There is no good news from Ferguson, Mo. Eighteen-year-old Michael Brown is dead — shot “more than a couple of times” by a police officer who may or may not have been pushed into his patrol car and may or may not have been involved in a struggle over a pistol. Incensed residents have taken to rioting, to sacking private businesses that had nothing whatsoever to do with the incident, and, in some cases, to burning them to the ground. Like clockwork, the professional grievance industry has announced its intention to descend vaingloriously upon the scene. And, in some quarters of the media, pundits have begun to pretend that America’s cops are routinely gunning down unarmed young black men for their own pleasure.
The sensible responses to these developments strike me as these: (1) To acknowledge that justice is a process — and a slow one at that — and that we should wait for the facts of the case before reacting too vehemently. Police officers are no less fallible than any other human beings, and, as we should all sadly know by now, there are many among them who are unconscionably trigger-happy. Nevertheless, presumption of innocence applies to men in uniform, too, and to pretend otherwise is to abandon those virtuous institutions that keep us civilized. Easy as it might sound to recommend, patience and restraint are necessary here; (2) To insist that rioting is in almost all cases unacceptable, and that this is especially so when the targets of violence are wholly unrelated to the matter at hand. As the deceased’s own family has established — with palpable exasperation — nobody’s interests here can possibly be served by third parties taking goods from private stores and then burning them down; (3) To groan at the news that Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are gearing up to involve themselves in the mess, and to note that no good can come of their particular brand of self-aggrandizing rabble-rousing; (4) to push back gently against the notion that the United States is currently afflicted by an epidemic of white-on-black butchery.
Alas, far too many conservatives have today taken a different road, responding to the news instead by insistently and smugly repeating a non sequitur. “Well,” these types have inquired on Twitter and beyond, “what about black on black violence, huh?” Distilled into its purest form, this request boils down to a scoff: “Why, pray, are the people of Ferguson so worried about this unlovely episode, when almost 500 black Americans die at the hands of other black Americans every month?”
This is a peculiar and inappropriate response. Whatever its cause, it is indisputably true that the United States has a problem with blacks killing blacks. And yet this has absolutely nothing to do with the question at hand, which is: “Did a police officer unjustifiably kill an unarmed black man in Missouri?” It is feasible, is it not, to be worried about the internecine violence in America’s inner cities and to want to get to the bottom of an allegedly unwarranted shooting? So why the conflation? After all, whether or not it is intentional, reacting to a community’s grief by raising an entirely separate topic smacks largely of distraction — of reflexively throwing up a roadblock to what is a legitimate line of inquiry in the hope that the subject might swiftly be changed.
If the Right hopes to counter the Al Sharptons of this world and pull their narratives apart, this is not the way to go about it. Whatever historical and contemporary injustices black Americans face, they are not in fact being habitually gunned down in cold blood by white-supremacist cops, and nor are they faced any longer with routine “lynching” or quotidian “vigilantism” or any of the other loaded and terrible words to which we are subjected whenever something awful happens. Still, the way to fight such hyperbole is to engage honestly with the topic and to acknowledge that — even when our understanding of the facts is limited — incidents such as this open old and real wounds. It is not to change or to dismiss the subject. Can it be any surprise that many black voters believe conservatives are deaf to their concerns when “this cop shot my unarmed son!” is met by so many with “but there are lots of citizen murders in this city; let’s talk about that instead”?
Such conflations do violence to time-honored American conceptions of law and liberty. The problems of black-on-black crime and the alleged miscarriage of justice in Ferguson are discrete issues per se. But they are philosophically separate, too. It remains the case that a life is a life, and a murder is a murder — after a point, one doesn’t grieve more acutely if one’s family is taken on purpose. Nevertheless, police shootings will always play a trickier role in society because, by definition, they are carried out under the imprimatur of the state. Even if the United States did not boast a history in which blacks were routinely disfavored, beaten, and even murdered by the governments that were ostensibly established to protect them, there would still be something distinct about being killed or hurt by a man in uniform. No, you are no less dead if your neighbor murders you. But you do enjoy a different relationship with him — and it matters. As a rule, your neighbor does not exist to protect you; he is not paid by the whole of the citizenry; he does not claim to act in your name, or to treat everybody equally. And, if he commits an illegal act, he will be charged by authorities and he will face a jury of his peers that will first pronounce upon his guilt and then decide upon his punishment. He, in other words, is subject to rules that are designed to help you if he steps out of line; the state, by contrast, has very little above it. Traditionally, conservatives like to ask “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” — who guards the guardians? — and, too, to maintain a clear line of separation between the public and the private spheres. One has to wonder what purpose can be served by blurring that line, as so many have done in reaction to the news from Missouri.
“Justice,” Benjamin Franklin suggested, “will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” There is no virtue to playing judge, jury, and executioner before the facts are known. Nor is there anything to be achieved by turning a dispassionate process into a partisan game. No doubt, as in the cases of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, we will witness sects forming where they do not belong. Conservatives should resist indulging in this at all costs. But they should also resist appearing uninterested. By asking those who wish to talk about authority what they think about civil society instead, many among us are giving off the impression that there is no circumstance in which Franklin’s outrage is going to be forthcoming — however clear-cut the guilt might be. The question of who guards the guardians pertains now as keenly as it ever has. The Right’s answer should be “we do” — and we’re happy to hang them high if we know that they have transgressed.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.