A white cop shoots and kills an unthreatening black man at point-blank range during a traffic stop, and liberal activists demonize law enforcement. A black sniper executes five officers from one of the most reform-minded police departments in the country, and conservative commentators demonize the Black Lives Matter movement.
Our dominant political culture in this country is sick, and we have ourselves to blame. From Ferguson, Missouri, to Dallas, too many of us organize our reactions to news events not by fact or principle, but by antipathy to hated political tribes.
“#DallasPoliceShooting has roots in first of anti-white/cop events illuminated by Obama,” tweeted the reliably inane Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa. “Black Lives Matter,” Rush Limbaugh informed his listeners, is “a terrorist group.” At press time there was no evidence linking killer Micah Xavier Johnson to BLM.
Democrats did not fail to sink to the occasion, either. “If this Congress does not have the guts to lead, then we are responsible for all of the bloodshed on the streets of America, whether it be at the hands of people wearing a uniform or whether it’s at the hands of criminals,” Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., told reporters Friday morning, using the opportunity to advance his party’s gun-control agenda.
The New York Post, like all great tabloids, knows that conflict sells, headlining its morning-after coverage “CIVIL WAR.” But ever since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the rest of us have been far too willing to play into the hands of the country’s professional polarizers, dutifully herding ourselves into Team Rudy Giuliani (“the reason there’s a target on police officers’ backs is because of groups like Black Lives Matter”) or Team Al Sharpton (“We need national reform for a national disease.”).
So we have “the war on cops” (title of a new Heather Mac Donald book), even though fewer officers were fatally shot in 2015 than in all but two years over the last decade. And we have a “war on people of color” (as Beyonce declared on her website) even though the number of citizens shot by police has plummeted since the early 1970s.
As ever, the accusations flying from opposing camps are as dramatic as they are ahistorical. Just ask a Los Angeles Police Department veteran – or veteran critic – to talk about the differences between cop-race relations in 1986 and 2016.
This hyperbolic war of words is unfolding even as the federal criminal justice reform movement, which could greatly mitigate the tension, is collapsing – precisely because we insist on viewing the world through tribe-colored glasses.
The events in Ferguson brought to the forefront many criminal justice issues that had been percolating for decades among social conservatives, libertarians, and progressives: overincarceration, prosecutorial immunity, the militarization of police and so on. Meanwhile, the proliferation of cellphone cameras and social media kept these issues in the news.
A newfound sense of urgency gave rise to some unlikely coalitions – the Koch brothers and the American Civil Liberties Union; Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.; Grover Norquist and President Barack Obama. And as of this spring the betting money was on these stars aligning to make long-overdue changes to a system that most Americans now recognize as being far too susceptible to injustice.
But the constellation of sentencing reform bills that would have finally undone some of the damage signed into law 20 years ago by then-President Bill Clinton got hung up last month, ironically, by the same concept that allowed Hillary Clinton to escape from prosecution last week: mens rea, or criminal intent.
Republicans on Capitol Hill argue that people who don’t know they are committing a crime shouldn’t be prosecuted. Democrats, however, smell a monocle-wearing rat. “Mens rea proposals could allow white collar criminals to escape prosecution,” warned the ostensibly pro-reform Center for American Progress earlier this year.
As FBI Director James Comey told hostile Republicans on Capitol Hill last week, “We don’t want to put people in jail unless we prove that they knew they were doing something they shouldn’t do.” It’s a great principle – regardless of whether it’s being applied correctly in this case – and it should be extended to people not named “Clinton.” But Senate Democrats have said mens rea is a “poison pill” that they refuse to swallow before the Friday congressional recess.
And now anti-reform conservatives are using the Dallas shootings to drive a stake through the heart of compromise. “It’s time for GOP leaders to finally just say no to the empty-the-prisons agenda of Black Lives Matter and other agents of Blue hate,” trumpeted Americans for Limited Government last week.
The same habit of mind that creates enemies out of fellow citizens seems destined to block much-needed reform. If there’s a safe bet to make, it’s that the politics displayed last week will produce many more victims.
Matt Welch is an editor at large of Reason. This column first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
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