Sometimes news stories come so quickly one after the other that, as a news consumer, you’re in danger of suffering the emotional equivalent of the bends.
A current example. Yesterday I watched that extraordinary live Periscope broadcast by a black woman, first in her car and then in the back of a police vehicle. In her car she explained how a policeman had just shot her husband four times as he reached to show his driving licence. We see the man slumped in the front seat, bleeding to death. In the police vehicle she’s handcuffed but still manages to keep on broadcasting, repeating the story of what happened, telling where she’s going, calling on friends to get in touch and protect her.
The vividness of the you-are-there broadcast gave it an immediacy and horror that still photographs rarely do. How she managed to keep talking in a coherent way until the end, when she falls apart, is hard to know. In the wake of a string of police shootings of African-Americans, sympathy for the Black Lives Matter campaign has been growing. Protests included a number of white people.
Then just as you have made an emotional identification with the black people of the US, word comes of snipers shooting dead five police officers in Dallas and wounding others. The assumption is that the killers were African-Americans. So the victim suddenly becomes the aggressor. The tears of the families of the dead police officers will be as salt and bitter as the broadcasting woman or any other loved one of the 100+ unarmed African-Americans killed by police in the US this year.
Why would African-Americans – assuming, as I say, that the shooters were African-Americans – why would they deliberately kill police officers who may well have been model guardians of the law? Motivation is always complex in such actions, but it seems reasonable to believe that this was the African-American community saying “If that’s how you treat our people, we’ll treat yours the same”. As they saw it, protests and placards announcing “Black Lives Matter” hadn’t made any difference. And so, as a last resort, they turned to violence.
We’ve been here before. In the 1960s, the Black Panthers in the US were a militant group that took on the police in gun battles andefence of black neighbourhoods. Needless to say, they were defeated. They were hunted down and shot dead by the police until the movement petered out.
Will the Dallas killings turn public sympathy away from the African-American community? I doubt it. It’s more likely to harden police resolve when dealing with African-Americans. Just as the broadcasting woman was speaking against a background of lethal police brutality against her community, so US police are more likely to act with the thought of their dead colleagues at the back of their mind. And their actions may well feed into an escalating pattern of lethal violence.
There are people who turn to violence before exploring all other possible options: we saw that in the Chilcot report damning Tony Blair. But most of those who pick up the gun do so in the conviction that nothing else gets public attention and government action.
The appalling thing is that in some cases they’re probably right