began last weekend, many protesters advanced on police lines with arms held high in the air in a gesture of surrender, exclaiming “Don’t Shoot! Don’t Shoot.”
After repeated calls to disperse were ignored, police cracked down with riot gear and tear gas.
Police line up to push the protesters back.
Some demonstrators responded by throwing the tear gas canisters back at police, while others attempted to hurl homemade molotov cocktails.
An Al-Jazeera news crew flees the scene as teear gas strikes their camera location.
Police guarded area businesses to head off a repeat of Sunday's looting and arson.
Tear gas and smoke filled the night air as police moved against demonstrators.
A demonstator braves the smoke to grab a gas cannister and hurl it back at police.
Smoke from tear gas and gas cannisters drifted into nearby neighborhoods.
Police fan out to secure nearby neighborhoods and search for violent protesters.
Updated: Aug. 20, 2014