The recent unrest in Baltimore is yet another sign of our trying times. More out-of-control than the chaos that occurred in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer, the looting and destruction in the city was another reminder that America is an increasingly divided country. And by divided, I mean split in more pieces than two.
As the media picks sides in the debate over keeping order and grievances about police abuse, I have a novel question: what, if anything, can be done about police brutality and inexcusable violence and looting? Is reconciliation possible, or is America fated to live with irrational destruction driven by corrupt policing?
I have my doubts. Complex issues – and the situation in Baltimore is anything but simple – are tough to weed through. They require looking at things through a kind of prism. All sides should be considered, as much as humanly possible. Of course, bias and predilection will always distort pure, objective reasoning. But we can make a good-faith effort to try and understand what is at the core of problem before formulating a solution.
That’s the theory, anyway. Back in America, we’re taught that there are only two sides to every issue: conservative and liberal. This binary, while correct in the most abstract sense, is often too restricting when applied to details. Baltimore and the needless death of Freddie Gray demonstrate the intricacies that exist in before, after, and during every tragedy.
Here’s what we know thus far.
The Baltimore police department is rife with corruption and misdeeds. That’s no exaggeration. A Baltimore Sun investigation found that $5.7 million was paid to victims of police abuse between the years of 2011 and 2014. In the same time period, over 100 residents won court settlements over alleged police misconduct. The FBI even charged 51 Baltimore police officers with running an extortion ring that begin in 2009. The Sun’s report features many distressing mugshots of criminals severely beaten. Of course, we don’t know the context behind all these apprehensions. But common sense says that an 87-year-old grandmother and 15-year-old kid – two victims profiled in the study – shouldn’t be handled like an adult male who just murdered someone.
The libertarian in me cringes when reading about this kind of unjust police violence. Under our modern conception of nation-state rule, law enforcement has a monopoly on prosecuting citizens for crimes. Max Weber called it a “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” We know monopolies have the tendency to overcharge and underdeliver. In the government’s case, this often means bilking taxpayers while treating them as creatures less than human.
Keeping the police’s propensity for wrongdoing in mind, it’s still foolish to jump to conclusions in cases like Gray’s. The facts aren’t all in. They may never be. Even so, Baltimore prosecutor Marilyn Rosby is out for blood, pursuing charges of involuntary manslaughter and second-degree murder for the officers involved in Gray’s death. Little evidence has been provided to justify such charges, and Rosby may be turning this into a political stunt for her own vainglory. Ambitions aside, Gray’s death – sustaining a severed spine while in the back of a police paddy waggon – is suspect. This highlights the importance of keeping calm as more evidence comes in.
Now we come to the opposite view: the rioting and looting of private businesses is behavior fit for animals, not reasonable men. This is exactly why conservatives reflexively defend the police. They see the gang in blue as, in Pat Buchanan’s words, “the thin blue line between them and anarchy.” When hooligans take to the streets and start burning cars, it’s the police who respond to suppress the disorder. Conservatives see cars on fire and stores being looted and think: this is destruction of both property and the heart. Putting it to rest, at least the tangible part, is the police’s job.
Sometimes you reach a point where in the process of policing, order becomes disorder. As Aquinas said, lex iniusta non est lex. Stopping liquor store robberies is one thing. Systematically harassing and shaking down normal citizens is another. The Baltimore police may look good when they rein in rambunctious thugs who take advantage of chaos to snag a case of beer. But a track record of maltreatment of those whom they are supposed to protect doesn’t bode well for police integrity. It also doesn’t achieve law enforcement’s purported mission of maintaining peace and stability. There is no order when the police have full immunity to break the bones of non-violent grandmothers.
So what, then, can be done to establish a lawful order grounded in traditionally-understood rights?
To be frank, I’m at a loss for a real solution that solves the problem of inherent government inefficiency and society’s need for stability. Conservatives are coming around on the issue of mass incarceration and how locking up generations of fathers for non-violent crimes actually deprives children of fathers (who knew?). Maybe private law enforcement agencies would solve the problem. Or maybe anarcho-capitalism would devolve into angsty mayhem whenever someone is mistreated. Guess we’ll never know.
Conor Friedersdorf, an otherwise thoughtful writer, is appalled by the rampant corruption of Baltimore P.D. and wants a “national response.” Presumably, he means a response by Washington. This is short-sighted and, at best, naïve. The federal government rarely fixes anything. In most cases, it only exacerbates the issue. Look at the War on Drugs. Or the War on Terrorism. Or the War on Poverty. Or the War on [insert newest societal problem here].
Law enforcement is one of those messy issues that humanity muddles through with high hopes and low actualization. If the Greatest City in America is going to survive, then it’s up to city residents to set it right. That’s as close of a conservative, and realistic, solution there is to ills that plague Baltimore. Poverty, lack of opportunity, police brutality, class warfare, corrupt politicians, lack of family structure, and punitive sentences for nonviolent crimes are all features of the greater disorder that undergirds the city. Fixing that may be the key to setting things right. All disreputable behavior flows from rotting hearts. Soulcraft is a tough job, but it’s better than being led into partisan, go-nowhere debates so often promulgated by cable news.