On Saturday, two NYPD officers were shot and killed as they sat in their marked police car on a street corner. Investigators say that Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were killed by a gunman named Ismaaiyl Brinsley. They report that he wanted to avenge the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, who died at the hands of police in recent months. Brinsley killed himself after the murders. Earlier in the day he had reportedly shot an ex-girlfriend in Maryland.
Protests across the country have erupted in response to the police killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown and the lack of indictments for the police involved in their deaths. While many protests have been completely peaceful, some included looting and riots and chants calling for dead cops. More recent protests have come under the umbrella of #BlackLivesMatter, as Garner, Brown and other men killed in high-profile shootings were black.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s comments after the Garner decision, which discussed how he has trained his bi-racial son to be careful in any interaction with a police officer, angered many cops. They said he’s been insufficiently supportive of the difficulties they face. After the murders of Liu and Ramos, NYPD officers turned their backs on de Blasio when he arrived for a press conference.
And as tense as relations are in New York, social media erupted with some supporters of police trying to pin blame for the murders on anti-cop rhetoric emanating from critics of police overreach. This in turn led to responses from others that this was no better than when major media elites blamed Sarah Palin for the shooting of Gabby Giffords in a mass shooting in Arizona a few years ago.
That’s a horrible comparison.
Here’s a sample tweet response to claims that anti-cop rhetoric contributed to the officers’ deaths:
Those blaming deBlasio for NYPD killings were outraged when Palin/tea party were blamed for Giffords' shooting They were right then
igorvolsky (@igorvolsky) December 21, 2014
Over at Reason, Nick Gillespie wrote:
Just as Sarah Palin’s defense of gun rights has zero culpability in the shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords and Dallas’s right-wing “climate of hate” had nothing to do with Marxist-Leninist Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassinaton of JFK, it’s worth underscoring at every moment of what is already shaping up as a very ugly debate that the actual killer is the culprit here.
We should blame the individuals who commit violent acts for the violence, but these are really bad comparisons. The New York Times and other prominent media blamed Sarah Palin for the shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords and Dallas’ “climate of hate” for the assassination of JFK. But there has been no evidence whatsoever in any way shape or form that Palin’s existence, much less defense of gun rights or electoral “targeting” of Giffords’ district, were even known to Giffords’ shooter, Jared Lee Loughner. And as much as I love a good conspiracy theory, there is no evidence that Marxist-Leninist Lee Harvey Oswald was in any way moved by any “climate of hate,” much less anything even remotely conservative.
Here’s why the Palin comparison fails.
Let’s not forget exactly what went down in the smearing of Palin four years ago. A PAC associated with Palin had put out a map with races to “target” and had identified those “targets” with crosshairs. This could not be more common for political campaigns. Indeed, progressive groups had put out similar maps with bulls-eyes for races they wanted to focus on. Some activists began blaming Palin for the shooting and the media responded by running wall-to-wall coverage of the map and pieces headlined “Did Sarah Palin’s Target Map Play Role in Giffords Shooting?.”
The Atlantic’s James Fallows wondered “whether there is a connection between” such “extreme, implicitly violent political rhetoric and imagery” as that published by Palin and “actual outbursts of violence, whatever the motivations of this killer turn out to be.” Was Palin’s map the equivalent, then, of “falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic?”
The Washington Post wrote a story headlined “Palin caught in crosshairs map controversy after Tucson shootings.”
Andrew Sullivan wrote, “No one is saying Sarah Palin should be viewed as an accomplice to murder. Many are merely saying that her recklessly violent and inflammatory rhetoric has poisoned the discourse and has long run the risk of empowering the deranged. We are saying it’s about time someone took responsibility for this kind of rhetorical extremism, because it can and has led to violence and murder.”
In “Imagery of Armed Revolution,” the New York Times’ Matt Bai wrote, “it’s hard not to think [Loughner] was at least partly influenced by a debate that often seems to conflate philosophical disagreement with some kind of political Armageddon.” He added, “The problem would seem to rest with the political leaders who pander to the margins of the margins, employing whatever words seem likely to win them contributions or TV time, with little regard for the consequences.” He said Palin and other used “imagery of armed revolution. Popular spokespeople like Ms. Palin routinely drop words like ‘tyranny’ and ‘socialism’ when describing the president and his allies, as if blind to the idea that Americans legitimately faced with either enemy would almost certainly take up arms.”
And at Psychology Today, neurologist David Weisman wrote that “The question is not ‘did Sarah Palin’s violent rhetoric cause this shooting?’ The question is ‘does inciting violence factor in a multi-factorial process?'” He concluded, “[a]lthough there is little clear evidence in this case, the data highlights the importance of butterfly events on human actions. Jared Loughner is clearly deranged. He drank deeply from internal insanity and external stimuli. His actions did not take place in a vacuum.”
You might also recall that when Palin attempted to defend herself from all major media blaming her for a horrific massacre in Arizona, we then saw a new round of angry media claiming she’d tried to dog-whistle evangelicals or something because she’d used the phrase ‘blood libel.’
The slur wasn’t just aimed at Palin but the entire Tea Party. As John Sexton pointed out on Twitter, Slate’s Jacob Weisberg had a good example of the form in his piece “How anti-government, pro-gun, xenophobic populism made the Giffords shooting more likely.”:
It is appropriate, however, to consider what was swirling outside Loughner's head. To call his crime an attempted assassination is to acknowledge that it appears to have had a political and not merely a personal context. That context wasn't Islamic radicalism, Puerto Rican independence, or anarcho-syndicalism. It was the anti-government, pro-gun, xenophobic populism that flourishes in the dry and angry climate of Arizona. Extremist shouters didn't program Loughner, in some mechanistic way, to shoot Gabrielle Giffords. But the Tea Party movement did make it appreciably more likely that a disturbed person like Loughner would react, would be able to react, and would not be prevented from reacting, in the crazy way he did.
However, in the case of Ismaaiyl Brinsley, we have reason to believe that he was at least claiming a motive of revenge for the deaths of Garner and Brown. He allegedly put up an Instagram picture of a gun with a caption that said, “I’m putting wings on pigs today. They take 1 of ours … let’s take 2 of theirs.” He added hashtags for ShootThePolice, RIPErivGarner (sic) and RIPMikeBrown. A later post said he was “putting pigs in a blanket.”
If Weisberg could blame the Tea Party for the swirls of imaginary conditions, I have no doubt that he is working right now on his piece even more vociferously condemning #BlackLivesMatter for the shooting of NYPD officers.
Now, maybe we’ll learn that what we’ve been told about Brinsley was an elaborate ruse or that the information only seemed to come from Brinsley, but it is obvious that blaming anti-cop rhetoric is a completely different situation than blaming Palin and the Tea Party for deaths they had literally zero relationship to. It may still be wrong to blame anti-cop rhetoric but we already know from what we’ve seen thus far, that reporters have not similarly rushed to run anguished pieces blaming Eric Holder or de Blasio or other politicians.
Individual vs. collective guilt
Again, Nick Gillespie’s argument that people who kill other people should be held completely accountable for those killings is correct. The problem we have in the current discussion of #BlackLivesMatter is that some of the discussion has been about collective guilt.
One of the regrettable things about the recent call for a less militarized and better community policing is that it seems to have been if not taken over then at least dramatically influenced by that sort of professional protesting contingent of socialists and communists. What began as a potentially constructive conversation about the militarization of police forces; failures maintaining community policing standards; and how those problems affect certain communities disproportionately has unfortunately become mostly a droning monologue of political correctness and groupthink.
Over at SocialistWorker.org, a recent write-up of protests included some interesting chants. I should note that I’m not even sure these reports are true. One of the protest write-ups claims that drivers who were blockaded by protesters gave thumbs-up signs and other shows of support. That sounds implausible until you remember you’re reading the Boulder, Colorado, update. It really might be true.
Anyway, in Boston, we’re told, protesters chanted “Eric Garner, Mike Brown, shut this racist system down,” and “Same story every time, being black is not a crime!” In Minneapolis they chanted “The whole damn system is guilty as hell.”
We’ve seen Smith College president apologize for saying “all lives matter” instead of “black lives matter.” And Huffington Post gives regular updates about what white people can and can’t do if they want to protest police overreach.
All this speaks to the way this discussion has moved from the individual responsibility of the officers in question to notions of collective and systemic guilt. And the response to the killing of these NYPD officers might show how difficult it is to turn that instinct on and off. It might also show why free societies tend to hold individuals responsible instead of groups. In fact, it’s striking how much of our problems achieving peace in these discussions stem from the way we fail to see people as individuals with dignity, be they black or white, cop or civilian. Every group, of course, has some bad actors. But we should be on guard against developing bigoted responses that apply to groups instead of individuals.
To go back to the Giffords example from 2011, CNN’s headline at the time was “Shooting throws spotlight on state of U.S. political rhetoric.” The Telegraph’s was “Gabrielle Giffords shooting: inflammatory rhetoric draws real blood.” When do we blame individuals for shootings and when do we blame groups? Should that change based on the politics of the situation?
The larger progressive political climate will really need to grapple with this. If, as they say, “microagressions” contribute to “rape culture,” how has the rhetoric surrounding Ferguson protests contributed to the murder of cops?
Consistency is key for everyone.
We’ve already seen that the comparison between blaming Palin for Gabby Giffords’ shooting is inappropriate. And while Palin’s map had the media in a tizzy for weeks, they never blamed (or even covered, really) the Southern Poverty Law Center, much less any broader movement, for putting out a “hate map” that led one activist to shoot up Family Research Council. So that’s not a comparison we can make either.
But it is true that we’ve routinely seen the pro-life movement blamed for the violence perpetrated by solo activists against abortion clinics and those that end unborn lives via abortion. And the members of the pro-life civil rights movement can assure you how frustrating and unfair that is.
Conservatives are probably always going to be blamed by the New York Times for any and all ills, no matter how far-fetched the claim will be. But those who believe in individual responsibility can’t pick and choose when to believe in it. These cops were killed by one man, acting alone. We will likely learn more in the days to come about his political inclinations, his mental state, and his response to political rhetoric. If there is one thing that fair-minded people have learned from the media’s rush to blame conservatives for any and all violence, it’s that the actual story usually ranges from complete fabrication to very complicated tale.
Yes, the media and those activists who hold double standards should be held to account. But there is very little to gain by actually falling down the rabbit hole of reflexive movement blaming with them.
As we close out 2014, as another sad day of violence ends, could we also try to see the best in each other’s arguments? Let’s put the best construction on what others are trying to say and see if we can get slightly closer to living in peace with one another.