Back in July of 2013, when the jury delivered its verdict on the trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin, many pundits wailed in dismay and bewilderment: “What are we to teach our kids about this outcome?” “How can I sincerely tell my son or daughter that the criminal justice system will protect them as faithfully as their white counterparts?” “How can black children be safe when white murderers cannot be punished?” Now, in the Missouri town of Ferguson, a grand jury has decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the wrongful death of Michael Brown, and in the midst of the resultant protests, demonstrations, and riots, we hear similar refrains from activists and media alike.
I am not, nor have I ever been a parent; but I hope to be one someday, and I find myself asking the same questions, though for a different reason. Most critics of the criminal proceedings—or lack thereof—view these tragedies as harmfully reshaping social norms. They fear the resurgence of a world in which racial prejudices invade our social and legal institutions, tipping the scales of justice in favor of those who, all else being equal, would be punished or penalized.
While we should not ignore those concerns (I would caution, however, that the arbitrary and excessive use of police force is not strictly a racial issue), Ferguson’s reaction to the grand jury’s decision leaves me wondering if a different, yet equally insidious social standard is not being fashioned in the aftermath. What am I to tell my son when he sees the riots in the streets? When he sees the burning and looting, the abject disregard for persons and property, the hair-trigger uproar upon receiving the official decision, how should I explain it?
I would start by telling him that the social norms of our nation are, in fact, regressing to a more archaic state. But it is not in the manner that mainstream critics predict. I would respond to my son’s inquiry with some questions of my own.
If criminal justice proceedings that employ facts and evidence are met with such blatant, open hostilities as we see today, how can we claim to value those methods of adjudication? And if we do not value facts and evidence, what criteria will we choose instead to accurately judge these situations? By definition, the only alternative to judgment based on facts and evidence is judgment based on prejudice. How can we claim to be judging someone by the content of their character if this is the norm?
When all people, not just police officers, face the proposition that any use of deadly force for self-defense will invariably be met with a public outcry and racial controversy, regardless of the final verdict on the justifiability for that action, how will that engender feelings of safety and good will in racially diverse communities? How will neighbors come to regard each other when such occurrences foster the political-identity attitude that breeds racial and class antipathy?
How will the health and integrity of our public discourse fare when we automatically label as racists and oppressors those people who adhere to the principle of justified deadly force in self-defense, and express their support for those who exercise it? This abolishment of any possibility for active listening would seem only to neuter the freedom of speech.
As these new, changed norms spread and ossify, how long would we have before they start to permeate our legal institutions? How would the behavior of criminal justice officials change under the continual specter of riots and destruction? That change, for which the many loud activists clamor, may indeed produce outcomes that they find more agreeable, but would that be a testament to the triumph of some universal notion of justice, or would that be the result of acquiescing to those who most credibly threaten mass violence?
Even setting aside how I would teach my son, I wonder how his interpersonal relations should change as a result of us condoning riots. How can I advocate strict adherence to a principle of non-aggression when social or legal outcomes can be so easily and legitimately influenced by wanton violence? Is it wise to instruct my son only to use force in self-defense when I know that others will not hesitate to incite and partake in violence to achieve their political goals? And if he follows their example, by what criteria should he do so? What moral cause is great enough to warrant such action? In an act of disservice to the rest of us, the people now in the streets neglected to establish such a standard before commencing with their holy march, seemingly relegating the question of what constitutes a just cause to peoples’ fickle and subjective whims.
For some of these questions I can only speculate as to the answers; some of them are simply impossible for any intellectually honest libertarian to answer, as they invite only arbitrariness. Luckily for me, I am not yet in the position of having to confront these questions with an impressionable child, so I will focus on preventing such matters from becoming prevalent while I have the time. Granted, the issues of excessive force by police and civil asset forfeiture are being brought to the forefront right now, and we should refrain from pretending they do not exist; but of more immediate and fundamental concern should be a restoration of confidence in the use of facts, reason, and evidence to judge disputes. A justice system that operates by any other mode is really not a justice system at all—it perpetuates not a rule of law, but rule of man. That is not a world into which I would want to bring a child.