Two police officers were shot in Ferguson last night, by a would-be assassin. They were not shot by Barack Obama. They were not shot by Eric Holder. And they were not shot by “the media” or by the Democratic party. The shooter wasn’t forced to pull the trigger by “the protests,” and nor was his crime commissioned by our latent “political culture.” Al Sharpton was nowhere to be seen. Rather, a man who was in possession of his own agency made a terrible, disastrous decision. Observers who have today attempted to indict the entire post-Ferguson activist movement for his crime should know better than to imply otherwise.
Now, as ever, there are a host of good and bad influences out there in America. Now, as ever, we have a set of simple and broadly comprehended rules to govern how individuals may react to them. In the United States, political discontents may say almost anything without fear of prosecution — yes, even extraordinarily offensive things – but they are by no means permitted to assuage their frustrations with violence. In consequence, it does not matter whether the provocative “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” meme came from one dishonest witness or from the entire press corps. Those who are angered by it are prohibited from shooting people in either case. In consequence, it is immaterial whether the shooter was vexed by the DOJ’s harrowing report or whether had bought heavily into the gross hyperbole that we have come to accept as normal on television news. He wasn’t allowed to kill people in his anger. If we are to enjoy a political culture that respects and cherishes debate, we should ensure that this rule obtains — and is acknowledged – here.
Because our culture is so tightly interconnected, it will always be possible to claim wistfully that “society is to blame.” Because there are six degrees of separation between all of us and the president, we can always involve him somehow. But unless we want to see politicians who use martial language being castigated for enabling the actions of lunatics, we should resist assigning blame to the innocent. Unless we hope watch in frustration as quotidian anti-government sentiment is deemed to be responsible for all the ills under the sun, we should decline to attack abstractions rather than individuals. Unless we intend to establish a nation whose rebels are rendered easy targets for the madding crowd on the horizon, we should insist that people, not words, are accountable for the world’s problems. In a republic, it is up to the listeners – not the broadcasters – to sift through the radio noise and to pursue the best course. In a free nation, men can not be presumed to be automatons.
For the sake of accuracy, I would certainly have preferred it if Ferguson’s various agitators had waited a little before jumping to conclusions. And yet, whatever mistakes were made, the veracity of the dissenters’ rhetoric is ultimately irrelevant to this case. Sure, Michael Brown probably did not have his hands up when he was shot. But let’s suppose, arguendo, that he had. Suppose, that is, that the media reports had been correct, and that Officer Wilson had got it horribly wrong. Wouldn’t it have still been unacceptable for anybody to open fire on police officers that had nothing to do with the incident – men, by all accounts, who were engaged in no misconduct whatsoever? It seems rather clear to me that it would. Indeed, there is in fact no conceivable situation in which specific rhetorical mistakes could be seen to justify this crime. The perpetrator here is the perpetrator; the bystanders are the bystanders. We would do well to find and to punish the former, but to leave the latter well alone.