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To Establish Justice, America Must First Quell the Riots

Political games -- quite often by Republicans -- are dulling the country’s response to a reign of terror.

The good senator from Missouri — the state in which Michael Brown was killed six years ago and one of the major flashpoints of our country’s present racial strife — took to the floor this week to grapple with the nation’s rolling crises. 

“It was one week ago today that George Floyd died in the streets of Minneapolis,” Hawley said on Monday, “at the hands of Minneapolis police officers employing incredible, illegal — unconstitutional — violence. … Words cannot begin to describe the injustice that this has done to Mr. Floyd — to his family, to his community and to millions of Americans who feel caught up, who feel judged by, endangered by, imperiled by these actions. And too many others like them, over two many years, for too long in this country.”

Sen. Hawley went on to condemn reactive rioting. But dare I say he got it backwards. 

Since his impressive ascent to the United States Senate in 2018 — a year of bloodletting for most other Republicans — I have covered Hawley with great interest. He’s the upper chamber’s greenest member. At forty, he’s a rare exception to our country’s shameful gerontocracy — one need only to look at the presidential finalists this year to bear witness to America’s greatest internal liability. 

Unlike the vast majority of his colleagues, Hawley ‘gets it’: the country really is in trouble — and not from a failure to pass grander tax reform, or repeal Obamacare or to annex Iran (indeed, the Senator’s work on foreign policy is particularly visionary). Whether Hawley is acting out of sharp-eyed ambition or profound convictions (or, as is most likely, a mix of both) is both unknowable and, for the moment, irrelevant; the result would be largely the same. He has proven himself to be a refreshing force for the good. 

However, the construction of his most recent address revealed a rare misjudgment– and one that is tempting to many like-minded politicians. But the preeminent challenge is now the riots themselves.

What has been on display in the streets of American cities this week has been neither purely insurrectionary —  acts of political violence — nor simply nihilistic criminality: rather, it’s been a frightening admixture. But its emergence has now killed far more people than just Mr. Floyd and have put many American cities under a de facto fourth month of house arrest, just as they were carefully opening up. And in a development that might have been thought unconscionable mere weeks ago, mass demonstrations have further exposed the population to a virus the country just devoted three months to fighting in spectacular, unprecedented fashion. 

Those violating curfew in cities like the one I live in — our nation’s capital, now an icon of self-induced chaos — are not naive, peaceful protesters. Whether they participate in the pillaging themselves is immaterial: they are party to a riot. They are making their community less safe, and contributing to the violations of rights dearer and more fundamental than that of assembly.

As this demonic year drags on, at risk are others’ rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness —  the credo embossed on Washington’s now-desecrated national monuments. That, if I may suggest, should have been Hawley’s lede. In failing to do so, he cedes the stage to figures like Tom Cotton, a sinister, but superior politician— and one who wants shock troops in American cities. A military response is already under way — in Washington, at least — and if the chaos persists, it could be expanded nationally. Let us hope it does not come to that — but if proved necessary — it should be supported and managed responsibly.  


We should remain uncomfortable with adjudicating individual criminal cases in a mob setting. This nation has legitimate courts of law it has spent two and half centuries building — despite our manifold flaws, it’s still one of the best systems around. We should trust it more. 

It’s what helped make this country great. To abandon that for a society in which accusation alone is evidence of guilt, a Maoist conception of political justice meted out by the mob, would be a terrible mistake. One can acknowledge the obvious — the video of Floyd’s video is shocking and cries out for justice — while giving the accused their days in court and trusting the law to accomplish its purpose. To do otherwise would be a betrayal of our values.

Mr. Floyd is dead. Legislation may prevent similar tragedies in the future, and if Mr. Hawley or anyone else can come up with a coherent proposal to accomplish this, more power to them. But sermonizing has limited policy or political benefits. And I doubt it helps Mr. Floyd’s family. 

The killing of unarmed black men by police — one is too many — is a serious problem, and only one among many facing America’s poorest and most downtrodden demographic. But its extent is overstated, inflated by symbolic politics and exacerbated by the manifold other problems of our declining society. According to the Washington Post’s own statistics, there has actually been a 75% drop in such incidents over the past half decade, from 38 in 2015 to 9 in 2019.

Meanwhile, in a climate of disorder no doubt exacerbated by the riots, 84 people were shot and 23 killed in Chicago’s majority-black neighborhoods over Memorial Day weekend alone. The irony here is that this could be actually be akin to society’s spasm over illegal immigration —  just as border crossings peaked before the issue propelled Donald Trump to the White House, police abuses are trending downward just as its past consequences become clear – triggering a a psychic meltdown as its consequences are laid bare. A larger problem may be the sheer difficulty of the job of policing our heavily armed, depressed, and heterogeneous nation.

I think — tragically — there is no acceptable alternative to law and order, which remains a tough and unpleasant business.

Law enforcement is far from perfect, and grievous mistakes continue to be made. But considering the enduring public pressure on police departments and recent efforts at reform — including the White House-shepherded First Step Act — there is a case to be made that accountability for racial incidents has never been higher, with cameras on every police vest (and in everyone’s pocket). That’s how we know about George Floyd’s murder in the first place. The officers in Mr. Floyd’s case have been charged — Wednesday saw the escalation of those charges at the behest of the state’s hardline attorney general, Keith Ellsion — and if a jury of their peers decides so, they are going away for a long time. That’s our system and it’s a flawed, but fine one. Both history and the present are replete with ghastly alternatives to adjudicate the disputes of men. To abandon the rule of law would be to give the benefit of the doubt to nihilism, which consumes everything and offers nothing.

Consider the future on offer from those who so glibly celebrate the destruction of our urban spaces. In this environment, who — exactly — is going to sign up to join law enforcement? Who — exactly — is going to start a small business in a city? 

Licking their chops in all this are amoral, multinational corporations. Far from opposition, they have offered studied silence on the violence. They can take the hit. In fact, for companies like Amazon and Netflix, social atomization helps their bottom line. 

Sen. Hawley is hardly alone in his well-meaning but misguided approach. The only future the Republican Party will have in a further diversifying country will be one of standing shoulder to shoulder with those left behind: the cop putting it on the line in a collapsing American city, the minority business owner with squalid insurance, the young mother who wants to be able to walk with her kids at sundown. Begging for scraps from the table of depraved elite with a tendentious reading of this country’s history is not something that should be supported— and not something that will win.