Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ferguson

As Police Die, Racism Narrative Unravels

Any conversation about the murders of two New York City Police officers this weekend must start by acknowledging the ordinary heroism of law enforcement personnel that puts them in harm’s way every day. We should then acknowledge that all those who have criticized police actions in Ferguson, Missouri and New York after the controversial deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner are not responsible for the slaying of Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos. We don’t know yet who or what may have influenced the reportedly mentally disturbed shooter, who was apparently bent on “revenge” for Brown and Garner. But we do know this. After four months of non-stop condemnations of the police and the justice system for both racism and deliberately targeting African Americans for violence, it is time for the race hucksters and their political enablers such as President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to stop the campaign of incitement against the police.

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Any conversation about the murders of two New York City Police officers this weekend must start by acknowledging the ordinary heroism of law enforcement personnel that puts them in harm’s way every day. We should then acknowledge that all those who have criticized police actions in Ferguson, Missouri and New York after the controversial deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner are not responsible for the slaying of Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos. We don’t know yet who or what may have influenced the reportedly mentally disturbed shooter, who was apparently bent on “revenge” for Brown and Garner. But we do know this. After four months of non-stop condemnations of the police and the justice system for both racism and deliberately targeting African Americans for violence, it is time for the race hucksters and their political enablers such as President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to stop the campaign of incitement against the police.

Conservatives know very well that attempts to politicize violence on the part of the mentally ill is deeply unfair. They know that liberal claims that either the Tea Party or conservatives such as Sarah Palin were somehow responsible for the 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was sheer slander. If some angry supporters of the police now try to say Obama, Holder, or de Blasio approved or countenanced the actions of Ismaaiyl Brinsley, they are just as wrong. Obama, Holder, and de Blasio have all rightly condemned the murder of the two officers.

But once we acknowledge that, we cannot ignore the fact that the discussion about race and the police in this country has gotten out of control in recent months and that these same political leaders who should have been seeking to restrain the public from drawing extreme and general conclusions about two very extraordinary cases instead kept the pot boiling for political advantage.

Even worse than that, they have empowered and legitimized racial demagogues like Al Sharpton who have sought to profit from exploiting these tragedies to promote their own agendas. In turn, Sharpton and those like him who are given prominent air time on networks like MSNBC and CNN have encouraged protesters who have not only engaged in violence but often openly called for the killing of police, a stance that has been openly endorsed by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and other radicals.

The act of a single possibly mad gunman does not mean that Americans must never question the actions of police or ponder broader issues about race. It is misleading to claim that those who have raised such questions have given a green light to the murder of police officers. Yet those who have sought to take two very different and quite unusual incidents in Ferguson and New York and weave them into a neat narrative of racism and anti-black violence by police have done very much the same thing. The difference between the two is that the media spent much of the last four months seeking to establish that wrongheaded narrative as a fact while they will, quite rightly, give no credence or air time to those who will blame Obama for cop killers.

The narrative of incitement against the police in recent months was based on two misnomers.

One was the unquestioning acceptance of the narrative of police wrongdoing and racism in the killing of Brown and the far more questionable death of Garner by both the media and political leaders. This involved not only the willingness of both celebrities and lawmakers to treat myths, such as the claim that Brown had his hands up when he was shot, as fact. It also involved the casual acceptance of the charge of racism on the part of ordinary cops around the nation in the absence of any real proof as well as the shouting down of those like former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani who sought to defend the role of the police in defending the black community rather than attacking it.

Just as reprehensible was the willingness to ignore the calls for violence against the police on the part of so many of those who took to the streets about Ferguson and Garner. While stray comments on the part of a handful of Tea Partiers became the foundation for conventional-wisdom dismissal of their movement as racist or violent, the anti-police chants at mass demonstrations were largely ignored, rationalized, or excused. The same is true of comments like those of Farrakhan delivered in Baltimore where the killer of the two policemen lived.

But just as the murder of two cops doesn’t necessarily excuse the actions of the police in the Garner case, neither should we forget that all too many public figures have accepted with very little evidence the assumptions about racism and violence that have done so much to besmirch the reputation of the police. Rather than working to connect the dots between the comments of the president, the attorney general, and the mayor to a murder that none of them wished for, sensible observers should instead be unraveling the even shakier narrative these figures helped create about police misbehavior and racism.

The unraveling of the false narrative of incitement against the police should not give rise to another that is also mistaken. But what happened in Ferguson, Staten Island, and the assassination of two police officers should teach us that simplistic, easily manipulated narratives that serve the interests of a few race inciters and politicians don’t deserve any more respect than conspiracy theories coming from the other end of the political spectrum. If there is any reproach today that should be laid at the feet of Obama, Holder, and de Blasio, it is that by helping to foster one false set of assumptions, they have now left themselves vulnerable to questions about their own willingness to accept and exploit calumnies against the police and the justice system.

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The NEA’s Racial Profiling Curriculum

Given the volatility and sensitivity of “racial profiling” these days, heightened by recent developments in Ferguson, New York, and Cleveland and by brand new law-enforcement “guidelines” from the Justice Department, one could be tempted to thank the National Education Association for its recent effort, in league with a bunch of other organizations, to develop curricular materials by which schools and teachers can instruct their students on this issue.

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Given the volatility and sensitivity of “racial profiling” these days, heightened by recent developments in Ferguson, New York, and Cleveland and by brand new law-enforcement “guidelines” from the Justice Department, one could be tempted to thank the National Education Association for its recent effort, in league with a bunch of other organizations, to develop curricular materials by which schools and teachers can instruct their students on this issue.

One should, however, resist that temptation. It turns out that, once again, the NEA and its fellow travelers are presenting a one-sided, propagandistic view of an exceptionally complicated issue that elicits strong, conflicting views among adults; that carries competing values and subtleties beyond the ken of most school kids; and that probably doesn’t belong in the K–12 curriculum at all.

My mind immediately rolled back almost three decades, to the days when the Cold War was very much with us, when nuclear weapons were a passionate concern, when unilateral disarmament was earnestly propounded by some mostly well-meaning but deeply misguided Americans—and when the NEA plunged into the fray with appalling curricular guidance for U.S. schools.

Here’s part of what the late Joseph Adelson and I wrote in COMMENTARY magazine in April 1985:

[T]he much-publicized contribution of the National Education Association (NEA), to give but one example, looks blandly past any differences between the superpowers. Its one-page “fact sheet” on the USSR simply summarizes population, land area, and military resources. The geopolitical situation of the Soviet Union is captured in an extraordinary sentence: “The Soviet Union is bordered by many countries, including some unfriendly countries and others that are part of the Warsaw Pact, which includes countries that are friendly to the Soviet Union.” The beleaguered Soviets are tacitly compared to the United States, which is bordered (we are told) only by “friendly countries.” The youngster is thus plainly led to conclude that the Russians have rather more reason to be fearful than the Americans and that the relationship between Washington and Ottawa is indistinguishable from the ties between Moscow and “friendly” Warsaw or Kabul.

As one might expect, the student is told nothing by the NEA “fact sheet” about the two political systems—nothing about the Gulag or the KGB, nothing about internal passports or the control of emigration, nothing about Poland or Afghanistan…. Although it is an axiom of today’s educational ethos that on any remotely controversial topic, such as deviant sexuality, schools are to maintain a pose of exquisite neutrality, these curricula openly encourage children to engage in political action. In one instance it is recommended that letters be sent to elected officials and local newspapers; in another, teachers are urged to influence parents “by sharing what we as teachers have discovered about peace and peacemaking.” A New York City unit concludes with an “action collage” of bumper stickers, antiwar headlines, “peace walks,” and disarmament rallies. Another recommends seven separate projects, one of which is to write to Congressmen about nuclear-power plants in the community.

To sum up: nuclear curricula, presumably designed to ease a child’s anxiety, in fact introduce him to fears he has probably not entertained, and exacerbate any that he has. The child is provided with false or misleading political information which makes national policy seem capricious or malevolent or irrational. He is on the one hand taught the virtues of helplessness, on the other recruited to the propaganda purposes of the teacher.

In the years since, the NEA has developed curricular materials across an astonishing mishmash of topics, including just about every holiday and special-focus week or month that you never heard of. (Not only Black History Month, but also National Popcorn Month. Not just St. Patrick’s Day, Mother’s Day, and Earth Day, but also Groundhog Day and Brain Awareness Week.) Check out the website. Some of it’s worth having, and most of it’s harmless. But, as with the arms race of the 1980s, so with racial profiling: When they stray into hot-button adult controversies, let the user beware. And let those who worry about educators brainwashing their pupils beware, too.

How does today’s foray into racial profiling resemble the anti-nuclear curriculum of the 1980s? Consider, for example, this item, written by the Institute for Humane Education and excerpted from one of just three links supplied by the NEA to those who teach grades 3–5:

Human rights are inextricably connected to environmental and cultural issues. For example, the decline in potable water – due to causes such as intensive agricultural systems, pollution, corporate ownership of water rights, and global climate change – is an environmental, cultural, and a human rights issue. Rapid economic globalization – representing a cultural and political shift over the past half century – is resulting in increased slave and child labor. Some religions perpetuate human rights atrocities (e.g., female genital mutilation), making a cultural issue – religious freedom – a social justice issue as well.

Humans are oppressed by the same systems that exploit animals and the environment. Humane education gives us a lens to more clearly see the interconnectedness of these issues….

Balanced? Devoid of its own versions of “profiling”? Such issues arise every time schools are called upon to address a complicated contemporary issue that divides grownups and every time the materials offered to teachers are the work of single-cause organizations: When this topic reaches the fourth-grade classroom, are students going to get accurate, balanced information or the strong policy and political preferences of those who teach them (or who prepare materials that they foist upon teachers, the better to shape the minds of children in directions that the authors favor)?

How could there be any question of “balance,” you ask, when racial-profiling is the issue? Well, consider recent testimony by the Fraternal Order of Police noting that, in the Unabomber case, the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit deduced from available evidence that the likely suspect was a “white male” and observed, moreover, that “generally speaking, serial killers are much more likely to be white males than any other race or gender and investigations into serial killings generally begin with this presumption.”

Or see Heather Mac Donald’s revealing piece citing the Drug Enforcement Administration’s own data on which nationalities are most likely to engage in high-volume drug trafficking. Should police officers monitoring airfields and highways pretend they don’t know this?

Consider, too, not just the Byzantine complexity of the Justice Department’s new “guidance for federal law enforcement agencies,” but also the fact that those guarding U.S. borders against the entry of possible terrorists are specifically exempted from most of that guidance. Why? Because eight-year-olds from Iceland, elderly tourists from Ireland, and nuns from Brazil are extremely unlikely to be involved with terrorist plots against the United States, just as folks from other places and backgrounds are more likely to be so involved. It’s a mighty good thing for our safety that someone was able to persuade Messrs. Holder and Obama to allow for such exceptions. (My apologies to any surviving Byzantines for the impolitic profiling implicit in the first sentence of this paragraph.)

How many fifth graders are going to grasp all this? Why should they be expected to? But if you leave out the complexity, you end up with oversimplification, naiveté, and political correctness.

The other big question to be raised about the NEA’s latest dive into troubled waters: why this topic and not others? What (speaking of terrorists) about a “terrorism curriculum”? I can’t find one on the NEA website—though there’s plenty on “climate change.” What about an anti-Semitism curriculum? I can’t find that, either, though there’s plenty on immigration reform. Who makes these decisions, and based on what? How are teachers and schools supposed to sort through it?

And where does it end? How many contemporary issues of the sort that worry adults should be visited upon school children? At what ages and in which classes and instead of what? Because surely something must be omitted from the regular curriculum to make room for racial-profiling education, just as with lessons about the perils and risks of smoking, AIDS, obesity, drug abuse—and climate change and immigration reform, not to mention popcorn month. Do we skip phonics lessons? Two-digit multiplication? The Declaration of Independence? Isn’t it possible that a close reading of To Kill a Mockingbird might impart messages about racism, tolerance, kindness, and courage within a first-rate English language arts curriculum—instead of turning to one-sided didactic materials from single-issue organizations? Including, alas, America’s largest organization to whose members we entrust the education of our children and grandchildren.

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Presidential Legacies on Race Are Built on Laws, Not Speeches

The recent Bloomberg poll showing that a majority of Americans believe race relations have worsened on President Obama’s watch probably doesn’t have too much to do with Obama himself. No doubt he has contributed his fair share by running two presidential campaigns predicated on the belief that opposition to him was racist, and then writing off policy dissent as racist too. But the recent events in Ferguson and Staten Island of the death of black men at the hands of police have resulted in national protests. The public may have been tuning Obama out lately, but they notice riots and traffic-stopping “die-ins,” as well as retaliatory race-based violence.

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The recent Bloomberg poll showing that a majority of Americans believe race relations have worsened on President Obama’s watch probably doesn’t have too much to do with Obama himself. No doubt he has contributed his fair share by running two presidential campaigns predicated on the belief that opposition to him was racist, and then writing off policy dissent as racist too. But the recent events in Ferguson and Staten Island of the death of black men at the hands of police have resulted in national protests. The public may have been tuning Obama out lately, but they notice riots and traffic-stopping “die-ins,” as well as retaliatory race-based violence.

Obama has fumbled on race relations in other ways, notably not reining in Eric Holder’s politicization of all things race and by making ill considered comments about cases on which he had very clearly not been fully briefed. And so it’s no surprise that Obama has pulled back recently, treating a sensitive issue with something closer to the careful deliberation it requires. African-American advocates and activists have responded by criticizing him for it, the New York Times reports:

As crowds of people staged “die-ins” across the country last week to protest the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police officers, young African-American activists were in the Oval Office lodging grievances with President Obama.

He of all people — the first black president of the United States — was in a position to testify to the sense of injustice that African-Americans feel in dealing with the police every day, the activists told him. During the unrest that began with a teenager’s shooting in Ferguson, Mo., they hoped for a strong response. Why was he holding back?

But the Times story gets at something of more practical interest to the president. After conveniently whitewashing the Obama administration’s poor record on race relations, the story explains that Obama’s inner circle has begun pressing Obama to, essentially, make this moment about himself and put the current conflicts to work in the service of his own legacy.

“White House advisers say addressing the nation’s racial conflicts is now an imperative for the president’s final years in office,” the Times reports, and then unsurprisingly follows that assertion with a quote from Valerie Jarrett. It’s entirely understandable for presidents to want to shape their legacies, especially on issues that have become inseparably entangled with their careers. Race, for Obama, is one such issue. It’s also an issue that casts a long shadow over American history, and thus anyone responsible for marked improvements regarding race relations is seen as making a special contribution to the character of American life.

And yet, Obama’s advisors are going about this the wrong way. “Mr. Obama has stepped up some of his rhetoric,” the Times reports. For better or worse, however, rhetoric just won’t cut it. The improvement of race relations–specifically the cause of integration and anti-discrimination–in America has been done by laws, not speeches.

And in fact, those laws are often ahead of public opinion on the matter. The country wasn’t convinced to join hands and sing Kumbaya; instead, integration was accomplished by force of law.

A major change in the way race affected American life took place with the Second World War. William Lee Miller, in his joint biography of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, writes:

All-out war unsettles the society that fights it, and makes deep change possible. America’s “civil rights revolution,” although center stage from 1954 to 1965, did not begin with the great Court decision or the Montgomery bus boycott; its roots were in the war. The war changed blacks as well as whites and sharpened ideals. Black Americans sought war work and went north, or joined the army and were sent south. Northern African-Americans, who were drafted and sent to army camps in the South, were forced to the back of the bus, to the last seats in the theater, to the separated tables in the mess hall (southern African-Americans were, too, but the northerners were not accustomed to it). White Americans as well as black Americans were sent to England, to the Continent, to the Pacific. Civilians changed jobs and geography. Millions of blacks and whites moved to the North. Detroit exploded. There were “incidents,” protests, riots. Black activists, including A. Philip Randolph, threatened to march on Washington to protest discrimination, and as a result, Roosevelt signed the Fair Employment Act. The blatant racism of the enemy heightened awareness of national ideals; it also heightened frustration and moral outrage.

After the war, Truman pursued several avenues toward equality in a nation that could no longer ignore the issue. He established a committee on civil rights in 1946. It–and the report it produced–constituted a milestone of sorts, and Truman refused to squander the opportunity. Truman gave important speeches on the issue but only along with legislation he wanted passed. Congress blocked the legislation. So Truman took another route, issuing his executive order to desegregate the military.

Eisenhower, too, furthered the cause, and Congress would relent somewhat, passing the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Within a decade, under LBJ Congress would pass the far-reaching Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the rest is history. And that brings us to another reason Obama doesn’t have much of a legacy on racial healing: the major civil-rights acts have been law for decades; presidents now are tinkering at the margins.

That doesn’t mean those margins aren’t important. Sentencing reform, sensible changes in the war on drugs, and prison reform–Rick Perry’s Texas has been the model on this–can make a big difference. But there is no Truman-Ike-LBJ accomplishment on the horizon because race relations, equality under the law, and integration may not be perfect but they are far better than where they were. And the president certainly won’t change the world with a speech.

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The Case Against Ad Hominem Arguments

Mike Gallagher is a popular radio talk-show host. I’ve long had a cordial relationship with him, and I’ve appeared on his program many times. But Gallagher and I sometimes occupy very different rooms within the conservative mansion. He usually has me on when we disagree on something, and Thursday was no exception. He took issue with my piece on the killing of Eric Garner by Officer Daniel Pantaleo.

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Mike Gallagher is a popular radio talk-show host. I’ve long had a cordial relationship with him, and I’ve appeared on his program many times. But Gallagher and I sometimes occupy very different rooms within the conservative mansion. He usually has me on when we disagree on something, and Thursday was no exception. He took issue with my piece on the killing of Eric Garner by Officer Daniel Pantaleo.

One of the arguments Gallagher made is that the shooting of Michael Brown, who, the preponderance of evidence showed, assaulted and attacked Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, was very nearly the same as the Pantaleo-Garner incident. This strikes me as bizarre. As Andrew McCarthy, the outstanding former federal prosecutor, wrote, “there is a difference between resisting arrest by not cooperating, as Garner was doing in Staten Island, and resisting arrest by violent assaults and threats of harm, as Michael Brown did in Ferguson.”

But I want to focus on another exchange we had. In this instance, Gallagher accused me, Charles Krauthammer, and Bill O’Reilly of “throwing the other side [liberals] a bone.” We decided to “feign disappointment with the grand jury decision to just show that we’re just trying to spread around the love a little bit here.” There was “a little bit of a contrived reaction on this issue.”

My response was that this kind of ad hominem criticism doesn’t really advance serious public debate. And there’s no end to this. To illustrate the point, I told Gallagher it’s the same thing I (or anyone else, for that matter) could do with him: go on his show and accuse him of putting forward views he can’t possibly believe for ratings, in order to play to his right-wing audience. You can see how frivolous and adolescent this can get. To slightly amend the philosopher Sidney Hook, before impugning an opponent’s motives, answer his arguments. (To be fair, Gallagher did back away from his claims a bit in the show.)

But there’s a deeper point to be made here. The reason Gallagher made this accusation against Krauthammer, O’Reilly, and me is because he simply can’t comprehend why we would hold the views we do. Gallagher considers his views so self-evidently right, and ours so self-evidently wrong, that the only explanation he can think of to make sense of things is that our views are inauthentic and manufactured.

This puts the spotlight on a widespread malady we find in several disciplines, including theology, philosophy, and politics: (a) the belief that I possess the whole truth; and (b) the inability to even entertain the idea that those who hold views different than mine might have some validity. In this case, to believe that a New York cop might have used too much force against Eric Garner is completely irrational and illogical; no conservative could believe such a thing. Hence the charge that our views are contrived.

I’m not naive; I know a variety of motivations can drive people to say and do all sorts of things, and sometimes individuals need to be called out. But as a general matter we should attack people’s motivations only in cases where there’s a fair amount of evidence of bad faith. Too often these days this is done reflexively, as a substitute for serious arguments. It’s a manifestation of lazy thinking.

All of us who are in the commentary business believe our views are right and those who hold views different than ours are wrong. Certitude comes with the territory. But there is such a thing as gradations, of where we fall on the continuum; and it does seem to me we live in a time characterized by unusual dogmatism and absolutism. Too many of us haven’t learned what is certainly one of the hardest things in life to learn, which is a certain epistemological modesty, the awareness that my understanding of the world isn’t fully accurate and that other people see things through a different lens than we do. That may make them wrong; it doesn’t make them dishonest or dishonorable.

My guess is that Mike Gallagher got caught up in the moment, which we all do. But it is a cautionary tale, precisely because what happened is so common these days. We really are better off without it.

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American Mobacracy

“The future belongs to crowds,” wrote Don DeLillo in his 1991 novel Mao II. Boy, was he right. Today it’s protests in response to a baffling grand jury decision, but the phenomenon has been building for years. Tea Party rallies, the Rally for Sanity, Occupy Wall Street, minimum-wage protests, hoodie rallies, anti-Israel protests, climate rallies, Ferguson “die-ins,” World AIDS Day, World This Day, World That Day. The mass-grievance spectacle has come to saturate our culture and politics, and shape our national life.

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“The future belongs to crowds,” wrote Don DeLillo in his 1991 novel Mao II. Boy, was he right. Today it’s protests in response to a baffling grand jury decision, but the phenomenon has been building for years. Tea Party rallies, the Rally for Sanity, Occupy Wall Street, minimum-wage protests, hoodie rallies, anti-Israel protests, climate rallies, Ferguson “die-ins,” World AIDS Day, World This Day, World That Day. The mass-grievance spectacle has come to saturate our culture and politics, and shape our national life.

In between demonstrations mob-rule holds firm by other means. Foremost online. The armchair lynch mobs of social media drive news cycles and end careers. A vigorous digital witch-hunt can wreck a life. In China, online vigilantism by an otherwise enfeebled citizenry goes by the term “human-flesh searches.” We’re not they’re yet, but we’re close.

Television too is coming under the sway of mobacracy. During the first round of Ferguson protests, news reporters joined the ranks of the enraged so they too could rail against police. On hipper talk shows, the political applause line has replaced the joke as the fundamental unit of communication. The new definition of comedian is a demagogue who gets a pass on vulgarity and inaccuracy. His goal is no longer to leave them in stitches; it’s to affirm the pooled self-righteousness of the audience with a zinger aimed at a common enemy. The Daily Show, Real Time, Last Week Tonight—it’s the news with cheering.

Why is this happening? It’s not because worsening conditions are driving people to justified rage. Life in today’s lowest American income bracket is no picnic, but all relevant data show it’s a material paradise compared to the poverty of less turbulent eras. Prejudice exists, naturally, but on a dramatically smaller scale than at any point in our history. And (if we must), global temperatures, as even NASA now acknowledges, haven’t changed significantly for 15 years.

Perhaps, then, the righteous mob satisfies a new non-material crisis in American life—namely, the need for meaning and connection. People are now less likely to affiliate with larger entities and institutions that once gave their lives shape and value: family, community, church, nation. Sharp declines in religious belief, marriage, and childbearing are stripping us of enduring notions of virtue and purpose and we’re striving to replace them.

Some quick facts: According to Pew, the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has doubled since 1990 alone. Another Pew poll tells us: “After decades of declining marriage rates and changes in family structure, the share of American adults who have never been married is at an historic high.” In 1960, only 9 percent of Americans over 25 hadn’t ever married. In 2012, the number was 20 percent. And in 2013, a federal government study concluded that the U.S. birthrate had fallen to a record low of 1.86 births per woman.

Here are the questions we face as a result: For whom or what do we sacrifice? What constitutes community? And how, ultimately, do we find transcendence? The old institutions furnished answers. We sacrificed for faith and family because that’s what our shared values dictated. Out of those shared values we found community. And through connections to God and each other, we transcended ourselves.

The galvanized mob picks up the slack both for lost meaning and lost human contact. Activism was once reserved for a small segment of the mostly young and self-righteous. Today, it’s just another dimension of cosmopolitan life. You subscribe to a cause—be it anti-fracking or organic food—and stick with it. As it occupies the space of religion, you tend to preach your cause hypocritically. But your cause asks so little of you (perhaps to post a meme on your Facebook profile), that you’re not really invested. It doesn’t ultimately satisfy the need for transcendence because you sacrificed so little.

The weak in conviction seek strength in numbers. They connect online and meet up to block a bridge or lie down in a train station. As community, this ultimately fails too. Participants don’t share values; they share a need for values. When it comes down to it, they’re no more sincere about one cause than they are about another.

Without strength (which comes from sacrifice), without ideas (which come from engaging tradition, not running from it), all that’s left is emotion. So emotion becomes the content of our politics. The irony of the recent anti-police outrage is that it’s arisen from a culture of constant policing: the identity police, the Islamophobia police, the language police, the food police, the bully police, the trigger-warning squads—they’re all out to catch and punish offenders. No grand jury convened.

These mob events look like action, but they ensure stasis. Nothing fruitful comes from channeling religious and family needs into politics. It’s worth recalling that the Russian word Bolshevik literally meant one of the majority.

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The Cost of a False Narrative of Oppression

At a different moment in time, the decision of a Staten Island grand jury not to an indict a white police officer for using a choke hold on Eric Garner, an African-American who later died after being taken into custody, would not be much more than a local news item in New York. But coming as it did on the heels of the much-publicized decision of another grand jury in St. Louis County, Missouri not to indict another white cop in the shooting death of another black man, teenager Michael Brown, the Staten Island deliberations were immediately dragooned into service by mainstream media talking heads, African-American leaders, and President Obama to reinforce a narrative of oppression of blacks by white police.

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At a different moment in time, the decision of a Staten Island grand jury not to an indict a white police officer for using a choke hold on Eric Garner, an African-American who later died after being taken into custody, would not be much more than a local news item in New York. But coming as it did on the heels of the much-publicized decision of another grand jury in St. Louis County, Missouri not to indict another white cop in the shooting death of another black man, teenager Michael Brown, the Staten Island deliberations were immediately dragooned into service by mainstream media talking heads, African-American leaders, and President Obama to reinforce a narrative of oppression of blacks by white police.

Though each of these two decisions appear to stand on their own as being reasonable interpretations of the law, together they appear to justify the upsurge in demonstrations around the country protesting police behavior and asserting that blacks are being systematically victimized. But whatever one may think of these rulings or of the police, those who are hyping this story need not only to think carefully whether the story they are telling is true but also whether the net effects of their campaign against the police will hurt minorities far more than it help them.

The facts in the Staten Island case seem to be as straightforward as the Ferguson, Missouri incident were muddled. The confrontation was caught on a video taken by a cell phone and showed that a chokehold was employed. The New York City Police Department has banned chokeholds for use but they are not illegal. The grand jury clearly believed that the tragic result was not the result of a crime but observers may well wonder about the use of excessive force or why an unarmed man resisting arrest for a petty crime wound up dying in this manner.

But no more than in the Ferguson incident, the facts in that case are not really the point of the protests, the president’s statement, or what is being said about the case on the cable news networks. As awful as each of these stories may be, the willingness of the media to seize on every instance in which a white police officer kills a black civilian in order to make a point about race says more about the need of the left to fuel fears about racism for political advantage than a true flaw in the justice system or American society.

The point is one can question the wisdom of the Staten Island grand jury’s decision, just as one can dispute the result of the inquiry into the death of Michael Brown. But even if you think excessive force was used in each incident, taken in total or individually, the argument for a trend of oppression of white on black violence is lacking. Though no one can or should deny America’s history of racism, those who confuse isolated incidents with the systematic violence of Jim Crow are doing minorities and the police a grave disservice.

More to the point, the willingness of the mainstream media to jump on this false narrative has not only wrongly undermined faith in the justice system and justified violent protests; it also makes it harder for police to do their jobs protecting minorities badly in need of protection. Just as bad is the willingness of President Obama to use what is left of his badly damaged credibility to continue to stoke the fires of distrust. Having coming into office with a unique opportunity to heal America’s racial strife, he has instead become a creature of the same race hucksters like Al Sharpton that seek to further divide the nation.

Irrespective of the merits of the case, those trumpeting the Staten Island case as proof that the system is biased against blacks are merely feeding fear, not dispelling racism. To the extent that the mainstream media seeks to assert that both the police and the justice system are guilty until proven innocent, they, too, are undermining the rule of law. While we hope that calm will prevail in the aftermath of this incident, Ferguson provides an excellent example of what happens when media talkers and feckless politicians speak with impunity and ordinary citizens pay the price for their wild accusations.

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In Defense of Cops

Via Mediaite, this morning MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough criticized five members of the St. Louis Rams and several Democratic members of Congress for their “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gestures.

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Via Mediaite, this morning MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough criticized five members of the St. Louis Rams and several Democratic members of Congress for their “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gestures.

“The St. Louis Rams think it’s cool for them to suggest that St. Louis cops shoot young black men who had their hands up in the air, when we know that that was a lie?” Scarborough asked:

It’s a lie! And what was that gesture on Capitol Hill? More people like going, ‘It doesn’t matter whether it’s the truth or not, I’m going to suggest that cops shoot people with their hands up in the air.’ What is wrong with this country? What is wrong with these people? What’s wrong with these elected officials? They know it’s a lie! They know the cops didn’t shoot him with his hands in the air! They know it’s a lie and they are doing this on the Capitol floor? Unbelievable.

Three points on this. First, Mr. Scarborough deserves credit for speaking out in a way that is wholly at odds with the storyline being presented by his network, to the point that he even criticized MSNBC directly yesterday, when he also addressed the Ferguson shooting and its aftermath. He’s showing admirable independence of judgment.

Second, Scarborough homes in on the key issue: The statements of solidarity with Michael Brown are based on events that didn’t happen. What we see is a narrative being offered that is clearly at odds with what actually occurred. It’s clear from the forensic and credible eyewitness accounts that Officer Darren Wilson was justified in shooting Mr. Brown and that race didn’t play a factor in the shooting. No matter. People on the left want us to travel with them through the looking glass, to a world turned sideways. Some of us are declining to do so.

Third, the liberal context for this “discussion” and “dialogue” on race is that the criminal justice system is endemically racist and one of the great, urgent problems facing black Americans is white cops gunning them down in cold blood. That, too, is a fiction.

It is quite an odd thing when a police officer acts in a perfectly defensible way, to the point that a grand jury refuses to indict him based on the available evidence, and that this incident triggers an intense national debate in which the assumption is that the blame–either in Ferguson specifically or in America more generally–rests with the cops.

I dissent.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t police officers who are racists and doing bad things; but there are racists in every profession. And here’s what needs to be said but is hardly ever said: Cops are not only by and large impressive and admirable people who do very difficult jobs with skill and professionalism; they are among the best friends that communities, most especially inner city communities, have. That’s what former NBA great Charles Barkley was getting at in this interview.

I’m not unsympathetic to the challenges facing those who are black in America; I wrote about it recently. What bothers me in the discussion surrounding the events in Ferguson is that (a) many people are simply and willfully divorcing themselves from facts and reality, twisting events to make a political point; and (b) cops–including Darren Wilson but also virtually every cop on the beat–are being unfairly tarnished in the process. Somehow it’s their reputations that are being undone. That’s wrong, and someone should say it’s wrong.

Thankfully Joe Scarborough and Charles Barkley did.

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Obama’s Ferguson Dog and Pony Show

As protests against the decision of a grand jury not to charge Officer Darren Wilson with the murder of Michael Brown continue, the White House is scrambling to catch up with President Obama’s liberal base. With the political left out in the streets and screaming murder on the cable networks, the president felt the need to play catchup today on Ferguson and to speak as if a difficult legal case can be used to justify politicized charges claiming that America’s police are out of control and targeting black youth with impunity. His response, a White House meeting and a raft of meaningless though potentially expensive proposals, may be enough to help him win today’s news cycle. But let no one, least of all the president’s media cheering section, pretend that what we are hearing today is anything more than an illustration of a basic political precept: it’s better to pretend to do something about a marginal problem than to tell those protesting that it is their skewed perceptions that are wrong.

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As protests against the decision of a grand jury not to charge Officer Darren Wilson with the murder of Michael Brown continue, the White House is scrambling to catch up with President Obama’s liberal base. With the political left out in the streets and screaming murder on the cable networks, the president felt the need to play catchup today on Ferguson and to speak as if a difficult legal case can be used to justify politicized charges claiming that America’s police are out of control and targeting black youth with impunity. His response, a White House meeting and a raft of meaningless though potentially expensive proposals, may be enough to help him win today’s news cycle. But let no one, least of all the president’s media cheering section, pretend that what we are hearing today is anything more than an illustration of a basic political precept: it’s better to pretend to do something about a marginal problem than to tell those protesting that it is their skewed perceptions that are wrong.

As I wrote earlier today, after spending so much of the last six years crying wolf about racism and seeking to stoke fears rather than to heal, the president is in no position to reclaim the high ground on the issue that he occupied when he was elected by deliberately eschewing appeals to partisanship and race. Nor does it speak well for the president that he felt the need to, in essence, backtrack from the sagacious stand he took last week when the grand jury in St. Louis County decided no crime had been committed when Wilson shot Brown. Having told Americans to respect a judicial process and to refrain from riots and violence to vent their disappointment in the result of the proceeding, today he reverted to playing the race card, albeit in more measured terms than his fans on the left.

It is true that many African-Americans don’t trust the police and that racism isn’t dead. But by accepting the premise of the Ferguson rioters that somehow the lack of an indictment is proof that the system isn’t working, Obama wasn’t advancing the cause of healing. Even more to the point, by focusing all of his attention on alleged police misbehavior, the president was ignoring the fact that what African-Americans trapped in poor neighborhoods need most is more policing, not less.

As for the president’s suggestions, they speak volumes about how insubstantial the White House’s approach has become. The president said he would seek to impose more restrictions on the transfer of military-style equipment—like the ones deployed in Ferguson when the trouble began this summer—as well as spending money on body cameras for police, presumably to ensure that those wearing the devices would be caught red-handed if they mistreated civilians.

Let’s specify that there is a reasonable discussion that can be heard about the utility of such equipment in most local police problems. There are also arguments to be made in favor of applying the same sort of technology that has brought cameras to many police cars to the bodies of officers. Police may benefit as much from the scrutiny as they will be hurt by it.

But let’s not pretend that this is about better policing or bridging the racial divide. The president could cite no studies pointing to the need for any of his measures nor could he argue credibly that a White House photo op was anything but what he denied it to be: a dog and pony show intended only to demonstrate a faux interest in an issue that would soon be forgotten as soon as the media and left-wing demonstrators move on from Ferguson to whatever the next media feeding frenzy turns out to be.

Nor should we be impressed by the noises about a possible presidential visit to Ferguson or any other measure intended to make it seem as if Obama is doing something about the issue.

The problem here is not just that Obama punted on his chance to be a genuine racial healer years ago as he egged on his supporters to brand his critics as racists rather than just Americans who disagreed with his policies. It’s that by putting forward a faux program intended to make it look as if he is doing something, he has again made the problem worse rather than better.

It is no small irony that the administration run by the first African-American president and staffed by the first African-American attorney general has done so much to stoke racial disharmony and to empower race baiters like Obama ally Al Sharpton. By validating those who are determined to perpetuate the myth that the Ferguson incident was about a vicious white cop who killed an innocent black kid with his hands up—a proposition that the evidence presented to the grand jury appears to debunk—the president has ensured that his time in office will continue to witness a further deterioration of relations between blacks and whites.

President Obama isn’t solely responsible for this. But he could have used his bully pulpit to steer the national conversation in a more rational manner in ways that might have helped more than it hurt. White House dog and pony shows have their uses at times, but today’s version was evidence of how they can also do far more harm than good.

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Ferguson and How Obama Failed on Race

One of the most remarkable aspects of the reaction to the Ferguson, Missouri controversy is the manner in which President Obama has become a marginal figure in the discussion about race in America. To say this is not to discount the fact that the president’s various statements on the case—including his entirely appropriate response to the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown and his condemnations of the violent riots that ensued—have been given wide notice. But one of the most significant elements of this debate is the one that few are discussing: how is it that the man who was elected president in no small measure to heal the country’s historic racial divide has not only failed to advance that cause but has found himself sidelined by race baiters. As with so much else that has happened in this failed presidency, Obama’s inability to act decisively or courageously caused him to miss opportunities to help a nation that looked to him for leadership.

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One of the most remarkable aspects of the reaction to the Ferguson, Missouri controversy is the manner in which President Obama has become a marginal figure in the discussion about race in America. To say this is not to discount the fact that the president’s various statements on the case—including his entirely appropriate response to the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown and his condemnations of the violent riots that ensued—have been given wide notice. But one of the most significant elements of this debate is the one that few are discussing: how is it that the man who was elected president in no small measure to heal the country’s historic racial divide has not only failed to advance that cause but has found himself sidelined by race baiters. As with so much else that has happened in this failed presidency, Obama’s inability to act decisively or courageously caused him to miss opportunities to help a nation that looked to him for leadership.

To recall Barack Obama’s rise to prominence and then to the presidency is to think of a figure who attempted to both embody the progress the country had made in resolving its historic racial issues and to rise above the issue. Both his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech and his 2008 Philadelphia speech about race were, despite the anodyne nature of their texts, considered watershed events because of the president’s ability to articulate the nation’s aspirations for both post-partisan and post-racial healing.

But once in the presidency, Obama not only embarked on a rabidly ideological agenda that further divided an already polarized country but also used his bully pulpit to sermonize on race in ways that only made things worse. His dubious extra-legal intervention in the controversy over Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates showed how unsure his instincts were on the one topic that most Americans would have looked to him for guidance. Instead of challenging both blacks and whites to acknowledge past problems while moving forward in productive ways, his periodic return to the issue has made him more the kibitzer-in-chief on race rather than a healer. Though his Ferguson comments this year have shown him to be chastened by both the Gates fiasco and his similarly maladroit intervention in the Trayvon Martin killing, the man with the magic rhetorical touch has found himself curiously unable to summon his voice in a manner that would bring the country together rather than merely playing to his party’s base.

Far worse than that, the Obama White House and the Democratic Party spent most of the last six years becoming heavily invested in the proposition that all opposition to the president and his agenda was primarily rooted in race. That this was preposterous was always clear. As Bill and Hillary Clinton could have told him, attempting to impose government control on a sixth of the American economy was bound to inspire spirited opposition, but the Obama crowd and their media cheerleaders weren’t content with merely answering his critics. They had to demonize them all as racists turning every discussion of ObamaCare into a proxy for a race battle that should have been treated as definitively over once the country elected an African-American president.

Indeed, the notion that criticism of Obama was thinly veiled racism became a staple of American politics in the last few years. Though it was transparently disingenuous, it was nevertheless effective, both in terms of the effort to marginalize conservative opposition to Obama’s big-government agenda as well as in reminding Americans that they needed to support the president in order to maintain their standing as decent, non-racist citizens.

That may have helped reelect the president but I think liberals and Democrats who have either employed this despicable talking point or tolerated it as a necessary evil in order to hold onto the White House have underestimated how much this effort has helped poison the well of American society.

Instead of being the man who would, as he promised, lead us into a new chapter of history in which race would not be used as an excuse to further divide the country, Obama actually became the vehicle for a meme that allowed the left to use it as an all-purpose political weapon regardless of the cost to national harmony.

Thus, it is little surprise that not only has the president made no impact on issues where blacks and whites view the same events differently, he now finds himself caught between an electorate that is rightly skeptical of anything he and his supporters say on race and race hucksters who are unsatisfied with his attempt to chart a middle course. Michael Eric Dyson wrote yesterday in the New York Times that Obama is a guilty of a “treacherous” balancing act for not seeking to lead Americans to the barricades on behalf of the dubious notion that white America is to blame for the death of Michael Brown rather than his own misbehavior. This is ironic, but entirely predictable since the president’s characteristic indecision has gotten him into trouble here as in every other problem he has faced.

By spending so much of his presidency posing as a victim, Obama helped create a reality in which most blacks believe the country is less free of bias than it was when he was elected. Instead of a healer, Obama has become a passenger in a bus driven by men like Dyson or White House friend Al Sharpton. That is a shame for a presidency that began with such promise. But it is an even bigger tragedy for a country that could well have used Obama’s leadership on race but instead received cynical exploitations of the issue that have made it harder than ever to bring Americans together on race.

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The Grand Jury System Is Broken

The announcement of the grand jury’s decision in the Ferguson case could hardly have been worse handled. The prosecutor waited until well after nightfall to make the announcement and the governor, having mobilized the national guard to protect persons and property, kept them in their barracks while the rioters ran wild.

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The announcement of the grand jury’s decision in the Ferguson case could hardly have been worse handled. The prosecutor waited until well after nightfall to make the announcement and the governor, having mobilized the national guard to protect persons and property, kept them in their barracks while the rioters ran wild.

But many on the left are blaming the way the prosecuting attorney, Robert McCulloch, presented the case to the grand jury. Dana Milbank in the Washington Post wrote that

What causes the outrage, and the despair, is the joke of a grand-jury proceeding run under the auspices of McCulloch, the St. Louis County prosecutor. In September, I wrote that it appeared he wasn’t even trying to get an indictment; he had a long record of protecting police in such cases, and his decision not to recommend a specific charge to the grand jury essentially guaranteed there would be no indictment.

A New York Times editorial argued that

Instead of conducting an investigation and then presenting the case and a recommendation of charges to the grand jury, his office shifted its job to the grand jury. It made no recommendation on whether to indict the officer, Darren Wilson, but left it to the jurors to wade through masses of evidence to determine whether there was probable cause to file charges against Officer Wilson for Mr. Brown’s killing.

Former Chief Judge Sol Wachtler of New York once famously said that a district attorney could get a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich” if that’s what he wanted. Milbank and the Times are essentially arguing that McCulloch should have done exactly that: abuse the grand jury system in order to get an indictment that most people who have looked at the massive amount of evidence he released say would not have resulted in a conviction.

But if grand juries almost always do what the district attorney wants, why do we need grand juries at all? Well, one answer to that question is the 5th Amendment to the Constitution which says that “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, …” And as Andrew McCarthy notes in National Review Online the Founding Fathers regarded the grand jury as a core protection:

It stands as the buffer between the government prosecutor and the citizen-suspect; it safeguards Americans, who are presumed innocent, from being subjected to the anxiety, infamy and expense of a trial unless there is probable cause to believe they have committed a serious offense.

But as Judge Wachtler implied, it no longer serves that function and has become deeply and institutionally corrupt. It has become a means for prosecuting attorneys to further their political ambitions. They are almost always elected officials in this country and many successful politicians have begun their careers that way. Thomas E. Dewey and Rudi Giuliani are two examples of politicians who used their position as prosecuting attorneys to quite deliberately generate publicity for themselves and move on to higher office. It was Dewey who invented the “perp walk” with reporters invited to be in attendance when a person was arrested.

Grand juries no longer exist in any other common law country. In England and Wales they were abandoned more than eighty years ago. Nor are there political district attorneys. Instead police take the evidence of a crime to the Crown Prosecution Service, staffed by bureaucrats not politicians, and the CPS decides if there is strong enough evidence and that justice would be served by holding a trial before a petit jury.

The grand jury system is broken and it either needs to be thoroughly reformed in order to provide the needed protection from an overreaching prosecuting attorney or the 5th Amendment needs to be itself amended.

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The Media’s Irresponsible Ferguson Coverage

There are many things that can be said about the decision by the grand jury not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson and the response to it, including John’s forceful and eloquent post. I would only add that much of the press coverage last night, and throughout this entire episode, was very discouraging.

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There are many things that can be said about the decision by the grand jury not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson and the response to it, including John’s forceful and eloquent post. I would only add that much of the press coverage last night, and throughout this entire episode, was very discouraging.

This is one of those stories in which the liberal bias of supposedly “objective” reporters comes gushing out. This was particularly true of CNN. It was painful to watch reporters, with child-like melodrama, pretend they were part of a great civil-rights story. But 2014 isn’t 1965, and Ferguson, Missouri isn’t the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Reporters and commentators tried so hard to turn this story into something it never was: a racially-driven shooting of an innocent black teen by a white police officer.

The evidence presented to the grand jury was voluminous and comprehensive, and the jury concluded Officer Wilson should not be tried. But the left, including much of the media, was determined to superimpose a racial narrative on this story. The facts of the case were not only secondary; they were irrelevant. Liberals had a tale to tell, a stern moral sermon to deliver. What we saw–not among everyone to be sure, but among too many–was post-modern journalism on display. All that matters are the “narrative identities” we create for ourselves. We can all create our own reality. Truth needs to be shaped and re-shaped in order to fit a storyline. So a shooting that was never about race suddenly became a story focused almost solely on race. Think of Anderson Cooper as Jacques Derrida.

It’s of course the case that our experiences shape how we perceive reality. We all interpret events in a somewhat different way and none of us perceives truth perfectly. But that is a world apart from a license to interpret events in a way that’s false.

The effort by the left broadly, and journalists more specifically, to turn the events in Ferguson into a morality play was a shame; and in the end, it probably helped fuel the violence we saw. (“A riot is the language of the unheard,” tweeted MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow, quoting Martin Luther King Jr.) That violence won’t directly hurt you and it won’t directly hurt me. But it has hurt the residents of Ferguson. And rather than help race relations in America, it will set them back.

What we got last night from the grand jury was justice. What we didn’t get was peace.

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Ham Sandwich Indictments and the Riot

The nation is still reeling this morning from last night’s televised riot in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri in the aftermath of the decision of a St. Louis County grand jury not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the death of black teenager Michael Brown. Without offering any opinion either criticizing the grand jury’s decision or supporting it, I do however wonder about one particular trope that was often heard last night on CNN and MSNBC. Namely, that the prosecutor that had presented the evidence on the case had erred by not doing so in a manner that would have dictated an indictment. The consensus on those networks of their panels of “legal experts” was that it was the duty of the prosecutor to play out the “ham sandwich” paradigm of grand jury panels. My question today is to ask why anyone would think such behavior would be a good thing under any circumstance.

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The nation is still reeling this morning from last night’s televised riot in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri in the aftermath of the decision of a St. Louis County grand jury not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the death of black teenager Michael Brown. Without offering any opinion either criticizing the grand jury’s decision or supporting it, I do however wonder about one particular trope that was often heard last night on CNN and MSNBC. Namely, that the prosecutor that had presented the evidence on the case had erred by not doing so in a manner that would have dictated an indictment. The consensus on those networks of their panels of “legal experts” was that it was the duty of the prosecutor to play out the “ham sandwich” paradigm of grand jury panels. My question today is to ask why anyone would think such behavior would be a good thing under any circumstance.

It was clear from the start that any vote other than one for a murder indictment would be treated as an act of racist indifference that many African-Americans would never accept. The tragedy that has unfolded in Ferguson is one to which there are no easy answers. Clearly, African Americans approach the issue of police shootings of young black males from the perspective that such incidents are the product of racism and it would be insensitive as well as pointless to claim that they are wrong to see it from this point of view even if the facts of this particular case clearly led the grand jury to treat the shooting as something that did not warrant a murder trial.

Yet I am intrigued by the attacks on St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch for his decision not to attempt to manipulate the grand jury in the style that is usual for district attorneys and which goes under the rubric of “ham sandwich” indictments. It is a cliché, but nonetheless true, that any good district attorney can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. The reason for this is that they control the evidence presented to the grand jury and the witnesses and potential defendants have no say in the forum as to what is heard other than their own testimony.

The presumption of McCulloch’s critics is that by choosing not to focus the grand jury only on those witnesses and evidence that would have inclined them to indict and instead showing them everything he had, including exculpatory material that led them to think Officer Wilson’s behavior did not amount to a crime, he had “failed.” In essence these legal talking heads accused him of tanking the case by “confusing” the grand jury with two sides of the argument rather than just guiding them toward an indictment.

To be fair, those who spoke of McCulloch’s behavior as being unusual are not entirely wrong. Prosecutors on every level of our judicial system generally behave in this manner. Those in the cross-hairs of district attorneys may eventually have their day in court when their case comes to trial, when their evidence is presented and which includes the obligation of juries to not convict anyone if reasonable doubt can be found about their guilt. But grand juries are not places where justice of that sort is always done. Ham sandwich indictments happen every day, and it can be argued that procuring one in this case would have spared Ferguson a riot from angry, violent people who wanted Wilson punished whether or not he is actually guilty of crime.

McCulloch may have acted in this manner because he is, as his local critics claim, predisposed to believe the police rather than the African-American community. Even if that is unfair it seems clear that he doubted that Wilson should be charged or at least felt, probably rightly, that there was little chance of gaining a conviction.

But whatever we may think of McCulloch or the specifics of this case, there is something wrong with a mindset that believes that a prosecutor isn’t doing his job if he is playing fair.

There is an old expression in sports that says, “if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.” That presupposes a belief that the job of all competitors is to seek every possible advantage, legal or not. And it is one that most district attorneys general take as seriously as any athlete who thinks winning at all costs is the only way to go.

Yet instead of doubling down on this assumption, perhaps it might not be a bad thing if more prosecutors acted as McCulloch did and presented all of the facts to grand juries rather than only those that will get them a desired indictment. Perhaps we might have a more fair system that all citizens—including minorities that have historic grievances and concerns about getting short shrift from the system that can’t be ignored—might benefit from if there were fewer instead of more ham sandwich indictments. Surely our legal system is troubled more by out-of-control prosecutors who run roughshod over the rights of the accused — and sometimes use ham sandwich indictments to blackmail defendants who might not be able to afford trial costs to accept a plea bargain —than by those who are scrupulous about not tipping the scales of justice.

If the worst thing we can say about the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office is that they behaved in the latter fashion, then maybe McCulloch is not quite the villain he had been made out to be. Moreover, those who, whether intentionally or not, egged on the rioters by claiming that McCulloch had performed an act of professional malfeasance should think seriously about the implications of such an unreasonable position.

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Rudy Giuliani vs. the Ignorant Agitators

There was some controversy over on Meet the Press this weekend when Rudy Giuliani got into a bit of a heated exchange on race, Ferguson, and public safety with Michael Eric Dyson, MSNBC’s Vice President of Accusing Everything That Moves of Being Racist. Dyson claimed, in a comment that should discredit him to anyone still taking him seriously, that Giuliani’s comments about black-on-black crime stemmed from “the defensive mechanism of white supremacy.” This morning on Fox, Giuliani defended his comments: “I probably saved more black lives as mayor of New York City than any mayor in the history of the city, with the possible exception of Mike Bloomberg, who was there for 12 years.” Yet while the argument centered on police action, to understand Giuliani’s contribution to this issue–which is even greater than he says himself–it’s important to take a step back from the policing issue.

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There was some controversy over on Meet the Press this weekend when Rudy Giuliani got into a bit of a heated exchange on race, Ferguson, and public safety with Michael Eric Dyson, MSNBC’s Vice President of Accusing Everything That Moves of Being Racist. Dyson claimed, in a comment that should discredit him to anyone still taking him seriously, that Giuliani’s comments about black-on-black crime stemmed from “the defensive mechanism of white supremacy.” This morning on Fox, Giuliani defended his comments: “I probably saved more black lives as mayor of New York City than any mayor in the history of the city, with the possible exception of Mike Bloomberg, who was there for 12 years.” Yet while the argument centered on police action, to understand Giuliani’s contribution to this issue–which is even greater than he says himself–it’s important to take a step back from the policing issue.

While Giuliani was not anyone’s idea of a traditional social conservative, there were aspects of his public policy of which the ends and the means were more conservative than he’s often given credit for. That’s why it’s worth putting the policing issue aside for the moment and concentrating on something else: his approach to inner city poverty and the role of fatherhood.

In a 2007 piece in City Journal appropriately titled “Yes, Rudy Giuliani Is a Conservative” (a premise many conservatives take issue with but one that is followed by a perfectly coherent case in the article), Steven Malanga goes over Giuliani’s highly successful welfare reform. And after discussing welfare, Malanga offers the following paragraph, which is rarely discussed but seems crucial to understanding Giuliani as a politician:

As part of Giuliani’s quintessentially conservative belief that dysfunctional behavior, not our economic system, lay at the heart of intergenerational poverty, he also spoke out against illegitimacy and the rise of fatherless families. A child born out of wedlock, he observed in one speech, was three times more likely to wind up on welfare than a child from a two-parent family. “Seventy percent of long-term prisoners and 75 percent of adolescents charged with murder grew up without fathers,” Giuliani told the city. He insisted that the city and the nation had to reestablish the “responsibility that accompanies bringing a child into the world,” and to that end he required deadbeat fathers either to find a private-sector job or to work in the city’s workfare program as a way of contributing to their child’s upbringing. But he added that changing society’s attitude toward marriage was more important than anything government could do: “[I]f you wanted a social program that would really save these kids, . . . I guess the social program would be called fatherhood.”

That is, in fact, something cultural conservatives–really anybody, but cultural conservatives in particular–should celebrate. And if offers a clear window into Giuliani’s approach to public policy. Public safety per se wasn’t the foundational principle of Giuliani’s mayoralty; it was a beneficial, and in some cases practically revolutionary, outgrowth of its real foundation: dignity.

There is much that Missouri police have done since the tragic death of Michael Brown that robs members of the Ferguson community of their dignity. So the point is not tough policing uber alles, nor would that have been Giuliani’s choice. Indeed, as I wrote at the time, the hasty militarization of the county police force was a mistake. When you work for the government in some powerful capacity, and you approach a citizen, how you approach that citizen tells him how the government sees him. If you show up on a tank-like vehicle dressed like you’re about to enter a war zone, the message you send to the citizens you are policing is that the government sees them as a warlike population. St. Louis County did not declare war on the Ferguson community, but could you blame them for wondering if they had?

Giuliani took the opposite tack, refusing to behave like an invading general, despite what his dimmest critics might claim. And what was the result? To briefly revisit Malanga:

Giuliani’s policing success was a boon to minority neighborhoods. For instance, in the city’s 34th Precinct, covering the largely Hispanic Washington Heights section of Manhattan, murders dropped from 76 in 1993, Dinkins’s last year, to only seven by Giuliani’s last year, a decline of more than 90 percent. Far from being the racist that activists claimed, Giuliani had delivered to the city’s minority neighborhoods a true form of equal protection under the law.

Those of us who have lived in Washington Heights know this is no joke. Those who like to play expert on MSNBC are usually speaking out of ignorance.

And the key point here is to understand that the belief in the dignity of men, women, and children, of families, infused every decision Giuliani made with regard to improving public safety in minority neighborhoods and the city at large. Accusations of “white supremacist” thinking aren’t merely obscenely stupid, though they are certainly that. They also tend to come from those who have never shown the black community a fraction of the respect or service Giuliani has.

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Ferguson Can’t Save Senate for Democrats

In a year in which the odds are heavily stacked against the Democrats it is to be expected that the party will try just about anything in their quest to retain control of the Senate. But the notion that President Obama’s party can somehow snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by attempting to exploit African-American sorrow about the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last month may be a new low in the long annals of cynical political stunts.

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In a year in which the odds are heavily stacked against the Democrats it is to be expected that the party will try just about anything in their quest to retain control of the Senate. But the notion that President Obama’s party can somehow snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by attempting to exploit African-American sorrow about the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last month may be a new low in the long annals of cynical political stunts.

The effort to cash in on the Ferguson tragedy was the conceit of a front-page New York Times feature yesterday that pointed to efforts to increase black turnout as the key to Democratic victory in November. Given that the Democratic base tends not to show up when the presidency is not at stake, the party knows that it must do something to gin up interest in congressional contests. That Democrats have come to rely heavily on minority turnout to win elections is not exactly a secret. The massive successful effort to get blacks as well as other minorities to the polls in 2008 and 2012 was essential to President Obama’s electoral triumphs. Looked at from that perspective, connecting Republicans to the police officer that shot Brown and Democrats to the effort to get justice for the victim makes sense.

But there are a few big problems with this formula that have nothing to do with objections to a strategy that is based on crass partisanship and shameless exploitation of a tragedy.

The first is, contrary to Democrat expectations, although African-Americans are the most reliable of the party’s key constituencies they were probably paying closer attention to the aftermath of the tragedy than most Americans. That means they realized that the most insensitive and most incompetent responses to the tragedy came from Missouri’s Democratic Governor Jay Nixon, not any Republican. Nor were prominent Republicans slow to express sympathy for the slain teenager or guilty of gaffes that could be exploited by the liberal media to create a narrative in which the GOP could somehow be directly tied to the shooting.

So while Ferguson may have angered blacks and made them more likely to engage in political activism, the incident isn’t the sort of thing that can serve as leverage in congressional and Senate elections that are being largely fought on issues that have nothing to do what happened in Missouri.

Second, the attempt to leverage angst about Ferguson into a wave of African-Americans turning out to vote for Democrats en masse requires the party to do some very careful maneuvering.

Rather than Barack Obama’s name being on the ballot this year, politicians that are doing everything in their power to distance themselves from the president will occupy the Democratic line in many places. While African-Americans may believe Democrats are supporters of their interests, it’s not quite so easy to mobilize them to save the political skins of senators who are simultaneously assuring white voters in red states that they disagree with the president on most issues and won’t be reliable supporters of the White House if they are returned to office. If, in the course of wooing African-Americans, senators like Kay Hagan in North Carolina, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, or Mark Prior in Arkansas do get closer to the president that might fatally damage them with swing voters they desperately need to win. Indeed, though blacks are the heart of the Democratic Party in the south, their only hope of victory lies in grabbing the political center, not merely playing to the base.

Thus while Democrats may be cynical enough to try to run a pro-Obama campaign in the black community and an anti-Obama effort among whites, the idea that they can do so without either of these constituencies noticing that they are being two-timed if not outright lied to is slim.

Of course, that doesn’t deter race baiters like Al Sharpton, who both Politico and the New York Times recently anointed as President Obama’s go-to person in the African-American community, from trying to turn Ferguson into a political cause. Nor has it stopped other Democrats like Rep. John Lewis from attempting to use the tragedy to revive their glory days in the civil-rights movement. But resentment about police violence isn’t the moral equivalent of Obama’s candidacy, especially when it is obvious that what the establishment protesters are railing at is as much a function of the Democrats as it is the Republicans. If Democrats are going to hold the Senate they are going to have to do better than this tired, cynical racial act.

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Can Holder and the Feds Fix Ferguson?

Attorney General Eric Holder is scheduled to arrive in Ferguson, Missouri today leading some to hope that his presence will somehow ease tensions as the ongoing conflict stemming from the police shooting of a young black man continues. But the expectation that having Holder parachute into this mess will somehow magically fix the problem or halt the civil unrest there is not merely unrealistic; it reflects a misunderstanding of both the judicial process and what the protestors want.

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Attorney General Eric Holder is scheduled to arrive in Ferguson, Missouri today leading some to hope that his presence will somehow ease tensions as the ongoing conflict stemming from the police shooting of a young black man continues. But the expectation that having Holder parachute into this mess will somehow magically fix the problem or halt the civil unrest there is not merely unrealistic; it reflects a misunderstanding of both the judicial process and what the protestors want.

As the New York Times reports today, there are some on the left that see Holder’s persistent race baiting from the bully pulpit of the Justice Department as a necessary counter-weight to President Obama’s amorphous calls for calm in crises such as the one unfolding in Ferguson. Holder, a man who called Americans a “nation of cowards” on race and who continues to speak as if the Jim Crow era were not a half century in the country’s rearview mirror, seems like just the sort of legal activist who could swoop in the maelstrom of Ferguson and somehow convince protesters to stand down while ensuring that justice is done.

Symbolism plays a not inconsiderable role in this dispute as a town with a population that is heavily African-American but few black police officers turned out to be a tinderbox waiting to burst into flame at the slightest provocation. But the willingness of the national media to frame this story as an example of how racism isn’t dead in America has transformed it from a troubling while complicated legal case in which the facts are a matter of dispute into merely the latest excuse for racial conflict. The demonizing of the police and their response to rioters there has created little room for the legal process to play out in a dispassionate and fair manner.

Despite the agitation from race hucksters like Al Sharpton and others who have also parachuted into the town, there is no evidence that either the country prosecutor or any other responsible legal authority is dragging their feet in the case or behaving improperly. Nor is there a reasonable case to be made that the state and local authorities should be shoved aside to make room for a federal prosecution led by Holder’s department.

The plain fact of the matter is that tensions have now been raised to the point where nothing short of the indictment of the police officer who shot Michael Brown will appease either the peaceful demonstrators in Ferguson or the thugs who have hijacked some of the protests with violence aimed at law enforcement authorities as well as the looting of local businesses.

Since the Grand Jury process is not immune to political pressures, they may well get their wish and, to be fair, it is entirely possible that such a result may be justified. But, as the Times noted in a separate story, the reality of the Brown shooting may not be as cut and dried as the “hands up, don’t shoot” chants of the protesters indicate. The very different accounts of the shooting of Brown by the officer seems to indicate a strong possibility that we may be heading to a replay of last year’s Trayvon Martin shooting trial in which the media’s insistence on imposing a narrative of racism run amok on the story didn’t necessarily reflect the facts of the case. If so, then Holder’s intervention may be deeply mistaken.

There are instances when federal intervention into murder cases is justified. If the justice system in Missouri were so riddled with institutionalized racism that it never prosecuted the killers of blacks, there would be a strong argument for the Justice Department to step in. In cases where prosecutions failed due to negligence or jury nullification of the law (such as often happened in Jim Crow states prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act or when a New York jury acquitted a black man in the murder of Hasidic Jew during the Crown Heights riot, even though he was literally caught red-handed after the murder), the attorney general ought to step in. But in the absence of those circumstances, or at least until the locals have proven to be unfair or incompetent, Holder’s presence in Ferguson must be seen as mere grandstanding and an attempt to complicate or delegitimize the local prosecution, not the cavalry coming to the rescue of the justice system.

Public officials who weigh in on complicated cases merely in order to placate a mob—such as Missouri Governor Jay Nixon’s call for a “vigorous prosecution” of the case rather than a vigorous investigation—prior to the evidence being fully revealed do nothing to advance the cause of justice or racial healing.

Holder can’t fix Ferguson. That is not merely because his instincts are so skewed on race issues that he can’t be trusted to behave fairly. It is also because the only thing that will improve the situation is an effort to defend the integrity of the legal system on the part of local and national political leaders who seem to have a vested interest in stirring the racial pot rather than promoting healing and justice.

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Resisting the Ferguson Temptation

Some news stories are like Rorschach tests in that, irrespective of the facts of the cases, they inspire journalists, pundits, and politicians to ride all of their familiar hobbyhorses to death. That is the reality of the massive media coverage of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by a policeman, and the violent aftermath of that event is so obvious it barely needs to be pointed out. But as cable news stations embrace the story as another, perhaps juicier version of last year’s trial of George Zimmerman for the shooting of Trayvon Martin, it might be better if more public figures embrace the stance enunciated by Rep. Paul Ryan.

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Some news stories are like Rorschach tests in that, irrespective of the facts of the cases, they inspire journalists, pundits, and politicians to ride all of their familiar hobbyhorses to death. That is the reality of the massive media coverage of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by a policeman, and the violent aftermath of that event is so obvious it barely needs to be pointed out. But as cable news stations embrace the story as another, perhaps juicier version of last year’s trial of George Zimmerman for the shooting of Trayvon Martin, it might be better if more public figures embrace the stance enunciated by Rep. Paul Ryan.

Unlike virtually everyone else who has commented on the shooting and the subsequent rioting in Ferguson, Ryan simply asked that those who speak about these events refrain from attempts to exploit what has happened. Not succumbing to the temptation to use the social pathologies on display in Missouri as fodder to promote his new book, Ryan said the following:

“Don’t try to capitalize on this tragedy with your own policy initiatives, don’t try to link some prejudged conclusion on what’s happening on the ground right now,” the Wisconsin Republican said on “Fox and Friends.” “We should take a deep breath, let’s have some sympathy for the family and the community … and let’s let the investigation take its course and hope that justice is served appropriately.”

That’s good advice, and the media figures and so-called racial activists like Al Sharpton, who have descended upon Ferguson like a ravenous flock of vultures, would do well to heed it if they actually cared about the citizens of this troubled town or race relations across the country.

The Brown shooting, like the death of Martin, has become more of an opportunity to rehearse the usual litany of liberal ideological rants in which this heretofore-obscure town has become a symbol of racism. Rather than let the facts of the case—whatever they may be—be uncovered and then let the legal process play out, the impulse to prejudge the case has consistently prevailed. Whether that means an assumption that the police officer is guilty of murder or that the victim was somehow responsible for the incident, neither set of arguments has done much to advance the cause of justice of the peace of that community.

As Fred Siegel correctly noted in City Journal yesterday, most of those who have weighed in with commentary about Ferguson are stuck in the 1960s, a perspective from which all violence is viewed through the lens of the civil-rights movement. Those who play this game rarely stop to reflect that a half century later, an African-American president now governs the same country. Nor do they ponder the fact that solutions to the problems of such communities cannot be found in the playbook employed by those who protested against now vanished Jim Crow laws in an America that no longer exists. Sharpton and the pack of so-called civil-rights leaders who have parachuted into this mess have clearly done more harm than any possible good.

To acknowledge this reality does not oblige anyone to be indifferent to the anger of Ferguson residents about what they perceive as misconduct by the police or the ham-handed response to subsequent protests and riots by the authorities. But if we were to avoid merely repeating the same destructive narrative about racism that did so much damage in the Martin case, then it would behoove those commenting on the issue to refuse to rehearse, as Siegel says, “The grotesque pantomime of repression and redemption, riots and never-quite-achieved rewards, [that] plays out time and again.” As Siegel says, using Brown’s death to pivot into discussions about race, white flight, or urban/suburban jurisdiction disputes is a mistake.

Neither Sharpton nor anyone else talking on television really knows what happened when Brown died. Until we get a better handle on that question, they should stop fomenting the sort of anger that leads to riots and more violence as we have seen the last several nights in Ferguson. The cable news commentariat is as determined not to learn from their mistakes in this case, just as they were during Zimmerman’s trial. They will, instead, repeat the same cant about race and suggest more of the same failed policies that have helped perpetuate these problems rather than fix them. Until we learn to resist this temptation, as Siegel writes, that failure ensures “there will be more Fergusons.”

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Ferguson and the Right: the Geography of Community Policing

One of the stranger reactions to yesterday’s disturbing standoff between a militarized county police force in Ferguson, Missouri and protesters was for leftist commentators to accuse libertarians and limited-government conservatives of insufficient outrage. Paul Waldman wrote an absolutely ridiculous version of this yesterday at the Washington Post, asking where all the libertarians were. In the process, he revealed that leftists apparently think if libertarians don’t work for Reason magazine, they don’t exist. (Why he missed libertarians who write for the same newspaper he does goes unexplained.)

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One of the stranger reactions to yesterday’s disturbing standoff between a militarized county police force in Ferguson, Missouri and protesters was for leftist commentators to accuse libertarians and limited-government conservatives of insufficient outrage. Paul Waldman wrote an absolutely ridiculous version of this yesterday at the Washington Post, asking where all the libertarians were. In the process, he revealed that leftists apparently think if libertarians don’t work for Reason magazine, they don’t exist. (Why he missed libertarians who write for the same newspaper he does goes unexplained.)

But foolishness aside, it did raise an interesting point: namely, the fact that this issue blurs ideological lines, as well as the fact that libertarians have raised their profile sufficiently to be on speed dial in case of emergency. The issue of heavyhanded policing itself does not divide the left, but it does divide the right. And that is a topic Ben Domenech has covered before and returned to again this morning in the wake of the Ferguson coverage. Domenech writes that attitudes toward the police can be something of a Rorschach test for libertarians and conservatives:

If you want an indication about where someone sits on the dividing line between conservative and libertarian, sometimes it’s as simple as how they answer this question: how do you feel about cops? Do you naturally tend to trust them, viewing them as a necessary and needed hedge acting in defense of law and order? Or are you naturally suspicious of them, believing them to be little more than armed tax collectors and bureaucrats with a tendency to violence and falsehood in service of their whims? Are cops the brave individuals who stand between the law-abiding and those who would rob, rape, and kill, or are they the low-level tyrannical overpaid functionaries of the administrative state, more focused on tax collection in the form of citations, property grabs, and killing the occasional family dog?

This isn’t to say that only libertarians are suspicious of cops. There has always been a strain of conservatism very skeptical of government power, and as police forces have become more interested in seizing assets and ignoring complaint, many conservatives have become openly critical of their behavior. Indeed, Mary Katharine Ham has a great response to what we’re seeing in Ferguson, as does Kevin Williamson. But how you answer that initial question will tell you a lot about your political assumptions regarding authority.

I would say, however, that there’s another dividing line here. How you feel about cops depends on your experience with them, and your experience with them often depends–aside from race, of course–on geography.

Look at the pictures of last night’s standoff in Ferguson. The complaints are not just about arbitrary arrests or a media crackdown. The complaints also have to do with the county police rolling in on military-style vehicles and wearing the kind of body armor and fielding the kinds of weapons–and pointing them at unarmed protesters–we usually associate with a war zone. Ferguson is not a war zone.

But intense and effective policing, even of high-crime areas, doesn’t have to look that way. In fact, a police force that looks the way it did in Ferguson last night is almost certainly an indication of counterproductive policing. (And thus raises questions about whether the police were actually sufficiently trained to use the weaponry they had with them.)

I work in New York City, and until recently lived in Washington Heights in Manhattan. It is a neighborhood with a troubled history. It’s also ethnically diverse and immigrant-heavy, and so it’s normally a model of a stable civil society brimming with energy–strivers with large families just trying give everyone in their world a better life. But it has also been a beneficiary of better policing. In 1987, the New York Times proclaimed it the city’s “murder capital.” Today, along with next-door Inwood, it is safer than all Manhattan neighborhoods except the Upper West Side and Upper East Side.

Having lived in Washington Heights twice a decade apart, I saw the improvement, though it began before I first moved to the neighborhood. The Heights were part of the general decline in New York City crime under the proactive policing efforts begun after David Dinkins’ atrocious term as mayor. And here’s the thing about the Heights: it did this without putting tanks on the streets and snipers on the roofs.

Proactive policing is not synonymous with militarized policing–not by a long shot. I have been amazed time and again by the calm under fire demonstrated by the NYPD. It’s almost exactly the opposite of what we saw in Ferguson. In Ferguson, the police showed up prepared for war; that in itself is an escalation, and it risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So conservatives and libertarians may have very different instinctive responses to the police. But controlling for other factors, including race–black New Yorkers gave former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly 63 percent approval last year–it’s impossible to truly understand how a population sees the police without taking into account the geographic distinctions between them. Sometimes the most effective police forces fighting the most sophisticated threats are the ones who make the best argument against militarized law enforcement.

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