Tragedy upon tragedy: America suffers its worst week in nearly 15 years

July 9, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 9, 2016

This week, two men — two black men — who did not seem to pose an imminent threat to anyone were shot to death by police officers in Baton Rouge, La., and in a suburb of St. Paul, Minn. About 24 hours after the death of the second man, Philando Castile, a gunman began firing at the conclusion of a peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstration in Dallas. Five law enforcement officers died; eight other people were wounded, all but two of whom were police.

More than two years ago, I called April 2, 2014, “a most American day” because of the events that took place on a seemingly ordinary Wednesday. That morning, the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision that eased restrictions on political donations, thereby further paving the way for America’s wealthy to expand their influence on the nation’s political process. That afternoon, a mass shooting took place at Fort Hood in Texas, as three people were killed and 13 others injured by a soldier who subsequently took his own life.

That was a bad day, and bad in ways that were characteristically American; that is, in ways that showed off our nation’s embrace of money and guns. This past week, I think, has also been uniquely American, and for some of the same reasons. In fact, I think this has been the most discouraging week for our nation since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

That dire week contained but one tragedy, but it was of such magnitude — four planes hijacked, and later crashed, with all lives aboard lost; buildings in two cities hit, with people of seemingly all nationalities and from all walks of life affected — that the country and world spent days trying to come to grips with it.

This week, we’ve seen much smaller tragedies, but the feeling is similar to 9/11 in that it’s been difficult to keep track of all the needless suffering.

There was the death early Tuesday morning of Alton Sterling, a gentle-natured 37-year-old CD peddler and father of five who was fatally shot outside a Baton Rouge convenience store after being Tasered by police. Sterling was carrying a handgun, one he’d apparently bought only hours before his fatal encounter with police. He made the purchase after hearing of another CD seller who had been robbed.

When a homeless man badgered him for money, Sterling showed the gun in order to discourage him, which prompted the 911 call that led to the shooting. According to witness accounts, Sterling was confused about why officers had approached him, and he was neither holding nor reaching for his firearm when police spotted the weapon and then fired on him. Two videos of the shooting were circulated widely on the Internet and TV.

The nation was still absorbing this awfulness when, around 9 p.m. Wednesday, police in Falcon Heights, Minn., stopped a car driven by Diamond “Lavish” Reynolds due to a faulty taillight. Her boyfriend, Castile, a widely beloved 32-year-old elementary school cafeteria supervisor, was sitting in the passenger seat. As concealed-carry owners are advised but not always legally required to do, Castile apparently informed the officer that he had a firearm permit and a handgun. According to Reynolds, Castile was following instructions and reaching for his identification when a police officer fired four times. He died at a nearby hospital at 9:37 p.m.

Both of these deaths seem to have been completely avoidable. Worse yet, they seem to repeat a pattern in which black men were shot and killed by police officers who, almost inevitably, face no legal consequences for their actions and who are not even indicted, in many cases.

In fact, the killings recall a cycle in which some Americans recognize and lament the insidious ways that racism — often unconscious or structural racism — make life more difficult for minorities. When things play out as per usual, conservatives inevitably blame President Barack Hussein Obama for being the most racially divisive president ever and far-left radicals suggest, or sometimes state, that all cops are inherently evil and racist, even the minority ones.

When the entire thing blows over, after the hostile exchanges of #blacklivesmatter vs. #bluelivesmatter and #alllivesmatter on Twitter have died down, nearly everyone seems to forget what has just happened and the situation resets as all the players prepare to repeat the cycle; all the players, of course, except for the dead men, who are forgotten by all but a relatively small circle of family and friends. Karl Marx once famously suggested that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. If so, then I would posit that America’s pattern of police violence — especially against black men — has devolved beyond farce to whatever pale imitation of clowning passes for entertainment in the lowest circle of hell.

This time, of course, the cycle was interrupted by a 25-year-old Army veteran who had served in Afghanistan. A man reported to have an arsenal of weapons and bomb-making equipment stashed at his Texas home opened fire in Dallas Thursday evening, and as the hours rolled by, the death toll seemed to climb: First two officers dead, then three, then four and eventually five.

In part because of the shooter’s proficiency with firearms, in part because Texas is an open-carry state, and in part because American law allows private citizens to purchase deadly weapons with seemingly minimal constraints, police struggled to identify possible shooters and at one point believed they were looking for multiple suspects. Ultimately, the Army veteran was identified as the lone shooter. He died when police, believing there was no way to apprehend the suspect without risking further injuries or deaths, used a robot to deliver and detonate a bomb.

And so a nation that was struggling to come to terms with police violence is once again trying to cope with a mass shooting — one that comes less than a month after a lone gunman mowed down 49 people in Orlando in the deadliest gun massacre in American history. The same political battle lines that were drawn after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 and the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012 and all the other mass shootings were drawn, and nothing substantive changed.

And even before the Dallas shooter was a identified as a militant black man, people and institutions on the right seemed to urge their followers to take up arms against their fellow citizens. The New York Post’s cover screamed “CIVIL WAR,” the Drudge Report insisted that “Black Lives Kill” and a former congressman tweeted “This now war. Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives punks. Real America is coming for you.” (The congressman, now a conservative radio host, later deleted the message and claimed that he was not caring for violence.)

It seems clearer to me than ever that our nation’s mix of racism and political polarization becomes not just toxic but deadly when combined with the easy available of guns. But will Americans find the will to set ourselves on a path that preserves civil society? One can only hope.

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