The murder of George Floyd is sparking a long overdue examination of police brutality targeting African Americans. But the racial issue — as important as it is — obscures another problem. Focusing only on race distracts us from something far more menacing.
An offense against one American is an offense against us all. This is not about justice for black people.
It’s about justice.
When the actions of the police violate fundamental values upon which this country is based, they cannot go unchallenged.
The United States and most European counties are liberal democracies. That means that our most basic principles are individual freedom, limited government, equality and elected representatives.
However, to ensure social stability government has a “legitimate monopoly on coercive power”. If we want to be a part of society, we must submit to the ability of the government to impose painful consequences. The certainty of those consequences — fines and imprisonment for the most part — discourages anti-social behavior.
We give police a measure of that coercive power. They can invade our privacy and physically compel us to comply with their orders.
But when we give that authority to others, we must hold them on a very short leash. We must watch them very carefully and tolerate no abuse of power or authority.
It makes no difference whether we are talking about racial minorities suffering brutality at the hands of local police or if we are talking about the Justice Department making secret investigations of political leaders of the highest levels of government.
Law enforcement officials must be certain that overstepping their authority will result in swift and decisive punishment.
If that does not happen it gives the appearance of approval. It normalizes abuse of power and makes it acceptable.
That makes it even harder to correct injustices in the future. If those injustices expand entire governments can become corrupted.
Remember that the police represent the government. Ignoring the values of liberal democracy may start on the streets but it spreads upwards. Government can become an enemy of the people rather than its servant.
That’s where fascism begins.
Not with goose stepping soldiers but with law and order edicts, utopian goals of health and safety, and no tolerance for dissent.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, people begin to serve the needs of government, instead of government serving the needs of the people.
Heavy handed government assaults on freedom of movement, association, and exercise of religion to halt the spread of COVID-19 is meeting resistance.
Protests against police brutality might have started in Minneapolis, but they are now spreading worldwide. They are also changing focus to the slow creep of government authoritarianism in liberal democracies.
The slide towards authoritarianism is being challenged in countries all over Europe.
This is a good thing because it shows that people everywhere embrace the Enlightenment ideals of individual sovereignty — the idea that the best societies are built on individuals pursuing their own self-interest, and government staying out of the way of that pursuit.
It will be interesting to see if this movement spreads to China, Russia and Hong Kong.
These are places where authoritarianism has been most prominent lately. The Chinese even made public statements to the effect that noncompliance with COVID-19 directives could not happen in their country because of the draconian social controls they have in place.
It is interesting to note that these global protests are being held in defiance of stay at home orders and generally ignore social distancing directives.
These are as much protests against government authoritarianism in the context of COVID-19 as it is protests against American racism. It’s hard to separate where one begins and the other ends.
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