The Corner

George Zimmerman, Cliven Bundy, and the Importance of Separating Principles from People

Deroy Murdock, Rich Lowry, and others on NRO have condemned Cliven Bundy’s disgusting comments about race and slavery appropriately, eloquently, and forcefully. In addition to condemning Bundy’s comments, we need to remind ourselves of a commonsense notion: We must always take care — especially in hot-button public disputes — to separate person from principle. 

As we’ve learned once again, there are, quite frequently, people who believe and say reprehensible things — or even take foolish actions — who nevertheless find themselves facing an unjust or excessive government response. Often we find out about the person’s challenges with the government well before we find out anything about that person’s beliefs or character, and in the resulting rush to stand on principle we can inadvertently, prematurely, and often wrongly elevate the person. 

I enjoy reading the comments here on NRO, and I try to read every comment on my posts (and sometimes, when I have time, enjoy engaging in the comment box), and I note with some dismay that two of the times I’ve received the most furious backlash from commenters have been when I criticized George Zimmerman for behaving foolishly the night he killed Trayvon Martin and when I accused one of Cliven Bundy’s supporters (in a post where I clearly condemned government overreach) of “Taliban” tactics by deliberately putting women in the front lines for propaganda purposes.

To this day, I’m baffled by the idea that Zimmerman behaved responsibly when he got out of his car, at night, to follow a kid who was not breaking the law. If you think that’s not a situation fraught with peril, imagine your tension if you found yourself followed at night by a strange man. I’m similarly baffled by those defending the notion that even “strong frontier women” should be at the front of the line to take the first volley in a firefight. Sure, stand beside the man if you like, but what man asks women — even willing women — to take the first bullet, for propaganda purposes? And for those who think that all the human shields in the Middle East are unwilling, well, you’re just ignorant.

But to say that Zimmerman behaved foolishly is not to endorse the state’s prosecution. To condemn the use of women as human shields is not to endorse the use of a federal paramilitary force in a glorified collection action.

Let’s be clear, one is not giving aid and comfort to the Left when one condemns foolish and reprehensible behavior by those whose cause-of-the-moment you might sympathize with or support. Nor does such criticism render a person a “RINO.” But one does give aid and comfort to the Left when one embraces not just the principle but the deeply-flawed person — especially when that person has revealed themselves to not just suffer from the normal flaws that afflict all of us but from deep character defects that bring shame to their allies.

And, yes, I know there is a double standard. After all, a man like Al Sharpton has not only made racially reprehensible statements, he has incited deadly violence. Yet he has an MSNBC show and is a friend of the president. A man like Bill Ayers is an admitted domestic terrorist. Yet he is now a respected member of the Left establishment, he helped our president get his political start, and even now he is the toast of Leftists on college campuses around the country.

But this is the Left’s profound moral failure, not ours.

There is a long tradition in one of my principle areas of legal practice (First Amendment) of lawyers zealously defending even fools and cranks from government overreach. In fact, such defenses are so common that even the mainstream media rarely tags those who defend the First Amendment with the views of their clients. But at all times the focus should be on the legitimacy of the government action, not the character of the citizen. This is the lesson of First Amendment advocacy, and it should also be the lesson at all times when the government oversteps its bounds.


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