Law & the Courts

America Is Driving toward the Abyss, and It’s Time We Hit the Brakes

A DART police officer is comforted at Baylor University Hospital after the shootings. (Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News/Reuters)
If we don’t all take a deep breath, our unrest will only get worse.

Last night, as the shots rang out across Dallas – as protesters scattered, and we watched the horrible, endlessly replayed video of a police officer’s cold-blooded murder on cable news – I felt that we were witnessing an unraveling. Our unrest hasn’t yet reached the levels of 1968, but it’s moving in that direction – against the backdrop of the worst partisan polarization in decades.

We are faced with choices today. At a time when all the short-term incentives point toward unreason, our leaders, political and cultural, must choose reason. At a time when group solidarity is trumping individual accountability, we must choose individual accountability. At a time when the loudest voices don’t wait for evidence to make sweeping judgments, we must wait for the evidence.

In other words, we need to pump the cultural and political brakes. Here’s what that means:

Remember always that the primary blame for any criminal or wrongful act lies with the perpetrator and his or her confederates. It is extraordinary to see the extent to which ideologues will fixate on any given crime (or suspected crime) and immediately blame it on entire segments of American society, thus taking an individual crime and turning it into a group indictment. The most absurd recent example was of course the stampede to blame an ISIS-inspired attack by a Muslim on Christian Republicans, but we’ve seen this phenomenon at work in the days since the shootings of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana. The actions of three cops (the officer who shot Castile and the officers who engaged Sterling) became stand-ins for – and alleged proof of – the racism of American police generally.

Then, last night, while the police were still engaged with a shooter in Dallas, one of the most widely trafficked conservative sites in the world put up this headline:

When we tribalize conflict, we create a tribalized society. It’s that simple.

Stop lying and distorting facts for your own short-term political gain. It has been extraordinary to watch so many on the left and the right disregard the truth for the sake of “larger purposes.” A known lie such as “hands-up, don’t shoot” became the slogan of an entire movement. Scaremongers refused to deal with actual statistics and instead perpetuated the claim that police officers had declared “open season” on black men.

Comprehensive reporting shows that police overwhelmingly use force when they are “under attack or defending someone who [is].” Despite the millions of interactions between police and citizens (including black citizens), the number of controversial or contentious shootings is low. It’s so low that in a nation of more than 300 million citizens, we can rattle off individual names – Laquan McDonald, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner – rather than consider the horror of mass death, of a true “open season.”

The problem will never be solved if we refuse to acknowledge its complexities. No debate that so reflexively distorts reality will ever be productive.

At the same time, it’s just as dishonest to pretend that police abuse is a fiction or that official racism has been vanquished. It is a simple fact that some police departments have covered up police misconduct (McDonald’s case comes immediately to mind) or, typically at the behest of their political masters, systematically abused the citizens they’re sworn to protect, turning them into ATMs for the state through excessive and burdensome fines and citations.

While the Department of Justice’s investigation of the police shooting of Michael Brown exonerated officer Darren Wilson, for example, it painted an extraordinarily disturbing portrait of the use and abuse of official power in Ferguson, Missouri. Police made Ferguson a hell for its residents, a place where, as I wrote at the time, “a small class of the local power brokers creat[ed] two sets of rules, one for the connected and another for the mass of people who are forced – often at gunpoint – to pay for the ‘privilege’ of being governed.”

No American man, woman, or child should have to live under such a regime. But the problem will never be solved if we refuse to acknowledge its complexities. No debate that so reflexively distorts reality will ever be productive.

Be humble enough to highlight truth and virtue on the other side – and to criticize wrongdoing on your own side. This should be the most humbling election cycle of our lifetimes. In a campaign season when the presumptive major-party nominees are both serial liars and take-no-prisoners political brawlers, the moral high ground is largely deserted. House Republicans actually gave Donald Trump a standing ovation just days after he tweeted grossly anti-Semitic imagery and once again praised Saddam Hussein’s fictional terror-fighting prowess. Democrats closed ranks around Hillary Clinton even after the FBI exposed her systematic and comprehensive lies and her dangerous mishandling of classified information.

Trump and Clinton are but the symptoms of a larger political and cultural disease. They could not have received their millions of votes unless they embodied values that many Americans want in a leader. After all, there were other options. Clickbait is clickbait for a reason – it feeds the ravenous polarizing beast. We live in the era of “punch back twice as hard,” where pundits will scour the web for every single discrediting and embarrassing tweet from the other side. To give a mere half-inch – even when you’re embarrassingly wrong – is seen as inexcusable weakness.

#related#Condemning the evil men and women who affiliate themselves with Black Lives Matter – people who tweet out applause for cop-killings – should not stop us from acknowledging that movement’s many more protesters who abhor violence and weep sincerely for the police lives lost last night. Condemning those cops who are bigoted should not stop us from acknowledging the many more cops who willingly lay down their lives for all citizens every single day. People of good faith can and should disagree about how best to prevent more lives from being lost in the future. But nothing will get better until everyone first recognizes that those with whom they disagree are people of good faith.

Here’s the bottom line — it is possible to seek justice without slander and to demonstrate humility without weakness. Unless we rediscover that truth, we’ll keep hurtling toward the abyss. The chaos of 1968 – or worse – beckons, but we can choose a different path. It’s time to pump the brakes.

— David French is an attorney, and a staff writer at National Review.

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