We must rebuild the legitimacy of our government institutions

Legitimacy and moral authority. These are glue that binds government and its institutions like police, the courts, and the military to the citizens. When such institutions lose their legitimacy, they lose the moral authority that facilitates functioning as a society rather than a mob.

The legitimacy of governmental authority rests in the consent of the governed. In a democracy, that consent is based on an often fragile consensus of the populous about what power we cede to the government and what resources we are willing to give to the government to accomplish the tasks we have specifically given it. This is the fundamental social contract under which our republic functions.

The police (and the military) are granted a special exemption; we give them the right (under very limited circumstances) to use force against us (to limit our rights). Their ability to maintain order is predicated on our belief that they will use that power for our protection, even at risk to themselves. When they exceed those parameters, they cease being a legitimate representative of the state and lose their moral authority. We are witnessing what happens when this occurs.

Today, the schism we see is a direct result of a significant portion of our population losing faith in our institutions. This has been exacerbated by the sharp philosophical divisions in the country that demonize the opposite party, essentially delegitimizing their policy prescriptions. Congress has failed and Presidents have dictated policy through Executive fiat, further disenfranchising the electorate. It has come to a head in the recent incidents between police and the black community.

Racial unrest is nothing new to our country. The first recorded slave rebellion in America was in Virginia in 1663. The fact that it also included white indentured servants attests to the fundamental drive of universal human equality and economic opportunity that are consistent themes in our country’s history. It also highlights the fact that when a segment of the population is systematically excluded from the benefits of society, violent outbreaks are likely. They are also just as likely to be met with force to quell the revolt. These very same issues lie at the heart of the troubles today.

Unfortunately, peaceful demonstrations often devolve into violence. Legitimate protests easily turn to criminal activity which demands a response to protect lives and property. Yet, there seems no middle ground. Most people seem to be firmly ensconced on one side or the other, as if racial and social justice is incompatible with an orderly society.  They are not, yet we make it so.

There is a dangerous common theme underpinning both extremes: “the ends justify the means.” Fighting racial inequality rationalizes any manner of legal or illegal behavior. Looting becomes as acceptable as peaceful civil disobedience. “No justice, no peace!” On the other side, force is a necessary component of maintaining order. The “occasional” over-reach in the pursuit of law and order is tolerated. Criminal activity requires a powerful response. Overwhelming force is not only required to stop today’s actions, it is essential to deterrence of future actions.

Neither perspective is “correct.” Rioting may be understood as an ultimate expression of pent-up frustrations, but that makes it neither tolerable behavior nor legal. Likewise, the use of “unreasonable” force to restrain a suspect may seem justified to someone who has endured violence or abuse in the execution of their policing duties but seems abhorrent when viewed from an external context.

We cannot seem escape the tyranny of our own history even as we try to deny it. The enslavement of blacks and their treatment as “property” is truth. Minorities be they non-white or simply a designated underclass like the Irish in the 1800s, have always been the target of discrimination. Some groups have been able to assimilate into mainstream culture. However, we must recognize that while an Irishman may become indistinguishable from others of their race, people of color can never fully “blend in.” In a very real way, they will always not be “one of us” – the white majority that does hold the reins of power.

This is the tragic reality in which a significant portion of our population exists. It may make the recent excess of passion understandable, but it still cannot justify the lawless behavior of some protesters turned criminal. We must differentiate between the exercise of our Constitutional rights and criminal behavior and treat them accordingly. However, the line is so often blurred.

The question is whether we can rebuild the legitimacy of our national institutions? In this respect some actions are distinctly unhelpful if not outright detrimental. Calling on our active military forces to quell civil unrest, while legal under certain circumstances is terrible policy. I entered the West Point in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War. The military had lost its moral authority. No one said, “Thank you for your service.” Who would say that in the future if the public image is of soldiers marching down an urban street behind fixed bayonets? We cannot afford to undermine yet another public institution.

We cannot disband the law enforcement agencies because we fear rogue activity. They do provide for common security and if body cameras and training are required, so be it. We cannot acquiesce to the creation of semi-autonomous zones in which a few radicals get to declare their own set of “laws.” We must find a way to eliminate such situations that minimizes, but also accepts, the use of force. We cannot denounce protests that have legitimate grounds. We must critically examine our own prejudices and overcome our fear of change. If it means renaming military bases or relocating statues, it is a small price to pay to reunite our people. We cannot demonize our political opponents. They represent an alternative point of view in our society. They must not be disenfranchised.

Sadly, the cycle of exclusion, violence and repression witnessed even today is as “American” as apple pie. It is nothing new and we have never addressed the root cause of the problem… ourselves.

Empathy is in short supply and most people can never put themselves in another’s shoes, black or blue.  We must first acknowledge this disheartening fact. In doing so, we may be able to put current events into perspective and chart a course to rectify our injustices and rebuild a society in which all (or at least most) members believe in the common values and purpose.

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