The temptation is to say that we’ve reached a breaking point. That the center cannot hold. That, as The New York Post irresponsibly splashed across its front page, we’re now in a civil war.
The truth is far more complicated than that. This is not 1968. Or 1861. A nation is not torn asunder. Protesters didn’t join the snipers. There was no police riot.
The truth, the hard truth, is that we are finally being forced to take a harder look at ourselves, to ask honest questions about violence, about race, about polarization, about demonization, about politics, about media, about the desire to look for easy answers in a complicated world.
And in the most obvious truth of all, we are forced to look again at gun violence, even as the sound of Dallas gunshots echo in our ears.
If anything, this should be more a tipping point than a breaking point. But sadly, whether we can successfully confront any of those truths is, at this point, very much an open question.
It’s made harder still by the political climate, in which division has become the default position. As Philip Bump points out in The Washington Post, the answer of who to blame for Dallas is usually whoever you didn’t already like. And so former Rep. Joe Walsh* of Illinois, who is now a talk radio host, blames Barack Obama, tweeting (in a now-deleted post) for the president to “watch out … Real America is coming after you.”
In fact, when a politician honestly stands up to say that peaceful protest didn’t kill the Dallas cops and that race was the determining factor in the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, that becomes news.
There’s much we don’t know about the horrific attack on Dallas police, just as there is much we still don’t know about the deadly police shootings in Minnesota and Baton Rouge.
But there are certain things we do know after three days of pain.
We watched two men die. You can’t just walk back from that. We saw them close up, on video, in pointless, tragic real time, black men killed by police for no discernible reason, blood gathering from their wounds as we watched. And strangely, both men were carrying guns — guns that were apparently legal, yet almost certainly contributed to their deaths.
We know there is no civil war. In Dallas — which, in the saddest kind of irony, has been often praised as a model for its police-community relations — it was a night of peaceful protest against police shootings in other cities until one or more snipers opened fire, killing five and wounding a dozen. The attack was constantly replayed, taken from smartphone-collected videos, on our TV screens, an attack that meant, for once, we could not help but be collectively shocked by the level of violence in our midst.
What we heard was the kind of gunfire we typically hear from Fallujah or some other war-torn city. What we saw were people running for their lives because someone, or some few, moved by some twisted rationale, fueled by easy access to shocking firepower, targeted the good guys with guns. And so a nation mourns. Again.
And so we can’t help noticing certain truths.
When Castile was killed after a traffic stop for a broken taillight, his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, testified on a streaming Facebook account what was happening, so there would be an accounting. If you haven’t watched it, please watch it now. We don’t know all the details of Castile’s death, but this was a truth as told by someone whose loved one is dying beside her while cops caution her to keep her hands on the wheel. She said that Castile had his hands up when he was asked to reach for his ID, that he told the officer he had an apparently licensed-to-carry concealed weapon, that, as we saw, he lay dying from a series of gunshots. We saw that the officer seemed shocked by what he had done, screaming profanities. The panic was as clear there, in its own way, as it was in Dallas.
As I watched, I couldn’t help wondering why cops had come to both windows for a broken taillight, why Castile and Reynolds had their hands raised, why, after the shots were fired, it took so long for paramedics to get to the scene, why the cops didn’t immediately try to treat Castile. Why Reynolds was handcuffed as if she were the danger. Why a cop fired into a car as a four-year-old girl sat in the back seat.
When Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton witnessed the video, he had to ask what everyone would ask: Would a white person have been treated the same way? He said we had to concede that we know the answer.
If you don’t, ask yourself this: Have you ever been asked to raise your hands after a routine traffic stop? Have you ever had a cop point a gun at you? I never have. Have you ever had to explain to your daughter why a senseless act — as, thankfully, Donald Trump called it today in a statement about the days of violence — caused her mommy to cry out for mercy?
The day after Castile was killed, a shaken Obama said, “All of us as Americans should be troubled by these shootings, because these are not isolated incidents. They’re symptomatic of a broader set of racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system.”
A day later, he would talk of the horror of the Dallas shootings and how nothing could justify them. And because he felt compelled to, Obama said that access to “powerful weapons” make these attacks “more deadly and tragic.” He might have noted, as he will on another day, that in 1963, only a few blocks from these Dallas shootings, Lee Harvey Oswald had taken a mail-order gun and killed John Kennedy. Obama would, of course, be accused of politicizing the deaths when he was, in fact, as in the police shootings, calling for justice and sanity.
The Dallas police chief said that the gunmen told police he wanted “to kill white people,” particularly white cops. And we nod, knowing that we had come to this. The shooter, an Iraqi vet, said he acted alone, although three others are in custody. We’ll eventually learn more. But it’s already clear that this summer of rage is more a summer of outrages, where the American story is being written as a series of American tragedies that we continue to be unwilling to address.
Anyone who seriously wants to make America great again has to know where to begin.
*Correction: A previous version of this post misstated a name. It was former Congressman Joe Walsh who posted a tweet, not Joe Wilson, who is a current congressman.
Photo credit: Johnny Silvercloud, Creative Commons, Flickr