As America was digesting their Thanksgiving feast this past November, Robert Lewis Dear was engaging in a brutal act of carnage inside a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic. One police officer and two civilians were killed, while another five police officers and four civilians were seriously injured in the multi-hour standoff. The immediate reflex from many pro-choice advocates placed direct causal blame on the inflammatory rhetoric of some pro-life advocates (e.g. “baby killers”, etc.), along with selective editing in a “sting” video from a pro-life advocacy group. If only they would tone down the anti-abortion rhetoric, these twelve police officers and civilians would be alive and unscathed! This reflex to engage an easy self-serving causal story that sloppily blames the entire “pro-life movement” and “anti-abortion rhetoric” completely misses the complex individual and situational triggers that likely underlie such episodic actions. The causal story is likely much more complex than political opponents are usually willing to admit.
In the case of the Planned Parenthood shooter, Robert Lewis Dear was found to be suffering from debilitating mental illness and was also struggling with personal situational difficulties – financial stress, failing relationships, etc. It is likely this dynamic combination of individual and situational factors that led to Dear’s murderous actions, not the vocal advocacy to stop abortions or anti-abortion rhetoric more broadly. Might the extreme rhetoric of some pro-life activists and edited video from an advocacy group have played some marginal role in Dear’s actions? Maybe, especially as another short-term situational trigger. But the causal arrow from anti-abortion rhetoric to Planned Parenthood killing rampage is anything but clear cut. I believe that a similar dynamic is now occurring among much of white conservative America in the wake of two police shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge.
The recent murderous actions of Micah Johnson in Dallas and Gavin Long in Baton Rouge were absolutely horrific. Just as police brutality toward citizens is unacceptable, violence toward police officers is equally odious, even in response to discriminatory police behavior. Those types of heinous actions are ultimately debilitating to the noble causes of equal treatment and criminal justice reform. However, just as we observed in the case of Robert Lewis Dear, it appears that a complex mix of individual and situation triggers likely underlie these attacks, not Black Lives Matter activism or broader criminal justice reform movement.
There is evidence suggesting that both Johnson and Long appear to be suffering from untreated mental illness and challenging personal situations that likely triggered their murderous actions. During the multi-hour standoff in Dallas, police report that Johnson was singing and laughing manically and left cryptic messages written in his own blood. In Baton Rouge, Gavin Long was an ex-marine reported to be suffering from PTSD and harbored extreme anti-government views. Might the occasional hyperbolic rhetoric of “killer pigs” and “frying like bacon” have played some marginal role in Johnson and Long’s actions? Maybe, especially as another short-term situational trigger. But the causal arrow from hyperbolic rhetoric to killing rampage is anything but clear cut.
In the case of Dallas especially, the BLM protests were reportedly peaceful and achieving understanding with Dallas PD. Pictures of hugs, handshakes and goodwill flooded social media throughout the day. Indeed, Dallas PD reforms and demilitarized community policing have reduced excessive force claims exponentially over the past decade. Meaningful progress was being made on both sides. Then one seemingly mentally disturbed individual ruins any progress and gains in mutual understanding. These murderous actions of Johnson and Long appear to be couched within bigger issues such as mental illness, easy gun access, veteran reentry, financial distress, etc. as much as BLM activism or protests for criminal justice reform. We should be able to denounce extreme rhetoric without tying an entire political movement to the murderous actions of a relative few. Admittedly, it is difficult to give political opponents the benefit of the doubt.
Just as Catholics and pro-life supporters should not be viewed through the unflattering lens of dehumanizing “baby killer” rhetoric, molesting priests, and episodic abortion clinic attacks, advocates of criminal justice reform and equal treatment should not be viewed through the unflattering lens of dehumanizing “fry like bacon” rhetoric and episodic attacks on police officers. Unfortunately, there have been periodic police killings since there have been police. Indeed, murders of police officers are down in recent decades and despite these two recent horrific incidents there is no definitive uptick in murders of police officers in recent years.
If we start seeing a pattern of coordinated armed militias of BLM activists killing much larger numbers of police officers, then there will be cause for concern that BLM has turned much more militant and sinister. Until then, these appear to be lone wolves – needles in a haystack – without any direction association with BLM or legitimate criminal justice reform. A sloppy emphasis on BLM advocacy as the definitive cause of recent police killings is nothing more than a self-serving attempt to disqualify legitimate voices of discrimination and minimize the need for criminal justice reforms.