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Five police officers were killed and six were injured in Dallas yesterday when snipers opened fire during a protest of the recent police killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. This mass shooting was a despicable act of murder.
It was also blowback.
“Blowback” is a term generally reserved for foreign policy. It refers to the reverberating ill effects of foreign interventions. Ron Paul famously and persuasively characterized the 9/11 attacks as blowback from decades of US warfare and imperialism in the Greater Middle East.
In the 1980s, American support for the anti-Soviet Mujahideen in Afghanistan helped lay the groundwork for what would become Osama bin Laden’s jihadist network, Al Qaeda. And in the 1990s, further US interventions in the Middle East spurred the jihadis to turn on their former sponsors and to wage a terrorist war on the west that culminated in the attacks on September 11, 2001.
The outrage elicited by those attacks provided cover for a massive US-led war for the Greater Middle East that rages to this day. That Long War has only served to plummet the entire region into chaos and carnage, which has caused the number of jihadis and would-be terrorists to grow exponentially. As a result, western civilians continue to suffer blowback in the form of terror attacks in San Bernardino, Orlando, Paris, Brussels, etc. These attacks are fueling Islamophobia and driving calls for further violence and repression against Muslims.
The motor of this spinning cycle of reciprocal bloodshed is collectivism. Seeing fellows attacked prompts fear and anger. Fear and anger focused by the lens of reason pinpoints individual offenders for the delivery of justice. But refracted through the lens of collectivism and primal reaction, fear and anger disperses into indiscriminate terror and hate, which scatters to cover whole populations who are ascribed collective guilt and prescribed collective punishment.
This collective punishment of innocents then prompts fear and anger among the targeted population. If they too are afflicted with collectivism, some of them will also succumb to terror and hate, which will be expressed in retaliatory indiscriminate violence: blowback. This collectivist retaliation begets further collectivist retaliation, and the cycle of violence spins out of control.
The Home Front
But this phenomenon is by no means restricted to international affairs. It can characterize civil unrest as well. Again, what we saw yesterday in Dallas was, if not something even more diabolical, blowback.
The American people feel under siege. Different populations feel besieged by different forces. Black Americans especially have suffered decades of persecution by the American “justice” system: police brutality and harassment, mass incarceration, being nickel-and-dimed by tickets and fines, etc. And especially since the summer of 2014, they have been seeing a litany of viral photos and videos of black Americans having been gunned down, throttled, and broken by the police.
This violence too is driven by collectivism. Law enforcement officers are granted an exceptional status in society: a special dispensation to mete out violence with impunity. This caste privilege has instilled deep tribalism in many police officers, which is amplified by training and police union propaganda. Cops are trained to be obsessed with “officer safety” and to effectively treat those outside the “blue tribe” (whom they ostensibly “protect and serve”) as an enemy population: as if every American they detain is a potential quick-draw gunman ready to shoot them down in a millisecond. This paranoia, combined with the impunity of the badge, is what makes an encounter with the police so potentially lethal: especially for black civilians.
Take the collectivism of “blue” tribalism explained above and add, for some individuals, the collectivism of racial terror (irrational, hateful prejudice that every black male is a potential super-predator), and you begin to understand the epidemic of police violence against American blacks.
Hate and Terror
Badges do not grant extra rights, but neither do they negate the human rights of officers.
This police violence has elicited thoroughly justified fear and anger. Virtually all of this emotional response has expressed itself in peaceful protest, led by the Black Lives Matter movement.
However, for some already-unstable individuals, it can boil over into terror, hate, and indiscriminate violence: blowback. Ismaaiyl Abdullah Brinsley was filled with hate when he killed two off-duty NYPD officers in 2014 following the killing of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. So was whoever killed five police officers in Dallas yesterday following the killing of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.
True justice is always individual and never collective. Badges do not grant extra rights, but neither do they negate the human rights of officers. Victims of police violence have a right to protect themselves from current attacks with proportional defensive force against actual perpetrators. They or their heirs also have a right to secure restitution from the specific individuals who violated their rights. But collectivist “retribution” is neither defense nor restitution.
Just as international terrorism is often blowback from international war and occupation, the sniper attack on cops in Dallas yesterday was blowback from American police acting as a domestic army of occupation. And just as the victims of terror attacks do not deserve to be killed for the crimes of war-making politicians, the victims of yesterday’s shootings did not deserve to be killed for the crimes of other cops.
Collectivist retaliatory violence is not justice. It is despicable warfare and murder. That does not change the fact that refraining from collectivist violence is not only the right thing to do, but is also the best way to avoid collectivist retaliatory violence: that is, to avoid blowback. We are not “blaming the victim” when we counsel a foreign policy of peace. It is not only right; it is also the best way to be safe from terrorism. Neither is it “blaming the victim” to counsel a domestic policy of justice. It is not only right; it is also the best way to be safe from civil unrest and domestic terrorism.
Originally published at fee.org on July 8, 2016.
Wednesday, two shocking videos of police officers fatally shooting civilians (Alton Stirling and Philando Castile) surfaced. The day before, many were appalled to hear the Director of the FBI announce that Hillary Clinton would not be charged for mishandling classified information. The two events may seem unrelated, but at bottom, they concern the same fundamental problem: impunity.
Impunity is the essence of power. What, after all, is power? Is it simply the capacity to exert unjust force? The ability to impress one’s will upon the flesh or belongings of another? No, it’s more than that.
Most anyone can wield unjust force. Anyone could walk out onto the street right now and exert their will on somebody weaker: say, pushing over an old lady or stealing candy from a baby. And the toughest, or most heavily-armed guy in town can strong-arm just about any other single person.
But isolated incidents of aggression do not constitute power. The “reign” of the rogue rampager is generally short-lived. It only lasts until the community recognizes him as the menace to society that he is and neutralizes him.
Power isn’t simply about the exertion of unjust force. It is about what happens next, after the exertion. Does the perpetrator generally get away with, or not? Systematically getting away with it — or impunity — is where power truly lies. And that is what makes agents of the State different from any other bully. State agents can violate rights with reliable impunity because a critical mass of the public considers the aggression of state agents to be exceptionally legitimate. Impunity is power, and as Lord Acton said, power corrupts.
The Impunity of the Badge
State impunity is at the root of the problem of police violence. As agents of the exalted State, the police are seen as paladins of public order. The populace grants cops a special dispensation to commit violence that would be considered criminal if perpetrated by anybody else. This privilege is enshrined in law most clearly as the doctrine of “qualified immunity.” As Evan Bernick of the Institute for Justice wrote:
In the 1967 case of Pierson v. Ray, the Supreme Court held that police officers sued for constitutional violations can raise ‘qualified immunity’ as a defense, and thereby escape paying out of their own pockets, even if they violated a person’s constitutional rights.
When victims of police violence or their heirs seek redress and are awarded monetary payments, it is taxpayers, and not the cops, who pick up the tab. Police officers are rarely even prosecuted for violence inflicted while they’re on the clock. The worst that an offending officer can generally expect to face is getting fired, but he will more likely just get a paid suspension.
Thus insulated from responsibility, officer treatment of “mundanes” is predictably often grossly irresponsible. Confident in being sheltered from consequences by their “blue privilege,” officers are far more prone to indulge in lethal cowardice: to place “officer safety” so far above civilian rights that they are willing to gun down a stranger at the slightest whiff of potential danger. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile each carried a gun, as they have the natural right to do. Neither threatened the officers with his weapon, or even brandished it. Yet in both cases, merely becoming aware of the guns sent a cop into a murderous panic. Both Sterling and Castile were fatally shot multiple times in the chest.
The Impunity of High Office
State impunity not only corrupts the regime’s low-level enforcers, but its elite policy makers as well. The FBI let Hillary Clinton off the hook for secrecy violations she committed as Secretary of State, even though these were much more egregious than violations that have earned lower-level personnel decades in prison. She used technology that was more open to being compromised by spies and hackers, while at the same less open to legal and public scrutiny.
But the kinds of activities she was hiding are far more criminal than the fact that she hid them. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton played a key role in bringing war to such places as Libya, Syria, and Honduras, and in escalating the war in Afghanistan. She is complicit in causing untold death and misery.
Yet, thanks to her connections and her position in the state power apparatus, she faces no consequences for her crimes, and is free to acquire even more immunity and power as a likely President of the United States.
It is the “sovereign immunity” she enjoys as an office-holder that has made Hillary Clinton so reckless and cavalier about the havoc she has wreaked around the world. If she thought she might ever be held accountable for upending entire countries, she would have likely been far less warlike in her policies.
From policing to foreign policy, impunity corrupts, and absolute impunity corrupts absolutely.
Originally published at fee.org on July 7, 2016.
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