Guest Opinion: Less shouting and more listening

The Baltimore Sun
July 12
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Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith, Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarripa. Some of those names might be familiar to the average reader, but most are probably not. They are the seven people who were shot and killed last week in Baton Rouge, La.; Falcon Heights, Minn.; and Dallas, Texas — deaths that have triggered much anger and fear in many quarters and renewed concerns about the relationship between police officers and the diverse communities they serve.

Unfortunately, much of the public reaction to these events — what has captured headlines and sound bites, tweets and other social media postings — has been shrill, hysterical and divisive. Instead of spending some reasonable amount of time mourning the dead and comforting their families or allaying our collective fears, entirely too much energy has been devoted to angry, often politically minded hyperbole that seeks to fan the flames of hate and intolerance.

Exactly what happened at these three events — two involving black men killed by police officers in what should have been routine encounters and the third a lone shooter’s ambush that killed five police officers and wounded nine others — is still under investigation. But that hasn’t deterred many Americans (with no small assist from the media) from declaring “wars” or “uprisings,” or blaming these events on candidates for president, or making one outrageous pronouncement after the other about the horrible state of the country.

Perhaps what is needed is a national timeout this week as these victims are laid to rest, a moment of quiet reflection and contemplation instead of remarks like that of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who spent the weekend pointing to the Black Lives Matter movement as a cause of the police officer deaths. Sorry, but efforts to call attention to racism within our society and the longstanding disparities with which African-Americans are treated by the criminal justice system and other institutions is not to blame for a contemptible act of domestic terrorism by a lunatic entirely disconnected to that organization.

After the death of Freddie Gray last year, a point was made early in the resulting protests that deserves to be repeated: Condemning irresponsible or even potentially criminal behavior by police doesn’t make a person anti-law enforcement or pro-criminal anymore than supporting the work of police departments as a whole makes someone inherently racist. One can be pro-police and pro-equality. Indeed, we believe that’s the position of the vast majority of Americans — once all the bombast and nonsense is filtered out.

We expect police officers to be held accountable in the shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota if they are found to have been at fault. And at the same time, we mourn the horror that took place in Dallas and extend our sympathies to residents there and police — especially to Police Chief David O. Brown, who has been a steady and at times heart-wrenching voice of reason since the tragedy and has called for an end to the “divisiveness between police and our citizens.”

As President Barack Obama, has already observed, those who attack police officers do a disservice to the cause of social justice. But he has also noted that in any cause, there are always individuals who will make “stupid” or over-generalized statements about those with whom they disagree. Black Lives Matters has produced its share of hot-headed, misguided rhetoric. So have those like Giuliani who see only racism in an anti-racism cause.

As awful as the events of last week may have been, little is accomplished by abandoning reason and allowing the extremists among us to capture the public dialogue and set the nation’s agenda. At the heart of these episodes are the actions of a handful of individuals, the worst of whom is now dead, killed by a bomb-disposal robot. That leaves about 319 million Americans for whom the sun will rise and set this day without a moment’s personal contemplation of murder or mayhem. What is needed now is not more hysteria and panic but a calm, cool commitment to equal justice regardless of race, creed, religion or the color of your uniform. As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. observed, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.