Friday, June 16, 2000


We Should Worry About Police Violence

Originally published in National Review Online

6/16/00 12: 15 p.m.Amadou Diallo and the conscience of today's conservative.

By Robert A. George in Intellectual, April 29, 1999
he aftermath of the horrific shooting by four New York police officers of African immigrant Amadou Diallo — 41 shots and three months later — provides a significant clue to one of the most vexing questions of politics. Why aren't more blacks Republican?
African Americans provide conservative responses to many public-policy questions when polled; fully a third of them describe themselves as "conservative," and the entire community goes to church in greater proportions than whites. Given all this, why don't blacks vote conservative in greater numbers?

Perhaps it is because conservatives, advocates of the merits of a limited, non-intrusive government, seem all too ready to scrap this philosophy when the government in question is local or state. Furthermore, when the state agency is law enforcement, conservatives seem quick to defend its exercise. To an African-American community only two generations removed from the "state's rights" period, this inconsistency is regarded with suspicion. The subsequent failure of conservatives to recognize the legitimate concerns of law-abiding black citizens creates a clear void.

Many moderate African Americans and other public figures joined Al Sharpton in protesting law enforcement in New York City, in part because in their response to the Diallo incident, the voices of the conservative movement became the cheerleaders of big, sometimes arbitrary and capricious government.

Rushing to the defense

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, conservative Boston University law professor George Kelling, one of the authors of the "Fixing Broken Windows" crime-fighting philosophy, passionately defends New York's police work and how the Diallo incident may have transpired: "[I]n the chaos of a shooting that lasted only a few seconds, a stumbling officer, ricocheting bullets or reflected gunfire flashes disoriented officers, confirming the misperception that Diallo was shooting at them and leading them to keep firing."
Kelling misses the point. It is more than the fact that shots 39, 40, and 41 were discharged; protesters and Americans across the nation are horrified that the first shots were fired — on an unarmed individual.

In the National Review, former editor John O'Sullivan goes further and defends the NYPD's "stop and frisk" policy on the grounds that, because blacks and Hispanics commit more crimes, "it is more than reasonable for a city police force to risk hurting the feelings of those who fit a criminal 'profile' by frisking them for guns in order to save hundreds of people from being murdered."

Leave aside the fact that this is unconstitutional; O'Sullivan hardly presents a principled case for a limited-government philosophy where individuals are treated as individuals.
In The Weekly Standard, John Podhoretz writes of a "War on Giuliani" and urges conservatives to line up in support of "a specific kind of governance whose success is a dagger pointed at the heart of American liberalism." Podhoretz takes this theme with him to his day job as editor of the New York Post's editorial page, which stands as the principal champion of the mayor in the city.

This is a valid argument — Giuliani's enemies are taking advantage of the situation to undermine his remarkable crime-reduction successes. However, principled conservatives, such as Podhoretz, should pause and consider the heart of the legitimate problem here: What do we revere more — "order" or the foundational principles of a philosophy to which we claim allegiance?

A frightening parallel

Consider that the Diallo story arises at a time when four other NYPD cops are going on trial for allegedly beating and sodomizing another immigrant — Haitian-born Abner Louima. The two cases are, on the surface, radically different: Louima's case seems clear-cut police brutality and criminal assault; Diallo seems an awful mistake.

But if any other government department had a record where, over an 18-month period, one person was physically harmed and another ended up dead at the hands of that agency, conservatives would suggest something might be wrong there -- criminality, incompetence or lack of training, "something."

We do not even have to imagine such a circumstance: We have seen it twice in recent years. In 1992, the FBI encircled the home of separatist Randy Weaver and ended up shooting and killing his wife and son. Conservatives screamed about this abuse of power. They were not content until the person who shot the rifle — and his supervisor — were punished. A year later, when Janet Reno gave the go-ahead for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to firebomb the Waco, Texas, compound of the Branch Davidians, Republicans demanded and produced congressional hearings.

Here, law enforcement did not get the benefit of the doubt. On the contrary, many on the right rushed to criticize official actions. They did so, even though in each case, the "victims" were heavily armed, generally perceived to be dangerous and, in the case of Waco, had already used deadly force to kill federal agents.

Speaking for blacks

Given this inconsistency, it is little wonder that many African Americans are wary of embracing a political philosophy whose adherents fail to see them as individual citizens, but as members of a potential "suspect" class unworthy of constitutional protections.
It is not merely Giuliani's political career or the reputation of the NYPD at stake. Conceivably, it is the abiding moral integrity of the movement and the future electoral success of the Republican Party. If the philosophy of limited government, the movement of responsible government and the party of responsive government are to remain credible, their adherents cannot stand silent.

Decrying the hypocrisy and chicanery of liberals is not enough. If conservatives truly believe that our philosophy is not merely just more practical or efficient, but is, in fact, morally superior to a bankrupt liberalism — then we must not turn our heads at what is a critical moment.

Either conservatives believe in a limited government for all, or they do not. We cannot trade the nanny state for even an intimation of a police state. Both eventually corrupt the soul of the individual — the building block for a good society. This, in turn, fosters the disrespect for the law and public institutions that the rules and regulations were first developed to stem. 
Thus are sown the seeds for public disorder.

If African Americans can be convinced that conservatives will stand up for them — and 
principle — against a seemingly invasive government, perhaps enough trust will develop that will allow Republicans to get their vote. Otherwise, it will be a long time before a significant number of blacks embrace this political philosophy. And in standing for the minority community, conservatives and Republicans can stand for all Americans.

We all could do well to remember the closing words of the protagonist of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. "Who knows, but for on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?"

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