The images that saturated social media over the last few days all should have borne warnings of their graphic content. The first depicted a police officer in Louisiana repeatedly shooting Alton Sterling, a thirty-seven-year-old black man, at point-blank range while he was pinned to the ground. That was Tuesday. The next day, an extraordinary ten-minute video showed Philandro Castile, a thirty-two-year-old black resident of Minnesota, bleeding to death in the front seat of his car after being shot by an officer in a Minneapolis suburb, again at point-blank range, during what should have been a routine stop for a burned-out taillight. In the video, Castile’s girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter look on, helpless, as the police do nothing to aid Castile. The third video, from Thursday night, showed police officers and a crowd of peaceful protesters in Dallas running for cover from a sniper who shot twelve police officers and two civilians, killing five of the officers, in a mass shooting inspired by police abuse.
“Violence begets violence,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., warned, echoing the Biblical injunction that those who live by the sword die by the sword. Rarely has the adage been more sadly apt. According to Dallas police chief David Brown, the Dallas gunman, Micah Xavier Johnson, said he was angered by the police shootings and wanted to kill “white people, especially white officers.”
There was no link between those peacefully protesting the week’s police shootings in Dallas and Mr. Johnson’s hate crime, nor, of course, between the officers who shot Mr. Sterling and Mr. Castile and those who died serving as peace officers. But the connections between the three shootings nonetheless have deep roots in the American soil. As a culture we have too often chosen to address our problems with violence, even as we continue to make guns widely available so that citizens can do the same. We reflexively resort to force to address foreign policy challenges, whether in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Nicaragua, El Salvador, or Grenada. We spend more on our military budget than the next seven largest militaries in the world combined. And we declare endless “wars” on crime, drugs, terror, or the latest disease.
Our Constitution was predicated on socially sanctioned violence, in particular the force that was necessary to relegate about 500,000 of our fellow countrymen and women to slavery. It took a civil war to eradicate that sin. An entrenched system of state and private terror enforced Jim Crow segregation for decades thereafter.
The founding commitment to force is also reflected in the Second Amendment—whether it is viewed as preserving a prerogative of states to field militias or, as the Supreme Court has declared, an individual right to bear arms. As I wrote recently in The New York Review, Americans own about 300 million guns, or 88 for every 100 people, more guns per capita than any other nation. Each year, more than 30,000 Americans die by gunfire. Our gun murder rate is about thirty times that of the United Kingdom, which has strict gun laws, and where the vast majority of the police do not carry firearms. So far this year, according to The Washington Post, more than five hundred people have been killed in police shootings. Both of the men shot by police this week were carrying guns.
But in this instance, it is the “war” on crime itself that is most to blame. More than any other nation in the world, we turn to the state-sanctioned compulsion of the criminal justice system to “solve” social problems, including mental illness, drug addiction, poverty, homelessness, and lack of opportunity. Our “first responders” are too often the police, bearing handcuffs and guns rather than public assistance or life support. We arrest and incarcerate our fellow citizens at the highest per capita rate in the world. And those targeted are disproportionately black and Hispanic men living in poverty-stricken inner-city neighborhoods. We can’t seem to find the resources to invest in those neighborhoods to support adequate schools, job training programs, after-care for children let out of school before their parents come home, or economic development. But we are more than willing to pay enormous sums for more police to patrol the neighborhoods and prisons to house inmates taken from these communities. Our prisons in turn are ruled by violence and the threat thereof, from both guards and fellow inmates.
This state violence breeds private violence. As black and Hispanic citizens lose their trust in the fairness of the criminal justice system, the system breaks down. Yale Law School professor Tom Tyler has shown that a healthy society relies heavily on the perceived legitimacy of its laws for compliance and enforcement. When citizens lose faith in the legitimacy of the system, they are less invested in adhering to its dictates and cooperating in its enforcement. That, in turn, too often leads the police, denied the soft power of legitimacy, to resort to violence. And as Jill Leovy powerfully demonstrated in Ghettoside, once the law loses legitimacy in a region, gangs also step in.
We have seen violence erupt in response to police abuse before. In the 1960s, police encounters sparked uprisings in cities across the country, laying waste to what few resources those living in the inner city had. After the 1992 acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King in Los Angeles, similar unrest broke out there. This time, though, the protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful, even as the acts they are protesting are anything but. And Mr. Johnson’s sniper attack bears more resemblance to the Orlando and San Bernardino mass shootings than to the spontaneous community uprisings of the past.
There are important differences, to be sure, between military invasions, drone strikes, police shootings, gang executions, violent popular uprisings, terrorist acts, and sniper attacks. But what all of these incidents share is the precipitous, unjustified, and ultimately corrosive resort to violence. If we are to escape the cycle of retribution, we need to follow Dr. King’s lead and pursue a path of nonviolence. This is true not only of the protesters, to whom King’s remarks were addressed, but, even more critically, of the government—and of all of us. As Americans we have been far too complacent in the face of state-sanctioned violence. As long as the guns are pointed at others, we turn our heads and look away. But until we begin to demand alternatives to state violence, the killing will not cease.