The tragic death of George Floyd is a fast moving and explosive story. At the time of this writing numerous businesses and a police station have been sacked and riots have spread across the country. Many people have condemned the action including President Trump who called for the National Guard and said that looting leads to shooting. He has since clarified that he meant that looting leads to other lawlessness like apparent murder victim in the looting, but the original law and order approach wasn’t wrong.
There is a fundamental decency that most Americans have and which looting offends and undermines. Whenever the topic of justice comes up I’m often reminded of a story told by a Chinese philosopher that describes these fundamentals:
Now take a young fellow who is a bad character. His parents may get angry at him, but he never makes any change. The villagers may reprove him, but he is not moved. His teachers and elders may admonish him, but he never reforms. The loves of his parents, the efforts of the villagers, and the wisdom of his teachers and elders…and yet not even a hair on his shins is altered. It is only after the district magistrate sends out his soldiers and in the name of the law searches for wicked individuals that the young man becomes afraid and changes his ways and alters his deeds. So, while the love of parents is not sufficient to discipline the children, the severe penalties of the district magistrate are.
I like this story because you can change a handful of the nouns and verbs and it easily describes the modern debate and provides a forceful answer on the side of enforcing the law. There are intellectuals, activists, celebrities and sympathetic media that will excuse the destruction using various theories of social justice. Yet the average American easily recognizes that modern “wicked individuals” are the street punks and gangsters they see every day and who only respond to legal authority. They recoil at how these individuals seemingly break the law with impunity. The average, law abiding American finds comfort in the idea of the magistrate who sends out soldiers in the name of the law and holds people accountable for their crimes regardless of their race, gender, sex, creed, and excusing myths about structural racism or the cycle of poverty. Looters are confronted by police, and if they continue to resist it often leads to shooting. It doesn’t matter how angry they are at white cops; they can’t commit vandalism or steal.
When people feel the natural consequences of their behavior, they tend to reform it. Like many controversies from activists and the media, Trump will be attacked as tone deaf, but he has his finger on the pulse of average Americans that dislike both the seeming injustice of Floyd’s death, and the depraved looting and sympathy for it from self appointed superiors.