The dramatic spontaneous outbreak of dozens of demonstrations across major cities in the United States protesting the police killings of black civilian men captures the best and worst of American culture. It may also allow Americans to appreciate the similar sentiments of shock, anger and vulnerability — and also sustained resistance — that define others around the world who suffer similar grotesque behavior by security forces on a regular basis.
From Boston, New York City and Norman, Oklahoma in the past week, I have watched the demonstrations and heard Americans discuss the issues with a combination of sentiments that I have rarely experienced before — deep emotion and empathy, shock and anger, but also renewed respect.
This is because the two most recent incidents in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City — among many others, we will no doubt learn — touch on three principal constitutional values that have generated the mass outrage and street action. These are the conduct of police officers who are supposed to protect citizens, and mostly do so, but in some cases brazenly kill citizens; the decision by grand juries of citizens not to put on trial the officers who allegedly killed the civilians in question; and, the wider problem this suggests of systematic racism against black Americans who very often feel vulnerable to being abused simply because of their color.
The dysfunction in the three critical arenas of police protection, the justice system, and the Constitutional guarantee of equal rights and protection under law represents for many black Americans a frightening collapse of the most important pillars of the American system that are supposed to protect all citizens.
This is why I have felt shock and anger, and also empathy, because I instinctively understood how black Americans and many others in this country feel in the face of killings by security officers that seems to go unpunished, creating a situation of systemic impunity for murder by the institutions of the state. The parallel I feel is with the hundreds of Palestinian youth and thousands of Palestinian civilians who have been killed by Israeli police and army personnel over the past decades, with almost total impunity within the Israeli or international legal systems.
The renewed respect I feel for the American political system results from two things I have witnessed this week, which both are largely missing from the case of Israeli troops who wantonly kill unarmed Palestinian civilians. One is the spontaneous and sustained demonstration of citizen anger against the apparent impunity for those officers of the law who kill black men, or any other civilians. The two episodes that have triggered these protests clearly seem repugnant to most Americans, who have taken to the streets to make this clear.
The second reason has been the swift decision by local, state and federal officials to pursue further legal action against the alleged police killers. This is an impressive affirmation of the multi-tiered system of legal protections that Americans enjoy, allowing them to seek a redress of grievance at a higher level of governance if their local system malfunctions.
The actions underway represent the core operative elements that define American democracy — the consent of the governed, and the accountability of political authority to the citizenry. In some of the cases at hand, the evidence presented to a grand jury has been released to the public to review. In the demonstrations underway these days, television cameras and reporters monitor the police as they interact with the demonstrators. When it works well, the American system minimizes the ability of security, judicial or political personnel to act in the shadows and get away with murder and other abusive or illegal behavior, because citizens exercise their right to know, and check the performance of their public officials.
We will know in the coming weeks whether the protests around the United States result in actions that provide justice for those black families whose sons died at the hands of police officers, or a larger sense of assurance that their mass vulnerability to mistreatment and death will be lessened in the years ahead.
Until then, I will continue to feel both disdain and admiration for the negative and positive dimensions of American life we witness today, hoping that citizen activism will temper the criminal behavior of racist individuals and expand the protection of the law for all Americans. I also hope that these incidents might prompt some Americans — especially officials — to grasp why unarmed civilian Palestinians who have died in the thousands for decades have felt the same way about Israeli security and military forces as most black Americans feel about American police. A similar situation in many Arab countries is equally disgraceful, as armed forces and police and intelligence agencies abuse and kill thousands of their own people at will.
The United States reminds us now that killing with impunity is a terrible crime and a national failure, wherever it happens.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global