This is been a difficult week in the United States, as the tragic murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling have been followed up by the murders of at least 5 police officers in Dallas, including Brent Thompson, a grandfather who had just gotten married two weeks earlier. Normally, I don’t comment too much on this kind current event, because I fear that I have little to add to a discussion that is already filled with loud voices. However, this time it’s personal.
My wife and daughter have been in Dallas all week for the USA Fencing National Championships; Marissa competed yesterday. Their hotel is a block away from the shootings, so close that when the attack began, they could hear the shots ring out and the screams of the crowd from the hotel swimming pool (needless to say, they got inside as quickly as possible). They had walked through the scene of the crime several times earlier that day, and could easily have been out there during the attack.
Many people think that living in Silicon Valley is like a bubble, and they are largely correct. As I drive from gleaming corporate campus to gleaming corporate campus, or up to the boardrooms of Sand Hill Road, it’s easy to think that my little corner of the world is separate and protected. But ultimately, we are still part of the larger world, as this week’s events demonstrated to me. These aren’t someone else’s problem, they’re all our problem.
And the root cause of the problem is that as a society, many people have chosen to emphasize our differences rather than what we share. These people, including prominent politicians, but also private citizens, and, even if you’re not willing to admit it, probably you and me at some point, have portrayed other Americans as “the enemy.”
“They just don’t get it.”
“I just don’t understand those people.”
We seem to have lost the ability to separate disagreements from hostility.
Let’s be clear. We are not enemies. Police officers are not enemies. The Black Lives Matter movement is not an enemy. Even Donald Trump is not an enemy (though he sometimes talks like one).
America has real enemies, who wish to harm our country, its citizens, and their way of life. These enemies don’t recognize or care about our disagreements; the simple fact that we are Americans is enough to make us a target.
And even when engaging in combat with our enemies, regardless of their level of evil and atrocity, we should behave honorably. We should not terrorize civilian populations, or torture prisoners.
It is human nature to want revenge. It is our great challenge to rise above that desire to seek justice instead. Crime should be punished, but using due process, not vigilante justice. And if the criminal justice system is biased, it should be reformed, not circumvented at gunpoint.
In that sense, Dallas represents what’s great about America as well. In the wake of the dreadfully unjust murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, the protesters in Dallas assembled peacefully to advocate for reforming the system. The officers of the Dallas PD were there to facilitate the protest, closing off streets and respectfully working with the protesters to help the rally run smoothly. And when the shooting began, both protesters and police officers showed their heroism and bravery. Police officers moved protesters to safety, and rushed towards the shooting to address the threat. One protester, Shetamia Taylor, threw herself on her sons and shielded them with her body when she heard the shooting begin (she was shot in the leg, but is recovering in the hospital).
The shooters apparently targeted police officers in a misguided attempt to avenge the deaths of Castile and Sterling (and so many other black men) at the hands of police officers. The irony of targeting innocent members of a group simply because of their membership in that group appears to have been lost on them.
We need to remember how much we share, and see each other as individuals, and groups of individuals, rather than as “the other.” We need to humanize, not dehumanize, our fellow Americans, and to work within the laws (to which we’ve all implicitly agreed by living here) when we want to seek change, whether that change is to reform policing practices, or to loosen restrictions on gun sales.
Laws aren’t always just–Southern segregation laws were only overturned 50-60 years ago. Law enforcement isn’t always fair, and clearly wasn’t in the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. Yet vigilante justice is a poor and poorly-thought-out alternative. Cops who won’t play by the rules, and vigilantes who deal out justice to those who have perverted the system may make for entertaining movies, but they are a terrible model for real life. Steven Pinker notes that throughout most of human history, when we lived in tribes or in a feudal system, about 15% of people died violent deaths. Compare that to the homicide rate in the United States today, which is about 4 deaths for every 100,000 people per year, and we’re orders of magnitude safer than than the bad old days of might makes right.
(Note that even this rate is a disgrace; our homicide rate is 4X that of the United Kingdom. Also, black people are 3X as likely to be killed by police as white people.)
I doubt my words will convince those who derive power, prestige, and/or money from divisiveness to eschew their harmful tactics. But we don’t have to listen to them. They only have power when we allow them to change our hearts and minds. So the next time you’re tempted to blast “them” on Facebook or write an angry tweet about “those people,” try to resist. They are not your enemies. You may disagree with them, you may dislike them, but they are still fellow Americans. You should try to change their minds peacefully, and if they react with violence, don’t seek vengeance, seek justice. Gandhi famously said, “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” The protesters and police officers in Dallas understood this. The attackers did not.
UPDATE: Here are the names of the five officers who died in the attack (via the Washington Post):
Brent Thompson, a 43-year-old transit police officer; Patrick Zamarripa, a 32-year-old police officer who served three tours in Iraq with the U.S. military; Michael Krol, a 40-year-old officer who joined the Dallas police in 2008; Lorne Ahrens, a former semi-pro football player and 14-year veteran of the Dallas police; and an officer identified in media reports as Michael Smith.