Americans (like me) who spent the evening at Christmas parties away from news feeds and headlines will be horrified to wake this morning and learn of the assassination of two New York police officers.
Given the recent debates over police violence and the furor over the deaths of unarmed men Eric Garner and Michael Brown, it likely wouldn’t have been long before some started speculating about the motivation of these murders, so it should be completely unsurprising to learn that the killer, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, apparently made threats via social media linking his imminent attack to police killings believed by many to be racially tinged.
Some in the right wing will now undoubtedly move to blame the protesters taking to the streets after grand juries declined to indict officers for any crime related to the deaths of Garner and Brown, just as they have been blamed for the actions of rioters in Ferguson via social media and in the conservative echo chamber of Fox News. While this sort of rationale would have also shut down the Civil Rights movement generations ago because of the Race Riots of 1964, this act of barbarism should still lead all of us to reflect on the limits and effectiveness of righteous anger.
Anger can motivate human beings toward progress, but we should always be wary of it and its potential to move us far outside of what is righteous. It is, after all, righteous anger that motivates terrorists as well. They, too, feel wronged. The suicide bomber in Pakistan whose brother was killed by American drones is entitled to his anger, but not to his violence.
This latest strike against law enforcement officers harkens back to the terroristic killings of Jerad and Amanda Miller, who assassinated two Las Vegas police officers and an armed civilian who tried to intervene when they occupied a Walmart to raid its ammo supply.
Few in the media called those crimes terrorism, but their thinking was definitely political, as it would seem was Brinkley’s, which means they intended to use violence to pay back some entity or ideology for its perceived crimes against some ideal or principle held dear to the terrorist. For the Millers, the slaying of police officers was payment for the excesses of big government. For Brinkley, presumably, these killings were payment for police killings of unarmed black men.
In all these cases, violence was the currency that the killers used to send some message, to terrorize others. What is notable, though, is that the Millers’ attack and this recent assassination are directed specifically at police, at the arbiters of state-sanctioned violence.
Many, again on the right, who rightly denounce such savage killings by terrorists, are nonetheless likely to champion the use of violence by those state-sanctioned agents, whether it be using the military abroad, torturing enemies of the state, or simply shooting first in police confrontations.
There’s another interesting, if peculiar, example of terroristic threats in the media right now that is actually somewhat instructive in examining the philosophies and beliefs beneath this paradox of right wing thought about violence.
Recently, Sony pictures caved to terrorist threats from North Korea and pulled its comedy The Interview which featured two bumbling reporters being tasked by the CIA to assassinate Korean head of state Kim Jong Un.
North Korea has been a peculiar paradox itself. In popular American imagination it is both punchline and boogeyman. Recent Hollywood films like White House Down and Red Dawn have positioned North Korean forces improbably sieging American territory directly. These films, though, elicited no death threats from the North Korean regime or its army of cyberwarriors who hacked Sony over The Interview.
It would seem North Korea has no problem being cast as a violent, conquering regime, but cannot stand being the butt of a rather tasteless joke.
The American right behaved predictably to this debacle, with one conservative politician saying, “Any theater that would show this, any TV station that would show this, is acting irresponsibly. It would be a disgrace for it to be shown anywhere.”
Or rather, that’s what Representative Peter King said in 2006 about a movie depicting the assassination of George Bush. The conservative outcry over that little-known 2006 movie Death of a President contrasts with their bombastic rhetoric about the craven behavior of Sony. In 2006, a movie depicting violence against an American leader was irresponsible and should not be shown because it could elicit violence. In 2014, a movie depicting violence against a North Korean leader is cherished free expression and North Korea should pay for their threats.
There’s a contradiction here, and I believe it is actually the same contradiction we see in the right’s attitude toward state violence.
Most talking heads on the right side of the aisle in American politics espouse a deep commitment to “freedom” in their rhetoric. Most would point to the freedoms protected by the constitution as the bedrock of their political philosophies, but paradoxes such as their reactions to free speech contrary to their own views and their positions on violence by or against the state reveal that their commitment to “freedom” is tenuous.
What freedom, after all, could be more precious or more essential than the freedom to one’s own life. The freedom from violence is arguably the foremost, ab initio, of the essential freedoms.
Yet that is a freedom that the right is often content–in not “intent”–for the state to deny others. It is especially curious considering the right’s concomitant attachment to “individual liberty” as a political value. Frequently progressives are lampooned by the right wing as pinko commies bent on taking away individual liberty. During the protracted Obamacare fight, some right wingers likened its imposition of health care as an affront to liberty unrivaled since, believe it or not, the Holocaust.
Yet these same proponents of individual liberty often support the government’s use of the same currency the terrorists truck in: violence.
The news has been full lately with examples of the state or its representatives using this currency. Beyond the protests under the racially suspect deaths of Garner and Brown, we have also been treated to an inventory of the CIA’s sins in interrogating prisoners. Advocates of such torture like Dick Cheney evoke the melodrama of Hollywood to justify these actions, arguing that against a ticking time bomb, ignoring human decency can save lives. (Never mind that no such ticking time bomb moment has occurred or that Hollywood has delved into this sort of thing already.) This spurious logic could be used to justify all manner of criminal acts. I know for a fact that the actions of plutocratic tycoons like the Koch brothers are likely to lead to the deaths of thousands, if not millions in the future through their despoilment of the environment. Would I not be justified in torturing or killing them to make them stop? The logic is the same, the only difference is the time scale.
Except, of course, I am not the state.
It is the premise of Liberalism, the historical ideology from which all modern democratic thought descends, that government exists only to safeguard the rights of those who form it. The state, therefore, serves us as individuals.
Yet, there is another point of view, the authoritarian view that individuals owe allegiance and deference to the state. It is the thinking evident when Kim Jong Un’s hackers threaten Sony pictures over a stupid comedy or when American conservatives cast aside free speech because someone says something objectionable to them.
Authoritarians imbue the state with added power to do what individuals are not permitted. We see this evident in the defenses of Darren Wilson on the right. Anyone who says, “Well, he should have listened to the cop,” or “He shouldn’t have resisted arrest by arguing with the police,” when accounting for the deaths of Michael Brown or Eric Garner is extolling authoritarian thinking, pure and simple. In this worldview, the officers were the hands of the state, imbued with its authority. Questioning them is questioning the state’s authority, a grievous offense indeed.
Another example of how this manifests in America is the death penalty. The United States–supposed bastion of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”–recently stood with such paragons of respect for human rights as China and Iran in voting “no” against a United Nations moratorium on the use of capital punishment.
Yet again it bears pointing out the obvious: there can be no greater affront to the liberty of a human being than the state taking his or her life. By what right does the collective gain permission to do what no individual is authorized to do? Many on the right claim to be individualists–insisting that individual rights are the foundation of their political philosophies, yet they believe that the state, the collectivist representation of our separate individual wills, should retain this ability, the ability to murder us?
It is yet another revealing example demonstrating that the true strain of thought that guides the core of the right wing in this country is authoritarianism, not individualism.
The minority voice in that right wing comes from libertarians (though any that cannot follow their beliefs to the logical conclusion of rejecting the death penalty should be suspected of merely being pawns of the larger plutocratic agenda) who do embrace individualism, but do so by embracing a mythologized parody of 18th century Enlightenment thinking so absolutist that it would cripple any attempts at using government to further progress or human rights–something the Founders did, in fact, care about.
All of which leads us to the thorny question of what to do about the way violence is used as currency in our society. The right wing solutions are anything but. The absurdist Wild West thinking of the Open Carry wingnuts and the cagey paranoia of the ticking time bomb extremists and killer cop apologists are obviously blights to be overcome, but so too is reactionary violence–the cop killers and terrorists.
Eye for an eye thinking leads only to the perpetuation of violence, a cycle of savagery that we see played out in the tragic murders of these two NYPD officers. They were killed because they were symbols, and there can be no equivocation or rationalization that might open a crack of justification for such an act. This man’s murder of these two police officers was every bit as wrong as any other homicide.
But unlike the killings of Eric Garner or Michael Brown, the state was in no way complicit in these deaths, and we already have laws vouchsafing protections against murder by individuals.
These deaths, then, do not compel us to reform any practices of the state, they require no introspection or analysis of public policy. They are simple crimes.
The Garner and Brown cases, though, were not simple cases. They are entangled in larger questions of justice that we must come to terms with, just as the CIA torture report must drive us toward more carefully constructed guidelines for how our intelligence and military should comport themselves.
It is our responsibility to grow as a society by refining the strictures placed on individuals who act on the state’s behalf, whether that be through repudiating inhumane practices or by promoting more community-oriented cultures within police forces.
The guiding principle of all these endeavors must be a commitment to the true bedrock principle of our republic, which is not authoritarianism, but liberty. Truly promoting freedom involves us in the messy work of listening to each other and striving for change, something the authoritarian wing of the American political establishment has proven incapable of doing time and time again.
What they lack is something we must all be mindful of. Individualism does not lead inevitably to liberty, after all. One person fully cognizant of his own rights and his own needs does not create a just society. It is only through recognition of each other’s humanity that we admit the need for freedom, the imperative of liberty in political culture.
That recognition requires fostering empathy, the deepest level of that bedrock beneath human civilization. War, murder, torture, and even censorship are all affronts to that empathy–all attempts by individuals or the state to impose their will on others, instead of acknowledging their own rights to pursue their own happiness, to speak their own consciences, to do as they will.