12 November 2014

The world watches Ferguson

Some Americans are sure to be annoyed at the idea of a United Nations commission investigating the killing of Michael Brown by a Ferguson MO policeman last summer. Look at the comments thread for this report of Browns' parents testifying in Geneva and you'll see some troll calling them traitors. Others find it ridiculous if not offensive that the U.S. should be subject to scrutiny from an anti-torture committee when so many dictatorships elsewhere are self-evidently worse. They've forgotten a golden rule: judge not, lest ye be judged. There are lots of people in the world whose notion of individual rights may not be as expansive as Americans', yet are probably more sensitive to the ways discrimination or ethnic inequality belie any country's pretense of liberty. This should be old news to us. Ever since Americans declared independence with Jefferson's eloquent rhetoric, critics have questioned our rhetoric's credibility by citing our treatment of Africans and/or Native Americans. Even before the Declaration, Samuel Johnson asked of the Americans, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" Communists in the 20th century would always bring up the blacks when challenged about their own oppressive policies, while many American politicians pragmatically endorsed the Civil Rights Movement in an attempt to deny the Commies this rhetorical point. To this day, one part of the appeal of "radical Islam" is its insistence that their religion doesn't countenance racial discrimination. Sure, Arabs enslaved Africans by the millions back in the day, but those were pagans so that was okay. Around the world, equality is a value that transcends ideologies. Whether a government is liberal, authoritarian or totalitarian, it matters that it treat people the same. Some may even prefer a regime that oppresses everyone equally, depending on how you define oppression, to a regime where liberty appears to be reserved for certain groups only. Of course, some will be hypocritical in criticizing the U.S. while discriminating against unfavored groups at home, and it can be argued that any regime's pretense of egalitarianism is hypocritical once you see the sordid reality behind the rhetoric. But we should avoid the ad hominem fallacy of assuming that if a dictator says we're wrong, we must be right. We should probably also resist the temptation to see the Ferguson case as symbolic. Michael Brown is almost certainly not as innocent as his grieving family and their friends claim, but the cop who shot him is almost as certainly not as innocent as police apologists insist. At the least, in the latter case, people have a right not to see him as an innocent -- not to accept the police or pro-police interpretation of the incident as the last word on the matter.

Ferguson is poised for more unrest as everyone awaits the determination of a grand jury, the authorities warning against violence if Brown's supporters don't get the justice they've demanded but also allowing for peaceful protest if it comes to that. One side wants the policeman prosecuted, while another abhors the idea. A compromise should be possible, one that stresses answerability more than accountability. It may not be necessary or appropriate to prosecute police in all such cases, but a "truth commission" in all such cases might be in order. If relatives of murder and manslaughter victims get to confront and denounce convicted perpetrators in court, it may be proper for police to face the same informal judgment in a public forum from the families of those they've killed, even if they face no legal penalty. If the police are at least answerable to the bereaved to some extent, that might relieve the sense of oppression, the feeling that the government has no interest in them other than to keep them quiet, that has driven the Browns to Geneva. But if you think that the Browns are doing this only for publicity, or with an eye on some future payday, or that they're dupes of some enemy of America, these considerations probably won't mean anything to you. You're probably hopeless, and you're definitely part of the problem, even if you don't see one here. The fact that others do see a problem here may be a problem for you someday. But if you think it's none of their business if they're not from here, please remember how you feel now when you feel like criticizing the ways other governments treat their people. In this case, equality is the only rule we can recognize. If we can criticize them, they can criticize us. If we can act on our criticisms, so can they on theirs. Judge not lest you be judged.

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