The Left Should Be Careful with Its Riot Rhetoric

Protesters gather around after setting fire to the entrance of a police station as demonstrations continue after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn., May 28, 2020. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
“Justice excuses violence” is a self-destructive maxim that risks producing new atrocities.

Last week, the nation was stunned by the senseless murder of George Floyd at the hands of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Politicians and pundits on both sides of the aisle decried the slaying, and it didn’t take long for protestors across the country to take to the streets. Sadly, some recent anti-brutality protests have devolved into seemingly random displays of theft, property damage, arson, and assault. Yet through all this chaos and destruction, the Left has not found much to condemn with regard to the rioters. Indeed, left-wing intellectuals have tended either to explain away the crimes of violent protestors or to justify them as righteous and inevitable.

Before considering the implications of such rhetoric, some examples of its prevalence might be useful. On Saturday, Northwestern University professor Steven Thrasher argued in Slate magazine that “the destruction of a police precinct is not only a tactically reasonable response to the crisis of policing, it is a quintessentially American response, and a predictable one . . . property destruction for social change is as American as the Boston Tea Party and the Stonewall Riots.” Nikole Hannah-Jones, a New York Times journalist who recently received a Pulitzer Prize for her work on the 1619 Project, tweeted out a more subtle endorsement of the riots: “I hurt for the destruction like everyone else. But the fact of history is non-violent protest has not been successful for [black] Americans.” Perhaps Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has mustered the moral will to condemn the violence and destruction of the radical left? Quite the contrary — the furthest Biden has gone is to state that burning down communities is “needless” and unnecessary.

For many apologists of the recent criminal activity, the ultimate source of Floyd’s death — a white-supremacist social order — justifies the illicit actions of the rioters and looters. Justice, contend these apologists, has not been served to those oppressed by the white-supremacist patriarchy; why, then, should the oppressed and their allies give any consideration to justice now? Burning and looting, then, are naught but natural and appropriate reactions to longtime abuses. It is the system which is most directly at fault — not the rioters, who are viewed either as pawns in a game beyond their comprehension or as agents of vengeance who can do no wrong. (This line of thought, of course, makes many assumptions: The “system” exists, is evil, and is beyond the reach of ordinary reform.)

I do not wish to argue directly against the morality of this stance, nor to make an empirical argument as to the negative economic repercussions of lawless protest. Instead, I’d like to undertake a thought experiment: What if certain members of the Right took these anarchist, morally permissive sentiments to heart? Certainly, this is the last thing that any leftist — or any reasonable conservative — would want.

While the modern Left tends to emphasize the prevalence of oppressive systems, many on the right hold uncompromising beliefs of their own. For instance, conservatives are prone to believe that life is inviolable from the moment of conception, and that abortion therefore constitutes a form of murder. Others insist that the U.S. Constitution is immutable and must be protected at all costs.

Radicalized members of the Right have, in rare instances, already acted on these beliefs in extreme fashion: the 2014 Las Vegas Shootings, the Oklahoma City bombing, and various attacks on Planned Parenthood clinics all come to mind. Significantly, all of these events involved fringe right-wing individuals and groups acting independently — without a mainstream justification for their actions. But how many more Robert Lewis Dears and Timothy McVeighs might we see, were the Left’s stance on violent protest to become widely adopted on the Right?

Imagine that you are mentally unstable and intellectually impressionable. You also happen to be a staunch pro-lifer. All your life, you’ve heard that the end doesn’t justify the means, that peace is the answer — not violence. But today, you turn on the news and hear pundits justifying lawlessness because it is born of injustice. You read about celebrities exhorting the public to “burn everything down” on the grounds that society is already immoral and broken. Is it so implausible that you might start to wonder: “Why not me? I believe that the unborn are being unjustly murdered and that the government has taken no steps to address this systemic problem. Is it not justified for me — nay, morally incumbent upon me — to take matters into my own hands? Some rioter just burned down an AutoZone. Another decimated a police precinct. Why shouldn’t I burn down a Planned Parenthood clinic, given that this institution, in my view, is the direct cause of so much wickedness?”

There are many sound ways to refute this deluded train of thought. For instance, one might cite the value of peaceful protest, the immorality of responding to wrong with wrong, or the slippery slope of vigilantism. The riot apologist, however, has only two possible responses: to abandon his embrace of lawlessness lest the radical right-winger become encouraged, or to contend that only his own principles justify extreme measures. One might reasonably ask: “Why only your own principles?” The apologist might answer: “Because they are obviously the superior ones.” Of course, such a reply only resonates with those who antecedently agree with the apologist, and the radical right-winger is left with no less reason to carry out his violent plan. Thus, we start to see the danger of the Left’s justification of violent protest — not only to society as a whole, but even to the institutions dearest to the Left’s heart. “Justice excuses violence” is, in short, a self-destructive maxim.

George Floyd’s murder was a moral abomination, and I do not intend to draw away from the significance of this event. Nevertheless, the Left must recant its endorsement of recent crimes lest the movement’s rhetoric give rise to fresh atrocities.


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