My rush to judgment

This week there were two viral stories online that really set me off. The first was about a doctor in Campbellton, New Brunswick who travelled to Quebec, didn’t self-isolate and inadvertently brought COVID-19 back to his home province. The other, complete with shocking video, involved an 18-wheeler barreling into a crowd of peaceful protesters in Minneapolis.

I lashed out against both on Facebook. (I would have done it on twitter, too, if I hadn’t wisely deleted my account.) I called the New Brunswick doctor shockingly irresponsible and said the trucker was literally a terrorist.

Now that the dust has settled, it turns out that stories lacked crucial context.

John Hinderaker at the conservative Minnesota-based blog Power Line notes that the trucker wound up on the closed highway by mistake and did his best to warn and avoid the protesters when he saw them. Amazingly, no one was seriously hurt or killed.

Vechirko, it turns out, had made a delivery to a black-owned gas station and innocently ventured onto the highway before authorities had effectively closed it. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but Vechirko was hauled out of his cab and beaten by “protesters.” He was rescued before they could murder him. [Co-blogger Scott Johnson] wrote:

Trailer truck driver Bogdan Vechirko has been defamed by House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler and disparaged by Governor Tim Walz. Driving his rig on Highway 35W in Minneapolis, he was surprised to come upon “protesters” packing all lanes of the road in front of him. If he had wanted to hurt them, he could have taken them out like bowling pins. Instead, Vechirko blared his airhorn and brought his rig to a stop before he hit anyone.

Vechiko was beaten by the crowd and denounced by several Minnesota politicians…and by me.

Meanwhile, a Facebook friend of the New Brunswick doctor has a lengthy post explaining why he shouldn’t be scapegoated:

He was also savaged by politicians. And again, on my own Facebook page.

The Covington incident from early 2019, in which a group of teenagers were subjected to a witch-hunt based on misleading photos and video, was a defining moment for me. Even when I thought the boys were in the wrong, I believed the response was unnerving and over-the-top. When it turned out they were innocent but even professional journalists kept piling on anyway, it made me fear for society itself. Social media is whipping us up in angry mobs.

(People say mainstream media is making it worse, but I believe the opposite: mainstream media is under pressure to join the mob after it’s flared up. By my reckoning, the average American liberal angrily cancels his or her New York Times subscription five times a year because of an insufficiently judgmental headline or doubleplusungood op-ed.)

For all of my self-righteousness about these online mobs, it turns out I’m just as guilty. I have to be better. We all do.

Here’s how a great man 150 years ago avoided publicly flying off the handle:

Abraham Lincoln had a brilliant tactic to dial down his anger during the Civil War, a time when the country wasn’t just divided–the house was “on fire,” according to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new book, Leadership in Turbulent Times.

[…]

According to Goodwin, when Lincoln was angry at a cabinet member, a colleague or one of his generals in the Union army, he would write a letter venting all of his pent-up rage. Then–and this is the key–he put it aside.

Hours later or the next day, he would look at the letter again so he could “attend to the matter with a clearer eye.” More often than not, he didn’t send the letter. We know this was Lincoln’s tactic because years after his death historians discovered a trove of letters with the notation: never sent and never signed.

Lincoln practiced this habit for three reasons. First, he didn’t want to inflame already heated passions. Second, he realized that words said in haste aren’t always clear-headed and well-considered. Third, he did it as a signal–a learning opportunity–for others on his now famous “team of rivals.”

Twitter wouldn’t be such a dumpster fire if it held your tweets for 24 hours before they become public.

What year is it anyway?

The joke going around these days is that halfway through 2020 we’ve already had 1919 (pandemic), 1929 (stock market crash), 1968 (civil unrest) and 1974 (impeachment).

The #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd protests, and associated rioting and police brutality, are conjuring up memories of this famous Nixon campaign ad from 1968:

Trump has modeled much of his political career on Nixon’s 1968 campaign, and some fear the unrest of 2020 will help his re-election campaign. I don’t know. Unlike Nixon, who could point to civil disorder festering during the Presidency of Democrat Lyndon Johnson, the current situation is happening on his watch.

Trump’s position is more like that of President George H.W. Bush during the L.A. riots in 1992, only he’s handling the situation much more ham-handedly. But David Frum thinks the best comparison is with 1920:

…Trump will not repeat Nixon’s success in 1968, because he does not understand that success. Nixon joined his vow of order to a promise of peace at home and abroad. Trump offers only conflict, and he offers no way out of conflict, because—unlike Nixon in 1968—Trump is himself the cause of so much conflict.

If Trump seeks historical parallels for his reelection campaign, here’s one that is much more apt. There was a campaign in which the party of the president presided over a deadly pandemic at the same time as a savage depression and a nationwide spasm of bloody urban racial violence. The year was 1920. The party in power through these troubles went on to suffer the worst defeat in U.S. presidential history, a loss by a margin of 26 points in the popular vote. The triumphant challenger, Warren Harding, was not some charismatic superhero of a candidate. He didn’t need to be. In 2020 as in 1920, the party of the president is running on the slogan Let us fix the mess we made. It didn’t work then. It’s unlikely to work now.

Hopefully Biden will be an improvement on the guy who won in 1920. He will almost certainly be better than the guy who won in 2016.

Some take a knee to protest, others bend the knee to submit

This man was considered the future of the Republican Party, once. Now he’s defending his God-Emperor having protesters (and allegedly actual clergy) tear-gassed so he could have a photo-op holding a Bible as awkwardly as Michael Jackson kissed Lisa Marie Presley.

Trump’s opponent this fall, acting like an actual leader, met with demonstrators in person and talked to them.

But I want to go back even further, to another time when the United States of America was at war with himself. The President back then was loathed passionately by his political opponents. I’m sure death threats flooded into the White House every day. And then a shooting by authorities inflamed tensions even further.

But that President nevertheless went to the Lincoln Memorial one night, without a heavy security presence, and spent two hours talking to anti-government protesters and hearing their concerns.

That President’s name was Richard Milhous Nixon.

Update: speaking of Tricky Dick…

Iran stands up for social justice (stop laughing)

I love the compare-and-contrast in this Reuters story:

Iran took Washington to task on Saturday over the alleged killing of an unarmed black man by a white police officer that sparked protests in the United States over racial injustice.

“Some don’t think #BlackLivesMatter,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Twitter. “To those of us who do: it is long overdue for the entire world to wage war against racism. Time for a #WorldAgainstRacism.”

[…]

Separately, Iran’s interior minister indicated in an interview that the death toll in November street protests in Iran over fuel price hikes was below 225.

The reported toll has varied between an Amnesty International figure of over 300 and a Reuters account of 1,500 – both dismissed by the authorities.

No one tweets #IranianLivesMatter.

That said, just because Iran says America has problems with racism and police brutality doesn’t mean it isn’t true. My message to the American government would be to work toward making it harder for hostile governments to speak out against human rights abuses in the US, just as Soviet propaganda embarrassed Americans into supporting the goals of the Civil Rights Movement.

My message to the Iranian government would be: خودت را جدی بگیرید

(I love Google Translate)

What took them so long?

Former prosecutor Andrew McCarthy has a good piece in National Review explaining why charging Officer Chauvin with Third Degree Murder and not a more serious charge was the right move – and why officials’ delay in arresting him was inexcusable:

Hennepin County attorney Mike Freeman announced that Chauvin is being charged with third-degree murder — sometimes called “depraved heart” or “depraved indifference” homicide. Under Minnesota law, third-degree murder occurs when a person, without intent to effect the death of a person, nevertheless causes death by an act that is “eminently dangerous to others” and “evince[es] a depraved mind, without regard for human life.”

The penalty is imprisonment for up to 25 years.

This is probably the appropriate charge. It is always dicey to make assessments when we do not know what evidence investigators have, but second-degree murder, which provides for up to 40 years’ imprisonment, must have been considered. That is a “crime of passion” type of homicide — not premeditated, but nonetheless intentional, out of an intense emotional impulse. From what we know of the incident, this appears more elongated and depraved than instantaneous and impulsive. Obviously, I am assuming first-degree murder and its potential life sentence were not on the table because there is no apparent proof of premeditation. (Minnesota does not have capital punishment.)

We don’t have “third degree murder” in Canada. It strikes me as most similar to our offence of “criminal negligence causing death,” which involves “wanton or reckless disregard for the lives or safety of other persons.”

To be sure, police necessarily get a measure of consideration that the rest of us do not. When police get involved in an altercation, it is presumptively because they are doing their duty to keep the peace, not because they are causing the confrontation. Police use force under the color of law, so, other things being equal, a police use of force enjoys a presumption of legitimacy that a similar use of force by you or me would not.

All that said, it is well known that police may not use excessive force. It is obvious, and was in real time, that Chauvin’s use of force on Floyd was excessive. And this was not a situation in which, after excessive force, everyone dusted off and went on their way. Mr. Floyd died.

Investigators did not need to be sure that they could make a third-degree murder charge stick to know that some kind of prosecutable homicide happened in the killing of George Floyd. This was not a fleeting incident, or a situation in which Floyd was resisting — he was pleading for his life. At the very least, this was a negligent homicide; more likely, it was something worse. Obviously, it was a crime. When a violent crime has clearly happened, the person who committed it should be placed under arrest, immediately.

I doubt it will be fatal to the case, but the prosecution is going to take some hits over the delay. Chauvin’s lawyers will contend that he was not arrested because investigators recognized that there was insufficient evidence; they will add that he was only charged because Minneapolis was burning and the mob had to be satisfied. I do not believe that claim will overcome the evidence of guilt. But the claim would not be available if Chauvin had been arrested promptly, as he should have been.

Floyd’s family is demanding that Chauvin be charged with first degree murder, for which premeditation and intent to kill must be proven. Another controversial and heavily scrutinized murder case – not involving police, but fraught with racial tensions – suggests that would be a very bad idea.

Public outrage about this case is understandable – read this piece by basketball icon and social activist Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to see why African-Americans in particular have had it – but it would be cruelly ironic the outrage forces prosecutors into mistakes and Chauvin is acquitted as a result.

And who would bet against that in this misbegotten year?

Where were the cameras?

Like I said the other day: Canadians shouldn’t get too smug and self-righteous about police brutality in the United States, because it is very much a problem here. Maybe not to the same degree, but definitely a problem.

And now we have this controversy brewing in Toronto:

Questions are swirling about exactly what happened to a woman who apparently fell to her death from an apartment balcony in Toronto’s High Park neighbourhood on Wednesday.

What began as a 911 call for help for Regis Korchinski-Paquet ended in her death, her family told reporters at a news conference on Thursday.

[…]

The family’s news conference comes after video of Korchinski-Paquet’s mother and cousin emerged on social media alleging police pushed her from the balcony. 

“The police killed my daughter,” Korchinski-Beals said in one video. 

Ontario’s police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit, said in a news release Wednesday night that while officers were inside the apartment unit, they “observed a woman on the balcony.”

“A short time later, the woman fell from the balcony to the ground below. She was pronounced dead at the scene.”

In a second release Thursday, the SIU said it is “aware of allegations made by certain family members of the deceased” and is looking to speak with anyone with information. An autopsy was scheduled for Thursday afternoon.

[…]

…Toronto’s police chief is urging any witnesses to contact the SIU.

“We know this incident has caused a great deal of concern, and our thoughts are with the family and the community,” Saunders said in a statement. “Let me be very clear that we want the facts as much as anyone.”

Saunders said the force is co-operating with the SIU but is not “legally permitted to discuss the incident at this time.”

At a news conference Thursday, he suggested no body cameras were in use at the time, saying, “This might be a textbook case in which body cameras should be provided.” [emphasis added]

This case is more ambiguous than what happened in Minneapolis precisely because there’s no video. And the question is, why not? Aside from undercover operations where officers’ identities could be revealed, why aren’t they always wearing them?

Body cameras would document police misconduct, and that’s precisely why officers should want to wear them. It’s like Mike Pence’s rule about not being alone with women to whom he isn’t married, so he’s not accused of anything improper.

We’ve entrusted police officers with power and authority unavailable to civilians. It would be nice if we could trust them with it, no questions asked – and it is very heartening to see several officers from the US and Canada speaking out on social media – but for our own safety we need video footage. And so do they, for their own safety and for the sake of their reputation.

Two things that can be true

One: When unarmed African-American men keep dying at the hands of police, and these police officers aren’t promptly charged and ultimately convicted of murder or manslaughter, and the police departments in question have long, disturbing histories of singling out Black people for mistreatment, and all of this is happening on the watch of a President who plays footsie with racists and neo-Nazis and even personally spreads conspiracy theories about his African-American predecessor, it is perfectly understandable that frustration will eventually boil over and some desperate people will resort to violence.

As Martin Luther King Jr., an advocate of non-violent civil disobedience whose life was taken by a white racist, said: “I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.”

Two: whenever people protest peacefully against an injustice by the state, there are always a few shit-disturbers and self-professed “antifascists” who break off, start wrecking things and ruin it for everybody. Even Sean Hannity is on their side for once, but they’re going to piss away an opportunity to advance real social change. And among those rioters are opportunists who see an opportunity to cash in by stealing things. Burning down Autozone isn’t going to end police brutality. Burning down a freaking affordable housing development isn’t going to end racism.

As The Onion‘s “Our Dumb Century” book put it, “L.A. Rioters Demand Justice, Tape Decks.”

As for Rod Dreher’s headline, are these riots “unintentionally pro-Trump”? I dunno. Rioting in the late sixties certainly helped Nixon get elected, but his whole message was that he could restore law and order to a country falling into civil unrest under a Democratic President. By contrast, the 1992 Los Angeles rioting certainly didn’t help George H.W. Bush’s re-election chances.

Trump will use violent imagery from Minneapolis in his re-election campaign, with the clear message that he can protect Americans from these people, wink wink. But the fact is, this is happening on his watch. Joe Biden, second-in-command to the first Black President, might be able to do something about it. Trump has proven that he cannot.

The problem with police goes beyond racism

Another week, another police killing of an African-American man caught on video, this time in Minneapolis:

Four Minneapolis police officers have been fired for their involvement in the death of a black man who was held down with a knee as he protested that he couldn’t breathe, officials said Tuesday.

The FBI is investigating the incident, which drew widespread condemnation of the officers after a video showing part of the encounter circulated on social media.

The death of George Floyd, 46, drew hundreds of people to the streets of Minneapolis on Tuesday.

Protesters — many wearing face masks — held “I can’t breathe” signs and chanted together near the site of Monday’s incident. Some motorists honked in support.

[…]

Mayor Jacob Frey has said the technique used to pin George Floyd’s head to the ground was against department regulations.

After several minutes of pleading with an officer pressing a knee to the back of his neck, the man appeared motionless, his eyes shut, his head against the pavement.

Frey, speaking during a town hall streamed on Facebook, said the officer had no reason to employ the hold on the man’s neck.

“The technique that was used is not permitted; is not a technique that our officers get trained in on,” he said. “And our chief has been very clear on that piece. There is no reason to apply that kind of pressure with a knee to someone’s neck.”

The video shows two officers by the man on the ground — one of them with his knee over the back of the man’s neck. The video did not capture what led up to the arrest or what police described as the man resisting arrest.

“Please, I can’t breathe,” the man said, screaming for several minutes before he became silent. Bystanders urged the officer to release the man from his hold.

When white police officers kill an African-American suspect, there’s really no way to remove racial issues from the case. As Snopes notes, African-Americans and other racial minorities are sadly overrepresented among people killed by American police officers.

And yet, as the same article concedes, a plurality of police shooting victims are not people of color:

Any “analysis” of police killings will of course show that in absolute numbers, more white people are killed in police shootings than black people, because (non-Hispanic) whites comprise a roughly five times greater share of the U.S. population (62% vs. 13%). So any “analysis” that is based on nothing more than absolute numbers and does not take demographics into account is inaccurate and misleading.

[…]

According to Fatal Encounters, the database created by former Reno News & Review editor and journalism instructor Burghart (which tracks all deaths resulting from interactions with police), a total of 1,388 people were killed by police in 2015, 318 (23%) of them black, and 560 (40%) of them white. So roughly 23 percent of those killed by any police interaction in 2015 were black and just over 40 percent were white. According to those statistics (adjusted for racial demographics), black people had a 2.7 higher likelihood of being killed by police than whites.

The grim trend has carried over into 2016. …

If systemic racism were the only reason this keeps happening, I suspect these already disturbing numbers would be even more disproportionate than they already are. Not to mention the fact that sometimes – as in the heavily publicized Freddie Gray case in 2015 – some officers involved in the killing of African-American suspects are themselves Black.

(And then there’s this freaking lunatic, who represents everything wrong with American law enforcement, and who had a bad habit of letting people die of dehydration in his jails before he was finally forced out.)

I wonder if the increasing militarization of police forces, as documented in Radley Balko’s excellent, disturbing book Rise of the Warrior Cop, is a major factor. The recent Waco miniseries which aired on Netflix has some major problems – it is way too charitable toward cult leader David Koresh and his inner circle – but there is a very memorable scene in which Michael Shannon’s FBI negotiator character surveys the military equipment deployed by law enforcement and discusses the difference between the mission of police officers and that of the military. Police are supposed to defuse volatile situations; military personnel are trained to kill.

It’s now very common for surplus military equipment to end up in the hands of law enforcement – aided and abetted by the Trump Administration, because of course it would be – and it’s hardly a stretch to imagine a militaristic kill-everything-that-moves mindset trickling down even to the lowest ranking police officers.

When you see the public as potential enemies instead of citizens you’re trying to serve, you’re going to have more and more incidents like the killing of George Floyd. That’s why I say it’s always – always – your duty as a citizen to take out your phone and film whenever you see police arresting a suspect.

I don’t feel this way because I am opposed to the police. I feel this way because I respect police officers – who, like Cst. Heidi Stevenson, regularly put their lives on the line to protect us – and want them to do their jobs properly. A free society must be able to trust its police forces.

By the way, if you’re a Canadian reader feeling characteristically smug about another racially tinged police killing in Donald Trump’s America, stop pretending things like that don’t happen here:

A B.C. woman who uses a walker for mobility has been awarded $55,000 in damages after a judge determined she was “falsely arrested, falsely imprisoned, assaulted and battered” by an RCMP officer in the province’s north.

Irene Joseph was 61 years old when Const. Darrin Meier forced her to the ground and tried to handcuff her outside a Mark’s Work Wearhouse in Smithers back in December 2014.

The officer suspected her of shoplifting, according to a court decision that was posted online this week, but let her go after a search of her purse failed to turn up any stolen merchandise.

Joseph, who is reported to be an elder from the Wet’suwet’en Nation, sued the Attorney General of Canada over the encounter, and a B.C. Supreme Court justice ruled in her favour on Friday.

Ms. Joseph thankfully survived. Otherwise, the cases are remarkably similar. (As I’ve long said, we Canadians are not as similar to Americans as Americans think, but not as different from Americans as we like to think.)

Trump: the Unmanliest Man

Someone once said the President is a poor man’s idea of a rich man, and a stupid man’s idea of a smart man. Tom Nichols adds, he’s a weak man’s idea of a strong man:

…since his first day as a presidential candidate, I have been baffled by one mystery in particular: Why do working-class white men—the most reliable component of Donald Trump’s base—support someone who is, by their own standards, the least masculine man ever to hold the modern presidency? The question is not whether Trump fails to meet some archaic or idealized version of masculinity. The president’s inability to measure up to Marcus Aurelius or Omar Bradley is not the issue. Rather, the question is why so many of Trump’s working-class white male voters refuse to hold Trump to their own standards of masculinity—why they support a man who behaves more like a little boy.

[…]

Is Trump honorable? This is a man who routinely refused to pay working people their due wages, and then lawyered them into the ground when they objected to being exploited. Trump is a rich downtown bully, the sort most working men usually hate.

Is Trump courageous? Courtiers like Victor Davis Hanson have compared Trump to the great heroes of the past, including George Patton, Ajax, and the Western gunslingers of the American cinema. Trump himself has mused about how he would have been a good general. He even fantasized about how he would have charged into the middle of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, without a weapon. “You don’t know until you test it,” he said at a meeting with state governors just a couple of weeks after the massacre, “but I really believe I’d run in there, even if I didn’t have a weapon, and I think most of the people in this room would have done that too.” Truly brave people never tell you how brave they are. I have known many combat veterans, and none of them extols his or her own courage. What saved them, they will tell you, was their training and their teamwork. Some—perhaps the bravest—lament that they were not able to do more for their comrades.

But even if we excuse Trump for the occasional hyperbole, the fact of the matter is that Trump is an obvious coward. He has two particular phobias: powerful men and intelligent women.

Ann Coulter – undeniably a strong and intelligent woman, whatever else you can say about her – has had enough. And Trump, normally so quick to lash out against even right-wing critics on Twitter, hasn’t responded. Make of that what you will.