Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

A Glimpse Into Lawlessness

If the police don't follow the law, neither will rioters. It's a downward spiral and it must be resisted.

Tom Cotton is a man who’s run out of surprises. You just can’t be shocked anymore that the same senator who wanted to bomb Iran and imprison the families of sanctions violators is now demanding that the military be deployed to American cities. Cotton stands at the vanguard of a certain quarter of the political right, which cares for little except cathartic demonstrations of visceral strength. So strike up that military parade! Spend that money! Own those libs! Everything else—prudence, practicality, the law—gets subordinated to the thrill of the flexed muscle, regardless of what it’s actually doing.

In this case, what it would have meant doing is sending the armed forces into neighborhoods that already feel oppressed by the police. As a policy to restore peace, it was harebrained, and thankfully it’s already obsolete. The same day that Cotton’s op-ed calling for boots in the Bronx appeared in the New York Times, that paper reported that arrests were down and the unrest was calming. By this past weekend, about the only rioters left were Times staffers, who (babyishly) cashiered their opinion editor for running the Cotton op-ed in the first place.

The unrest wasn’t the end of America as we know it. It wasn’t even 1968. But it was a very stark and very grievous episode of political violence. Now, as the debris is swept up, as more peaceful protests mobilize with overwhelming support from Americans and even Republicans, it’s worth asking what lessons we should take away.

For some, answering that question will mean instinctively siding with law enforcement. For others, it will mean the opposite, standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. I don’t think it’s mushy bothsidesism to say that both have a point. The anarchy of last week saw acts of violence against police and protesters. In Oakland, two federal officers were shot and one died. In Buffalo, a 75-year-old man was shoved roughly by a policeman, leaving him bleeding on the ground with a head injury. In St. Louis, four officers were shot as riots raged across downtown. In New York, two police SUVs were caught on video plowing into a crowd of demonstrators. In Minneapolis, a police station was torched. And of course, in Washington, officers from a plethora of agencies forcefully cleared Lafayette Park of protesters, resulting in, among other things, an attack on an Australian cameraman.

Amid such chaos, it’s perfectly reasonable to yearn for both order and restraints on those who do the ordering. James Madison’s famous dictum comes to mind here. Madison said, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” And certainly that much was proven by the notably un-angelic actions of rioters, assaulting the innocent and burning shops. A world without law enforcement, where dialogue and community development dollars heal all ills while rainbows arc and dip, is a fantasy, one that would leave the poor and vulnerable at the mercy of the criminal and nihilistic. Yet we also can’t forget that Madison added, “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” This part is less popular among the dopamine-addled right and the social engineering left. But it’s true: government isn’t the philosophical “state,” an abstract force that can commune seamlessly with the good. It’s a collection of men, entrusted with power and badges, prone to abuse the same as anyone else.

It took a government thug only eight minutes and a knee to touch off the worst civil unrest that America has seen in decades. And that’s the trouble of it: neglect one side of the Madisonian formula and you’re likely to negate the other. The common denominator is lawlessness. If the police act outside the law, that gives cause and license to rioters, which then elicits a more aggressive police response, and so on down the spiral. Violence feeds off of a vacuum. Those who seek peaceful change get lost in the smoke. And therein lies an important lesson out of Minneapolis. A community might not be a social contract per se, but it does require a certain amount of buy-in from, and integration of, both the government and the governed. Lacking that, the two pieces drift apart and grow alien to each other. They become different entities, more likely to see the other as the enemy whenever there’s friction. The federal government, giant and remote, is understandably viewed this way; the local policeman should never be.

There’s been a lot of loose talk lately about whether America is careening towards another civil war. The takeaway from last week should be: we’d damn well better hope not. The riots, of course, did not amount to a war, but they did provide a glimpse into the kind of might-makes-right anarchy that characterizes internecine conflicts. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once said, “A civil war is not a war but a sickness. The enemy is within. One fights almost against oneself.” Hence why civil wars—from the Union and the Confederacy to the Republicans and Franco to Salva Kiir and Riek Machar—have so often been so brutal. The body politic itself becomes dysfunctional, turning its own people against each other, its mediating institutions having broken down.

Such wars, as Saint-Exupéry said, stem from deeper pathogens within. And having now peeked into that darkness ourselves, we would be wise to ask what illnesses of our own enabled it. One answer is surely that Americans have become too foreign to each other, too detached from one another, epistemically closed off in our own bubbles, social media and otherwise. The dissolution of those bonds have dehumanized us, which in turn makes it easier to favor loosing the military on each other or torching another’s property.

Zoom in on the killing of George Floyd and you see this problem in miniature: cops utterly blind to the common humanity and citizenship of another man. This is why a good place to start so far as reforms go is with more community policing. That’s admittedly a broad term and one that’s been criticized as too abstract. But at base, it means better integrating police officers into the neighborhoods they patrol, making them familiar faces rather than distant fighters of atomized crimes. There are obstacles to this approach, including underfunded city departments, which have driven away talent to the suburbs. Yet there are also success stories. Among them is the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police, which in recent years has shifted away from a so-called zone policing model, increasing the number of beats and shrinking the areas that officers are expected to cover. Camden, New Jersey, undertook an even more radical community policing overhaul eight years ago—rebuilding their department from scratch to circumvent union inflexibility—and saw their city’s violent crime rate fall by close to half.

Such measures aren’t a panacea. They certainly don’t provide the lizard-brained exhilaration of rolling tanks through city streets, per the heavy-breathing Senator Cotton. But given a chance, they just might help increase social trust, put human faces on officers and civilians alike, help shrink one of our more perilous and widening divides. America will never be fully “united,” as the hoary and slightly sinister trope goes. But surely the common national roof over our heads can be stronger than this.