People don't loot because they want to fight injustice. People loot because they want a TV.
I could probably stop right there, and most of you reading this would already be on board with me. The common sense conversation is often the one most lightly seasoned with words. But let's probe this concept just a bit below the surface of common sense – y'know, for giggles and whatever that other thing is.
In the history of brutish skullduggery, it's pretty rare to find instances where wanton acts of violence and thievery had any sort of basis whatsoever in achieving a moral (or even merely ethical) good. If you're living in 12th century China, and you see the Mongol horde kicking up dust on the horizon, you can be pretty sure that they're not only going go loot your town, but also – and most importantly – there's not a damn thing you can do about it. If you throw up the white flag and surrender, they might be inclined to let some of you live in perpetual slavery for the rest of your life, but they're going to loot your town no matter what. Absolutely nothing that you do is stopping that, short of winning the battle against them (which, by the way, is really unlikely). So why is this the case? Spoils of war, man; spoils of war. Our very nature as human animals drives us to not only covet what our neighbor has, but also to devise a good solid plan for clubbing him over the head and taking it if we can. (This was addressed in a very good book on morality somewhere…)
But surely, you say, we modern folk have evolved socially beyond that impulse, or at least beyond the tendency to act on it, right? No, and don't call me Shirley.
Grief is suffering, and a true desire for justice is, too. And here's why: the desire for justice is not the same as the desire for revenge. We have an entire legal system designed around that very notion. And while the two unquestionably overlap, there's a reason why you'll never see a murder victim's sister sitting as a member of the jury at the trial. The emotional and logical (or pathological) choose-your-own-adventure story of revenge is too reckless, too wild to be a valid way for us to run this particular railroad we call a country; and we mistake that vengefulness as a desire for true justice at our extreme peril. Because when you accept the two as one and the same, you get things like the riots going on in this country today over the death of George Floyd.
Here's what I know – not what I speculate, but what I know: George Floyd was killed unjustly by a police officer who – whether for reasons of racism, incompetence, an egotistical understanding of the power his badge afforded him, or all of the above – approached an arrest situation in the worst possible fashion. I know that he deserved to be fired from his job, and that it's a good thing for him to be arrested and given his day in court, so that hopefully justice – in whatever form it takes – will be served. What I don't know about this case could be written into volumes that would fill the office from which I'm writing this (my kitchen – thanks COVID), especially if it was written by someone as long-winded as I am. And guess what? What you don't know about it would, too. That, among other reasons, is why the justice model prevails over the vengeance model. The court of law exists to take difficult, angering, tragic situations like this one and plug it into a formula – one which mostly works but could always stand improvement, to be sure. And to be clear, one of the things that can help that process is protest of injustice. For all of you out there who stand in lines with facemasks that read I CAN'T BREATHE, but who aren't committing violence or other crimes, please know that I'm with you. We may not agree on all the specifics, but I think we both want the same thing.
But to return to my original point, which was about the nogoodnicks among the protesters: it isn't just that robbery and arson and other forms of violence aren't a cry for justice – that's just the first layer. I would posit that these are not even actually the expressions of a vengeful group of people. I know, I know, systemic racism and white privilege and capitalist billionaires pushing everyone else down into the mud…these tired and mostly nonsensical ingredients in the leftist word salad are what stands in place of a legitimate intellectual framework for a point of view so innocent of facts that it has all the credibility of a bedtime story made up on the fly by a distracted parent – I should know, I've delivered a few of those.
Do I mean to say that if you're stealing a Playstation (future editions of this brilliant work please replace this term with the most recent popular gaming system), you must not care about the death of George Floyd, and that your notion of yourself as a cog in the machinery of true racial and socioeconomic justice trying to birth itself into the world for legitimately the first time is a steaming pile of that stuff that goes with the giggles mentioned above?
Yeah, I kind of am. Trigger warning, I guess.
Look, people always get righteously (and generally rightly) upset when someone lives out the old dictum about never letting a tragedy go to waste, until it's their turn. Then we're kind of okay with it, unfortunately. And if you're commemorating the unjust death of a fellow human being by stealing from people who had nothing to do with the man's death, or if you're lighting buildings on fire and carelessly putting other people's lives in danger (you know, the way that cop put George's life in danger?), hear this: You're. Part. Of. The. Problem.
And by the way, I've been reading claims here and there that this whole thing is correlative to that time when Jesus went into the Temple, saw a bunch of financial transactions going on, and got angry. Insert audible sigh. Jesus overturned tables and drove money-changers out of the Temple. There's no indication – at least in the Gospels I've read – that in the process he ran out himself afterward, holding a bagful of shekels whilst flipping them the bird and screaming "Workers of the world, unite!"
Bottom line, we all know that violence, arson, and looting are wrong. All but the most brain-dead among us know it on a visceral level. We know that they don't achieve justice, and we further know that they actually work against the promotion of justice. So, we're either willing to lie to ourselves or not. The saddest thing about this situation is the unnecessary and cruel death of George Floyd.
The second saddest thing is that the people who took up torches and pitchforks the moment his body had cooled never once stopped to turn around and look behind them. If they had, they would have seen that almost all of us in this crazy old melting pot of ours we call a country were already standing in solidarity. Almost all of us already wanted – truly wanted – what they claim to want.
Almost all of us want justice for George.