Andrew Brown, Jr.’s killers — lethal bullies hiding behind badges, groomed under America’s toxic regime of law enforcement — will go unpunished, and protests will again fill the streets.
In addition to the militarized police officers charged with the duty of maintaining the racial order, protesters will be accompanied by a familiar refrain from those in positions of authority: “Violence is not the answer.”
Advocates against violence call upon an impressive pedigree.
Two of America’s greatest heroes — Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — each in their own way called on non-violence to achieve great things, Lincoln by seeking “malice toward none” and “charity for all” in the wake of a bloody fraternal conflict and Dr. King by orchestrating a nationwide campaign of civil disobedience to defeat racial segregation.
The examples of these men, some tell us, teach the power and propriety of non-violence as a vehicle for change in America.
The president and the minister, though, were exceptions to the American rule: Remember that we responded to their prophetic messages of benevolence by shooting them both in the head — just as the cops shot Andrew Brown.
Lincoln and King and Brown are dead, and more bodies will fall as the forces of reaction cling to power and the past.
But violence isn’t the answer, we’re told.
Laws don’t work.
Prosecutors don’t work.
Juries don’t work.
Judges don’t work.
Legislatures don’t work.
Cops have killed, are killing, and will continue to profile, target, assault, and kill people of color with near-impunity, and none of the normal channels of non-violent political action seem capable of meaningfully changing this reality, but violence still isn’t the answer. It’s never the answer, we’re told.
But we don’t really believe that. America doesn’t disavow violence. It never has, and it still doesn’t.
We are a country born of violent revolution against an overreaching government, and we grew over a continent by violently displacing millions of native people and violently enslaving millions of Africans and their descendants.
The Declaration of Independence, which articulates the essence of our civic faith, puts forth the compelling moral argument for violent rebellion.
The Constitution enshrines a right to own firearms, which are but tools of violence to be held at the ready in the event of tyranny, and it grants Congress the power to declare wars and to raise a military capable of fighting those wars.
And fight we have.
We fought a terrible Civil War to preserve the country.
In the last century, we fought two world wars, one to make the world safe for democracy and the other to defeat fascism. We concluded the latter by dropping atomic bombs on two Japanese cities populated by hundreds of thousands of people, a gratuitously violent decision of the sort not made by any other country in the history of the nuclear age.
While the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have dominated our recent national conversation about America’s role in the world, during our nation’s life, and to name but a few examples, we’ve brought violence to Mexico, Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, the Philippines, Chile, Nicaragua, Grenada, Kuwait, Libya, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Iran, Syria, Guatemala, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia, and Colombia.
Literally today, the federal government and the foreign policy establishment stand by as our close ally Israel commits war crimes, slaughtering Palestinian men, women, and children with some of the billions of dollars in military equipment we’ve provided in recent years.
We spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year on our own military, which supports hundreds of bases across the country and around the globe. No other nation comes close to spending as much. More than a million people serve as active-duty members of the armed forces, ready at a moment’s notice to become agents of violence in service to the state.
Domestic police budgets approach $100 billion a year, and the essence of law enforcement’s work is to commit, or threaten to commit, violence against the people — with guns, Tasers, chemical weapons, billy clubs, and fists. We, the people, thank these officers for their violent work and hold them up as heroes.
We spend $80 billion a year to incarcerate 2.3 million people, holding more people per capita behind bars than any other nation in the world.
A few times a year, we strap an arbitrarily selected person to a gurney and, in the name of the public, put him to death by pumping poison into his veins. (In South Carolina, we’ll soon tie him to a wooden post and riddle him with bullets or strap him to a wooden chair and electrocute him.) This our founding charter expressly allows.
We buy millions of guns per month in America, and we average between 30,000 and 40,000 gun deaths per year, a figure that causes us to flinch not at all. Mass shootings are so commonplace as to be unremarkable unless the carnage is especially severe.
Television shows, movies, music, and video games are awash in violence.
For many of us, the comfort of our nightly dinner is made possible only by the violence of factory farms that torture hundreds of millions of animals a year and the violence of exploitative labor practices here and abroad that render workers little more than serfs.
When we rise for the national anthem at sporting events, we celebrate the country by reference to bombs and rockets and a “perilous fight.” The red of the star-spangled banner for which we stand, President Ronald Reagan once explained, represents “courage and readiness to sacrifice.” That is, bloody, bodily, violent sacrifice.
The seriousness of public policy proposals is connoted by declaring war on that which we seek to eliminate: cancer or drugs or poverty.
And when many of us attend religious services on Sundays, a gruesome instance of capital punishment lay at the center of our experience, an ancient analog to Andrew Brown’s state-sanctioned murder.
Violence saturates America.
It’s a hypocrite’s lament, then, for America to claim that violence can never be a proper reaction to systemic, intractable injustice, for America herself very often chooses violence in service to ends both great and small.
America, in her current state of unrepentant depravity, cannot in good faith press for a categorical prohibition of violence in response to the nation’s deadly racism. For now, she can honestly say only that, like her, each of us must inevitably choose for ourselves, in all the decision’s awfulness and awesomeness, whether and when any ethical preference against violence gives way.