Waiting for the cold light of day in Missouri and the Middle East

August 26, 2014


Aside from the strange fact that both the Ferguson Police Department and the barbarians of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are using U.S. armor and weaponry, the shooting death of Michael Brown and the murder of James Foley would seem to have little in common, about as little as the Midwest and the Middle East.

Yet the similarities are evocative. Both frame enormously complex problems in the context of a single, riveting incident. Both were deaths in the American family, calling every parent to feel something of the Brown and Foley parents’ bottomless grief and to think, if only for an instant, “there but for the grace of God….”

Both events draw attention to life-and-death issues that call on every resource of our minds and hearts: What to do about racial divisions at home and the horrific outbreak of lethal sectarianism abroad.

A man holds up a sign supporting American journalist James Foley during a protest against the Assad regime in Syria in Times Square in New YorkBut both stories are also missing some critical specifics: What actually happened between Brown and Officer Darren Wilson, and exactly how — in pursuit of what regional and global strategy — should the United States act against the forces that killed Foley?

Both incidents hit uncomfortably close to home for me. I might well have felt one way about the Islamic State—“Go all in and shoot the bastards”—if my eldest son had not just told me that he thought a good way to start what he hopes will be a career in public service would be to sign up for Officer Candidate School. The military is an honorable profession, but I lost friends who did that when I was in college.

As for Ferguson, decades as a journalist cautioned me to wait for the full story to unfold — wait for all the evidence, the policeman’s story and the grand jury – before making a judgment.

But then my second son came home with one of his oldest and best friends for a sleepover last week. He and his friend, who is black, were driving through a suburb of Washington when they were stopped by white policemen for what the officers said was a broken tag light, though this van actually had no tag light. My son and his friend were detained on the side of the road, questioned and searched for more than half an hour because the police did not believe that the van my son’s friend was driving belonged to his mother.

In the morning, as we watched the news from Ferguson together, my son’s friend told me that his father had told him for as long as he could remember that the police would treat him differently because he is black. His father was right, he said—stops like the one that night happened to him “all the time.”

But these are anecdotes, not the basis for decision-making. I know that neither fear for my son’s life in the military nor my other son’s eye-opening moment with his friend should influence my position on matters of such importance. Letting emotions of the moment inform such decisions really isn’t right. Everyone knows that.

In the wake of Foley’s horrific murder, videotaped and posted online for maximum impact, the U.S. response seemed as clear to top administration officials as it might have seemed to me. The U.S. had to “crush” (Secretary of State John Kerry) and “destroy” (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey). Republican hawks in Congress said the same thing on the Sunday morning talk shows, and some pundits were quick to second them.

Only a resounding silence came from President Barack Obama, who will have to articulate a strategy and get congressional approval for it before much crushing and destroying can actually take place.

Likewise in Ferguson, the eulogists for Michael Brown called for action to prevent the recurrence of a crime that has not yet been proved or even defined. In that sense some of the speakers at the funeral and the late-night protesters on West Florissant Avenue resembled nothing so much as those talking heads on the morning news shows who were ready to hit the beaches.

Understandably inflamed by the awful deaths of these two men, advocates for aggressive U.S. military action in the Middle East, like those ready to punish Darren Wilson, are mistaking questions for answers.


TOP PHOTO: Michael Brown Sr, yells out as his son’s casket is lowered into the ground at St. Peter’s Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri August 25, 2014. REUTERS/Richard Perry/Pool

INSET PHOTO: A man holds up a sign in memory of U.S. journalist James Foley during a protest against the Assad regime in Syria in Times Square in New York August 22, 2014. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri 

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Commonality: theatrics of the perniciously ignorant, violent and easily influenced – mostly males.

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