If Not Now, When?

Apparently this moment in time – when Ferguson is burning, Darren Wilson’s supporters are celebrating, and Obama is talking – is not the appropriate time to discuss police misconduct and the problems with our criminal justice system or to try to understand the causes of this horrible series of tragedies. At least that is what we’re being told. The reasons we are given by those who say that this is not the right time for those discussions are pretty diverse. I disagree with all of them – predictably, I hope. But let’s take a look at some of the best.

If we really cared about black lives we would be talking about abortion.

Back during the 2012 election season, Randy Alcorn complained that every time he addressed abortion, some liberal was sure to ask why he wasn’t also talking about unjust war. He was right, of course; anyone who has been vocal in defense of the unborn has been asked the same question. It’s almost invariably an attempt to either shut down the discussion, shame the speaker (under the assumption that they most likely have supported some pretty sketchy wars) or change the subject. It is an evasive tactic to avoid dealing with the injustice and immorality of one’s own position.

So is this one.

Of course we should be talking about abortion. Yes, it is a greater threat to black lives than police brutality. It’s also a greater threat to all American lives than gun control, or ISIS, or ObamaCare, or GMOs, or – you get the idea? Matt Walsh, next time you’re tempted to write something about Ebola, remember that abortion is an exponentially more serious threat to everything we hold dear as – as – as whatever we are.

There are any number of critical issues facing America today that desperately need to be held up to the light – the light of the truth, of the Gospel, of reason, of history. Unfortunately, I can’t write about all of them every day. I don’t post nearly as often as I’d like. Perhaps that’s a good thing. But speaking out on one important issue is not the same as denying, or even minimizing, other issues of equal or greater importance. Don’t try to pull this one; it’s the rhetorical equivalent of squirming in your seat – and it’s pretty obvious.

The real issue is that our society has rejected God; don’t get hung up on police brutality like those godless libertarians.

This one gets to me because it is presented as if all the rejection of God is on the part of the criminal, the protestor, and the victim. Sure, looting and burning, disrespecting police officers and calling for summary justice are all symptoms of society’s rejection of God. What doesn’t seem to occur to those who raise this as an objection? Systemic injustice, abuse of power, extortion, deception, gratuitous violence and murder by police officers are the fruit of the same tree.

More importantly, our modern society isn’t unique in that regard. I understand that many people simply mean to say that biblical standards of morality, once widely accepted, are now as widely rejected in our culture. That is true. But it’s hardly new. Society rejected God in the garden and has been living out that rejection ever since. I wonder if anyone said to John the Baptist, “Listen, John, the real issue is that the Jews have rejected God. Don’t get hung up on Herod and his incest; get out there and preach to the mob. They’re the ones who need to hear it.”

The police will always be dealing largely with sinners in rebellion against God. And guess what? The police will always be made up largely of sinners in rebellion against God. As Christians, we have a responsibility to speak truth to power as well as to everyone else. Sin is sin, violence is violence, murder is murder, regardless of legal sanction or lack thereof.

These black protestors are looting and destroying their own city? How can you support them?

Sigh. First of all, acknowledging and seeking to understand their grievances is not necessarily support.  Secondly, “The protestors” are a diverse group with widely divergent motives, agendas and goals. You cannot expect to be taken seriously by thinking people when you make sweeping generalizations about their actions and intents. Think about this for a moment. Who are the protestors?

Some are professional civil rights activists. For the most part, they aren’t from Ferguson. Some of them are no doubt sincerely hoping to help focus the nation’s attention on serious problems of injustice in the judicial system and police culture. Others, to put it bluntly, are constituents of racism; they profit from racial tension and, while they probably aren’t burning buildings or overturning police cars, they will do what they can to inflame the situation and seize the limelight.

Some are anarchist troublemakers, career agitators, rebels without a cause. They aren’t from Ferguson either. They live in their parent’s basements, playing video games, watching InfoWars and posting inflammatory, obscenity-laced comments on the internet until unrest somewhere presents an opportunity to riot. I know because I’ve dealt with them first hand. Some are better organized, like the Black Bloc (“black” here refers to their clothing – they are almost all white) while others are just losers seeking a thrill. My guess, based on observation and experience but without personal knowledge of the situation in Ferguson, is that they are less than ten percent of the protestors and responsible for ninety percent of the destruction.

Then there are the locals – the people of Ferguson. They aren’t a monolithic group either. Men who have been systematically harassed by an out-of-control PD; mothers and fathers who fear for their children’s future; youths who have grown up without a parent; respected pastors and community leaders; elected officials; business owners. The angriest of their young men will find justification in the rhetoric of the activists, sympathy and incitement in the anarchists, and satisfaction in joining the destruction. But for the most part, the locals are the last ones to blame for the rioting, the looting, the wanton destruction of property. Yet they are the ones who will bear all the blame, as well as all the burden of recovering from the devastation.

The least we can do is to acknowledge the reality of their grievances, to stop excusing violence and crime when it hides behind a badge. We can recognize that even if Darren Wilson was perfectly justified – and he may have been – officers who abuse their power endanger those who serve honorably as much as themselves. We can use the opportunity presented by this horrible tragedy to change the way society thinks about crime – to challenge the deification of the State and give God’s law, not man’s, the highest place. We can at least seek to make the law respectable as we call on our fellow citizens to respect it.

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Simple, Right?

In the ongoing tragedy that is Ferguson, MO, one of the most tragic aspects of all is the hardening contempt each side of the conflict feels and expresses for the other. As a white conservative I am ashamed of the grossly simplified generalizations that characterize the discussion on the right. But more than anything, I am grieved by the widening gulf, on this and many other issues, between neighbors, fellow citizens and, most especially, fellow believers.

After the Grand Jury decision not to indict Wilson was announced last night, the usually thoughtful Matt Walsh opined this morning, “Brown instigated this encounter, tried to hurt the officer, and paid for it with his life. That’s it. That’s all. This whole outrage was based on rumor and false testimony. You either accept the facts, or you brand yourself a liar and a fraud.”

No, Matt, that’s not it and that’s not all.

In France, 1789, the explosion of rage, murder and destruction we call the French Revolution ignited a fifty year period of chaos and death. The world looked on in disbelief as the desperation-fueled heroism of those who stormed the Bastille gave way to Robespierre and the reign of terror. Observers all over the west shook their heads as centuries’ worth of cultural, religious and political effort was dismantled and destroyed, and waxed philosophical in their armchairs over the sheer stupidity of the French public. If any people could be accused of destroying their own city – even beyond that, of destroying themselves – the French peasantry of the late eighteenth century were guilty.

Edmund Burke criticized the French Revolution in a series of pamphlets, speeches, etc. In his first pamphlet he accused the French people of rebelling “against a mild and lawful monarch, with more fury, outrage, and insult, than any people has been known to rise against the most illegal usurper, or the most sanguinary tyrant.”

This accusation drew the ire of the American author Thomas Paine, who replied, “It was not against Louis the XVIth, but against the despotic principles of the government, that the nation revolted. These principles had not their origin in him, but in the original establishment, many centuries back: and they were become too deeply rooted to be removed, and the Augean stables of parasites and plunderers too abominably filthy to be cleansed by anything short of a complete and universal Revolution. … Perhaps no man bred up in the style of an absolute king, ever possessed a heart so little disposed to the exercise of that species of power as the present King of France. But the principles of the Government itself still remained the same. The Monarch and the Monarchy were distinct and separate things; and it was against the established despotism of the latter, and not against the person or principles of the former, that the revolt commenced, and the Revolution has been carried.”

Paine went on to lash out at Burke for his aristocratic sympathies and his refusal to even attempt to see the revolution from the perspective of the oppressed people of France. “Not one glance of compassion,” he wrote, “not one commiserating reflection that I can find throughout his book, has he bestowed on those who lingered out the most wretched of lives, a life without hope in the most miserable of prisons. … He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird.”

Ouch.

Burke and Paine both made legitimate points, and both were blinded by their own prejudices. In his sympathy for the horrific suffering of the French people, Paine glossed over many of the terrible crimes and excesses they committed. But his critique of Burke on this point was devastatingly accurate. Burke saw the sins of the French Revolution in a political and historical vacuum. He saw them as a grave threat to the relatively orderly subordination of English society and to the aristocratic system. He failed to acknowledge the crushing weight of centuries of accumulated oppression and how that history shaped the French people, and he failed to distinguish between the many aspects of the revolution and the motivations of its various groups and factions.

Those who look with contempt on the whole mass of protesters in Ferguson – without distinction, without even an attempt to perceive their widely different motivations – are guilty of just such an error. The killing of Michael Brown, whether justified or not, occurred in a decades-old context of unchecked law enforcement brutality and deep-seated hostility between people of color in Ferguson and their police. Back in the late ’90s journalists described the area as a racial volcano destined to erupt. In 2012 Ferguson police officers mistakenly arrested an innocent black man and beat him savagely in a holding cell, only to discover their mistake afterwards. Rather than risk the consequences of a public acknowledgement they charged him with destruction of government property for bleeding on their uniforms. While a judge dismissed those charges, none of the officers involved were punished. In this context it would be shocking if the black community were to calmly accept a grand jury decision not to indict. They have no faith in the system, and for good reason.

Then, too, there is a fundamental distrust of this particular process that is equally understandable. No one expected the grand jury to indict Wilson. Jonathan Blanks, writing for Rare today, observed that “The law enforcement apparatus in and around St. Louis County treated the citizenry with open contempt. In his press conference yesterday, St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch sounded more like a defense attorney for Wilson rather than a prosecutor who failed to get an indictment.”

Legal blogger and defense attorney Scott Greenfield was more specific. “All the evidence,” he writes, “is a phrase that applies to a trial. A trial is a procedure that happens in an open courtroom, where adversaries zealously present their case and challenge the other side’s case. It is transparent because we can watch it unfold, develop, happen before our eyes. We hear the questions and answers, the objections and rulings. We hear the request to admit evidence and the voir dire and challenge to its admission. We hear the opening arguments and summations. … Whether Darren Wilson would have been convicted after trial remains unclear; perhaps the case against him for the killing of Michael Brown wouldn’t have survived scrutiny. Perhaps the structural benefits given law enforcement to kill without fear would have allowed him to circumvent conviction. Perhaps he wasn’t guilty. We will never know. … The merit of the grand jury presentation relies entirely on our acceptance of Bob McCulloch’s office desiring an indictment against Darren Wilson. Just as a prosecutor can indict any damn person he pleases, he can similarly make sure a person is not indicted.” (Read the whole post – it’s worth your time.)

When was the last time you saw a police officer indicted, let alone convicted, for excessive use of force, without a viral video either leaked or recorded by a bystander? Even in those cases where a concerned citizen is in the right place at the right time to make such a recording, how often are officers actually prosecuted? Answer those questions honestly, and then tell me why, in that context, any of us should be expected to accept the grand jury’s finding as fact?

Wilson may have been completely justified. But to dismiss those who distrust the process as liars and frauds is either tragically simple-minded or disingenuous.

Who Deserves Due Process?

Rebecca-Nurse-Salem-Witch-Trials-Memorial-MarkerYou may have heard of a horrific case in southeastern PA this week, involving a single mother, her boyfriend and her murdered 3-year-old son. I’m not interested in reviewing the horrendous details of the alleged crime. The accused are both facing the death penalty, and rightly so. What concerns me is one aspect of the public’s reaction and what it says about our society, our freedom and values and, ultimately, the apparent demise of intelligent thought in America.

The reaction I’m speaking of has been and is being expressed in many places and many forms, but it’s encapsulated nicely in this gem from a commenter on the Daily Local website: “Any lawyer that defends these sub humans [sic] is not fit to live.” Generally speaking, comments on news websites aren’t worth a response, but this sentiment is dangerously widespread and, I think, is evidence of a deeper problem. It is the same mentality that justifies drone-launched “signature strikes” or the waterboarding of terrorism suspects because “terrorists don’t deserve due process.” It is the same mentality that excuses police officers for the shooting of an unarmed man, or the deliberate use of a Taser on a handcuffed woman, because of the victim’s past criminal record. In essence, it is the entirely irrational view that the legal protections and procedures we call due process are too good for some criminals.

Why irrational? Because due process protections aren’t for the criminals, they are for the innocent. Of course terrorists don’t deserve due process. Neither do people who slowly murder little children. Neither, I might add, do people who quickly murder old men, or rape, or enslave, or commit any number of other evil crimes against their fellow creatures. They deserve justice. But there is the rub: due process matters if justice is to be done, because only through the meticulous pursuit of the truth in the context of presumed innocence can we avoid the double tragedy – the crime of crimes – that is committed when the law punishes the innocent instead of the guilty.

Do I really think that this couple might be innocent? No, I don’t. In this country, the likelihood of police, prosecutors, medical workers and media conspiring together to invent such a horrific tale is next to nil. But why? In many countries today, people are regularly accused, condemned and imprisoned or executed on bare, unsupported allegations from those who have much to gain by it. In this country, not that long ago, enslaved blacks were frequently punished for crimes they did not commit – even could not have committed – because they were excluded from the due process protection of the law. We look back with horror, appropriate horror, on legal abuses like the Salem witch trials, the horrific anti-treason laws in seventeenth century England, the reign of terror in post-revolutionary France, or the mass murder of Stalin’s collectivization program in Ukraine. Those things are not happening in America today because of a legal system that, while far from perfect and strongly skewed against the accused, still presents formidable obstacles to systematic, widespread miscarriages of justice like these.

The person who posted that comment is absolutely certain of the accused couple’s guilt. But they knew nothing of the case except what they had just read. Their confidence is probably justified precisely because of the system and the defense lawyers they so despise. If we as a society are willing to waive due process and presumption of innocence in cases where we feel the accused are undeserving, we open the door to unspeakable crimes under the color of law in the future.

Grand Theft Auto Meets Call Of Duty?

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Many observers of the events in Ferguson, MO, seem to agree that the growing militarization of policing is a problem. But a satisfactory explanation for what Radley Balko has called “the rise of the warrior-cop” seems to evade many who are complaining about it. Some rightly point to the war on drugs and the well-funded, heavily armed gangs that have accompanied it (or risen as a consequence of it, as some, including yours truly, would argue). In this account, the increasingly militaristic organized crime threat posed by gangs and cartels requires an increasingly militarized police to counter it. Others, with equally good reason, cite the war on terror, with its accompanying glut of taxpayers’ money and public support for pretty much anything that is supposed to keep us safer. Still others blame an increase in hostility towards police officers, citing tragic examples of officers responding to calls for help only to be ambushed by cold-blooded murderers out for revenge, fame or God knows what else. Then, too, some see the problem as simple mission creep – once police departments obtain heavy weapons or equipment the need to justify the high maintenance costs, combined with the juvenile urge to play with the new toys, leads to the too frequent use of assets meant to be deployed in extremely rare circumstances.

All of these things no doubt are factors in the rise of the warrior-cop. But I think there are other, more fundamental changes that need to be recognized. The concern, it should be pointed out, is not so much with the heavy equipment police departments have accumulated as with the frequency and reckless nature of its use. Deploying SWAT to deal with a well-armed hostage taker is not militarization, but common sense. Sending the same unit in with APCs to raid a family dairy for selling unlicensed raw milk products is another matter entirely.

An NPR reporter recently commented that the streets of Ferguson after dark felt like a fusion of Grand Theft Auto and Call Of Duty. That statement nicely encapsulates the changes to which I refer. The zeitgeist, to continue the over-use of an over-used buzzword, is not what it was thirty years ago. Human nature has not changed – total depravity has been the consistent state of humanity since the fall – but in terms of western culture, the rejection of biblical morality (or even classical pagan morality) as an ideal has left us with an ethical vacuum. That vacuum has been widely filled with what might be called a cult of autonomy, in which the self-realization, self-expression and self-fulfillment of the individual has been held up as the ultimate good.

“Those who will not be ruled by God will be ruled by tyrants.” William Penn

Thoughtful observers of human nature and history should readily see where such a mentality is bound to lead. Whether one looks to Biblical warnings about the consequences of defying the Creator, philosophical cautions about the connection between morality and freedom, or historical examples of other communities of people who have abused liberty only to lose it, there is no excuse for thinking that the original American experiment can long survive this new one. Government must be expected to grow more and more intrusive – law enforcement must be expected to grow more and more heavy-handed – in proportion to the degree to which its citizens fail to govern themselves. This is not to excuse government, but simply to recognize the inevitability of the response.

“I am the State.” Louis XIV
“I’m the decider.” George W. Bush

So much for the citizen, but what does this paradigm shift mean for those in government? One common mistake when considering government is to treat it as an independent entity rather than as a collection of individuals who hold political power. Take the latter view, and one then has to ask what the exaltation of self means for those who hold the levers of power. If self-expression for an inner city youth means walking down the middle of the street, what does it mean for the police officer whose ego is injured in front of bystanders? Is the police officer who finds satisfaction in tasering a handcuffed, drunk woman for spitting on him really any better then the “low life scum” he complains about having to deal with every day? Make no mistake about it: the rejection of biblical morality extends all the way to the pinnacles of power. More to the point, it is even more dangerous in powerful elites than in street-level anarchists. One need look no farther than the roughly 800,000,000 victims of the atheist century for proof of that assertion.

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will. Find out just what any people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them.” Frederick Douglass

Obviously these opposing faces of man as his own highest authority cannot peacefully coexist. William Lind, writing over at the American Conservative, has argued that the state as an institution is facing a global crisis of legitimacy as it struggles to retain power without the monopoly on war that it has largely enjoyed for centuries. I think there is a good case to be made that this crisis, to the extent that it is real, is self-inflicted; the resurgence of what we might call tribalism is directly related to the wanton destruction that governments have wreaked on their own citizens and each other over the past hundred years. Regardless, governments are scared of their citizens, and with good reason.

In summary, I think these three together rank among the most fundamental causes of increasingly militarized policing in this country: the decline of self-government on the part of the citizens; arrogance and lust for power and control on the part of government agents; and genuine fear on the part of those at the top who have got the tiger by the tail.