Local failure, national tragedy | WORLD
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Local failure, national tragedy

Broad-brush solutions to social problems are worse than futile

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On the night of May 28, while the city of Minneapolis was on fire, Dawn Frederick noticed that looters had broken into a gas station on her block. Understandably, she called the police. Unfortunately, she tweeted about calling the police.

Frederick is the founder of Red Sofa Literary Agency, well known in bookish circles. Within an hour, three agents associated with Red Sofa resigned in protest over the tweet, citing their commitment to racial justice and the threat posed by law enforcement. Frederick tried to defend herself: “There were no protesters present. Zero protesters”—just people (black, white, or brown) running out of a smashed-in doorway loaded with stuff.

None of that mattered. The next day she apologized, but her agency appears to be in tatters, and it will probably take some time to recover. More publicly, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees apologized for defending the American flag, but the big red “cancel” sign on his back remains.

Everyone agrees that anger at the choking death of George Floyd is justified but disagrees about what to do with it. Celebrities, officials, and talking heads have rushed to the fight with their preconceptions: This happened because of racism, capitalism, inequality, corporate corruption. “Why wring our hands over a looted Foot Locker,” asks a Facebook friend, “when the richest one percent own half the world’s wealth?” Another says, “Years of peaceful protests have done nothing to end systemic racism—maybe it’s time for rage.”

At every flash point, generalizations bloom like clouds of smoke. We’re choking on them. Yes—inequality, racism, and corruption are the problem, but these are endemic to a fallen world. They can’t be “fixed” by policy, only moderated over time. When general sins find individual expression, they must be dealt with individually.

What made Officer Derek Chauvin kneel on the neck of George Floyd, ignoring Floyd’s pleas for air until the man blacked out? We will never fully know, because motives grow deep and tangled. We can’t address Chauvin’s heart, but we can address his behavior. Records in Hennepin County, Minn., indicate that other cases of overreach by this officer went ignored, and he may have assumed immunity for this one, too. If leaders had applied the disciplinary procedures on the books when they should have, Floyd might still be alive.

What motivated two plainclothes police officers in Louisville to break into the apartment of Breonna Taylor after midnight on the authority of a “no-knock” search warrant and shoot her dead after her boyfriend (reasonably enough) assumed they were invaders and started firing? We don’t know, but we can reason that no-knock search warrants are a bad idea and probably unconstitutional besides. Most of us didn’t even know there was such a thing.

What would have prevented Gregory and Travis McMichael from tracking down an unarmed black jogger and fatally shooting him? We don’t know, but we can take aim at the old-boy network that allowed the killing of Ahmaud Arbery to go unpunished until video emerged.

Trying to address a broad canvas of historic and persistent racism with broad-brush “solutions” (like defunding the police or trashing America) is worse than futile—it’s destructive. The law, as Paul explained in Romans 7, can’t reform the human heart. The law can restrain behavior when applied. At the local level, an overreaching cop went undisciplined, a faulty police procedure went uncorrected, and overzealous vigilantes went scot-free. At the local level, anecdotal failures spilled out in national rage. We point fingers at ultimate causes but can deal effectively only with the proximate ones.

Barack Obama put it this way: “It’s important for us to understand which levels of government have the biggest impact on our criminal justice system and police practices”—not Washington, D.C., but city hall.

God put it this way: “Love your neighbor”—not your cause, your pet peeve, or your tribe. This is where we can all do better, and we must.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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