The Corner

In New York City, Responsibility Lies with the Killer Alone

As almost everybody is now aware, this happened over the weekend:

Two uniformed NYPD officers were shot dead Saturday afternoon as they sat in their marked police car on a Brooklyn street corner — in what investigators believe was a crazed gunman’s ­assassination-style mission to avenge Eric Garner and Michael Brown.

“No warning, no provocation — they were quite simply assassinated, targeted for their uniform,” Police Commissioner William Bratton said.

This, it should go without saying, was an abomination. But I must respectfully disagree with those who have taken to suggesting that, because this happened after some fractious anti-police protests, those protestors now have “blood on their hands.” Certainly, we have seen a fringe element within recent demonstrations, and one that has behaved in an unhelpful and a grotesque manner. Whatever one’s view of the police writ large, to call for the execution of individual officers is uncivilized and it is dumb, and it deserves to invite strict condemnation on the grounds of taste alone. If anybody started talking about “dead cops” near me, I would of course leave rather quickly. As Mrs. Thatcher once put it: “No, no, no.”

That being said, the suggestion that those who chanted these words somehow “caused” or are “culpable” for the actions of a killer strikes me as a real stretch — as, for that matter, does the proposition that “anti-police protestors” bear some sort of collective “responsibility” for what happened on Saturday. Unless I am very much mistaken, nobody who chanted their death-wishes proposed any concrete action whatsoever. Nobody singled out a target or discussed tactics or agreed to return later with weapons. Nobody established a training camp or organized a rendezvous point or planted a bomb. Indeed, nobody did anything much at all. As is now clear, there were no ”mobs” or “groups of rioters” involved in the murders at all. Rather, some members within a group of peaceful protestors said something terrible (if abstract), and a troubled man in another locale went on a killing spree. Were these two events in some way correlated? Perhaps, yes. There is no doubt that the man intended to target cops in New York. But can we establish causation, or even blame? Nope.

All told, those of us who value robust free expression should be extremely reluctant to so casually transmute “there may have been a vague connection between these words and these actions” into “those who spoke the most forcefully are morally culpable and their entire movement should be shunned in consequence.” This latter approach was preposterous back when Sarah Palin was blamed for the shooting of Gabby Giffords. It was bizarre when the shooting at the Family Research Council was blamed on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (sophomoric) “hate map.” It was farcical when the Isla Vista shooting was blamed on “white privilege” and “rape culture.” It was ridiculous when Timothy McVeigh was blamed on “militias” or on talk radio. And it is wrong in this case, too. Words, as ever, do not pull triggers, however harsh those words may be.

Now, I will accept that, in this instance, those words were significantly more direct than is usual. In the case of Giffords, hyperventilating commentators were reduced to relying upon inchoate notions such as “the climate” and “the national temperature”; here, by contrast, they can point to a direct expression of desire. (“What do we want?” some of the protesters sang, “Dead Cops. When do we want it? Now.”) And yet, as clear as that wish is, I’m still not sure that one can apportion blame to its promulgators. I can sound “seditious” from time to time, as can a good number other figures in the media and in politics in general. A few weeks ago, I suggested on Twitter that tarring and feathering public officials wouldn’t be so bad, and I have proposed before that if the likes of Sam Adams were faced with our current Leviathan he would probably have started a revolt. My colleague Kevin Williamson, meanwhile, has confessed that his heart would probably ”leap at the sight of Americans setting fire to a tax office”; and argued, too, that Cliven Bundy’s act of resistance made perfectly the “case for a little sedition.” For better or for worse, these are not uncommon sentiments in the United States.

Arguendo, suppose that a crazy person were to read any of these sentences and to act upon them. Could Kevin or I honestly be said to be “responsible”? I would suggest that we could not — at least, not unless we are happy to blame  faraway speakers for the actions of deranged individuals. It is one thing for a speaker within a crowd to actively spur that crowd on to lawbreaking and to violence, but it is quite another for a speaker to be blamed for the acts of those who were not even present. As we know, troubled individuals often pick up on currents within society and use them as justification for their misdeeds. Indeed, more often than not, if it’s not one thing it is another. For this reason, I have long been skeptical toward those who would blame entire movements or political philosophies for the actions of isolated individuals. Really, I see no reason to buck that trend here. Are those who call for the death of cops reprehensible? Yes, they are. Are their words unhelpful? Sure. But are they in any way to blame for what Ismaaiyl Brinsley did on Saturday afternoon? No, they are absolutely not.

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