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Right Opinion

Law Enforcement Is Not the Enemy

Josh Hammer · Jun. 5, 2020

The unjust and indefensible death of George Floyd in Minneapolis has ignited the combustible spark that laid barely beneath the surface of the months-long coronavirus lockdowns and self-inflicted economic ruination that the lockdowns have entailed. And the destructive outburst of that simmering tension has been ugly to watch.

The past week has seen the streets of America’s greatest cities descend into Third World, banana republic-style anarchy. The footage of bands of looters, rioters and well-orchestrated anarchists roving urban corridors, smashing storefronts and shooting law enforcement is at once harrowing and deeply depressing. The outrageous videos that blanket our news coverage ought to raise the hackles of any American with even the faintest sense of civic decency.

To be sure, the peaceful conveying of grievances has a lengthy history in our legal and cultural tradition. But there is all the difference in the world between publicly remonstrating via lawful channels and exploding in rage so cataclysmic so as to make the worst excesses of 1960s-era radicalism look rather tame. The former is quintessentially American; the latter is quintessentially un-American.

No one wins from violent rioting. Rioters, centered as they are in urban areas, oftentimes inadvertently end up disproportionately harming minority businessowners and minority communities — as the bereaved family of slain retired St. Louis police officer David Dorn, himself a black man, has now learned in the most painful possible way. What’s more, such riots, off-putting as they are to every American uninterested in returning to the world of Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan,” are not even effective as a utilitarian means of spurring social reformation.

But at a deeper level, the widespread societal angst against law enforcement currently permeating our blinkered discourse is misplaced. It also bespeaks a disastrous ingratitude for the integrity of the rule of law as an indispensable institutional safeguard — without which a free republic risks crumbling into the abyss.

Trite though it is, the sensitivities of our time nonetheless deem it necessary to preach the axiom that there are some bad cops. The self-hating elites in our ruling class would have us believe that this is some sort of profound insight. It is not. There are some bad cops, just as there are some bad teachers, accountants and grocery clerks. To paint with a brush any broader than that, and to depict an entire profession as systemically corrupt, is to deny the primacy of the individual moral agency that is central to the human condition.

There are any number of robust policy discussions that can, and should, be aired about policing in America. We can debate “qualified immunity,” a judge-made doctrine that limits civil liability for governmental actors and which was itself crafted in response to prior bouts of judicial activism. More widespread use of body cameras for law enforcement officers, an issue raised during past high-profile police confrontations, should be reconsidered. And perhaps above all, we should closely inspect whether police unions — much like all public sector unions — unduly inhibit the ability of municipalities to fire bad cops. There are always countervailing concerns — and disincentivizing good people from wanting to become cops would be self-defeating — but we should entertain these discussions.

But we cannot permit such policy debates to be the only discursive byproduct of this once-a-generation mayhem. It is high time to advance justice-based, overtly moralistic argumentation about the centrality of the rule of law and law and order as objective societal goods that conduce to human flourishing — the end goal of politics, in the classic Aristotelian formulation.

Without a proper and orderly respect for just laws — such as respect for private property rights — and a proper civilian obeisance to that exercised just authority, there can be no advancement for humankind. All of the sundry institutions that enhance the human condition, from the marketplace to the university to the local fitness center, necessarily depend on a citizenry following the rule of law. That rule of law must be predicated upon justice — “the end of government,” James Madison tells us in “The Federalist No. 51” — but when it is done so, the citizenry must comply. Here, Minnesota prosecutors are pursuing justice against Officer Derek Chauvin. That is how it ought to be — that is justice.

The overwhelming majority of cops in America today are good people who put their lives on the line every day to defend the rule of law in the most just nation ever conceived. Stop rioting and be grateful for what you have.

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