A white cop kills an unthreatening black man at point-blank range during a traffic stop, and liberal activists demonize law enforcement. A black sniper executes five officers from one of the most reform-minded police departments in the country, and conservative commentators demonize the Black Lives Matter movement.
Our dominant political culture in this country is sick. From Ferguson, Mo., to Dallas, too many of us organize our reactions to news events by antipathy to hated political tribes.
“#DallasPoliceShooting has roots in first of anti-white/cop events illuminated by Obama,” tweeted Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa.
Democrats did not fail to sink to the occasion, either. “If this Congress does not have the guts to lead, then we are responsible for all of the bloodshed on the streets of America, whether it be at the hands of people wearing a uniform or whether it’s at the hands of criminals,” Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., said Friday morning, using the opportunity to advance his party’s gun-control agenda.
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We have “the war on cops,” even though fewer officers were fatally shot in 2015 than in all but two years over the last decade. We have a “war on people of color,” even though the number of citizens shot by police has plummeted since the early 1970s.
This hyperbolic war of words is unfolding as the federal criminal justice reform movement, which could mitigate the tension, is collapsing – because we are viewing the world through tribe-colored glasses.
The events in Ferguson brought to the forefront many criminal-justice issues that had been percolating for decades: overincarceration, prosecutorial immunity, the militarization of police and so on. Meanwhile, the proliferation of cellphone cameras and social media kept these issues in the news.
A newfound sense of urgency gave rise to some unlikely, bipartisan coalitions.
But the constellation of sentencing reform bills that would have undone some of the damage signed into law 20 years ago by then-President Bill Clinton got hung up last month, ironically, by the same concept that allowed Hillary Clinton to escape from prosecution: mens rea, or criminal intent.
Capitol Hill Republicans argue people who don’t know they are committing a crime shouldn’t be prosecuted. Democrats smell a monocle-wearing rat. “Mens rea proposals could allow white collar criminals to escape prosecution,” warned the ostensibly pro-reform Center for American Progress earlier this year.
As FBI Director James Comey told hostile Republicans on Capitol Hill last week, “We don’t want to put people in jail unless we prove that they knew they were doing something they shouldn’t do.” But Senate Democrats have said mens rea is a “poison pill” they refuse to swallow before the July 15 congressional recess.
And now anti-reform conservatives are using the Dallas shootings to drive a stake through the heart of compromise. “It’s time for GOP leaders to finally just say no to the empty the prisons agenda of Black Lives Matter and other agents of Blue hate,” trumpeted Americans for Limited Government last week.
The same habit of mind that creates enemies out of fellow citizens seems destined to block much-needed reform. If there’s a safe bet to make, it’s that the politics displayed last week will produce many more victims.
Matt Welch is a contributing opinion writer to the Los Angeles Times.