This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
In the wake of the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly had some advice for black America: “Don’t abandon your children. Don’t get pregnant at 14. Don’t allow your neighborhoods to deteriorate into free-fire zones. That’s what the African-American community should have on their T-shirts.” (That’s either a very big garment or very small lettering.)
Whenever black kids get shot, black parents get lectured about personal responsibility. If you raised your kids better, goes the conservative logic, we wouldn’t have to shoot them. Arguments about systemic discrimination and racist legacies are derided as liberal excuses for bad behavior. Neither history nor economics nor politics made Mike Brown grab Darren Wilson’s gun—that was his choice. Individuals, we are told, are responsible for their own actions and must be held accountable for them.
The vehemence with which this principle is held is eclipsed only by the speed with which it is abandoned when it becomes inconvenient. Discussions about choices and accountability change tenor when we shift from talking about the black and the poor to the powerful and well-connected.
The release of the Senate’s torture report in December revealed far more extensive and brutal interrogation techniques than had been admitted previously, and it also confirmed that the CIA had lied to Congress, the White House and the media. This didn’t happen by itself. To take just one example, someone or some persons had to purée a mixture of hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts and raisins; pour it into a tube; forcibly bend Majid Khan over; shove the tube up his anus and then “let gravity do the work.” And then they lied about it. The report showed without question that American interrogators were operating outside both domestic and international law. And yet none have been arrested and charged, let alone prosecuted.
Similarly, millions of Americans and many foreign leaders were spied upon by the NSA. A federal judge has ruled such actions unconstitutional. But metadata does not collect itself; instead, its collection was both ordered and executed by people who then lied about it until they were exposed. Not a single person has been held responsible. I have yet to hear Bill O’Reilly custom-design a T-shirt for those people.
Indeed, the only known arrests in these cases have been of those who exposed the crimes. Edward Snowden is on the run; Chelsea Manning—the source for WikiLeaks, which showed the US military killing innocents and laughing about it—is in jail; John Kiriakou, who blew the whistle on waterboarding, is out of jail but still under house arrest. The crime, it seems, is not to break the law but to report the infraction.
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The point here is not to demand the slaughter of a scapegoat. All of the incidents above were underpinned by shortcomings that are fundamentally systemic and must be addressed. But it is difficult to see how that can happen in the future if nobody pays a penalty now for past wrongdoing. The moral hazard in failing to hold people to account is self-evident: it sets a bad example. Black kids aren’t the only ones who need role models.
But then the Manichaean reasoning of the right was always bogus. Holding people responsible for their actions does not contradict the notion that those actions have a context—just because we have free will, it does not follow that we have free rein. So when the left argues that problems are structural, we do not mean that individuals should not be held to account, but that without also holding accountable the institutions that made their actions possible, one merely changes the players, not the game.
Which brings us back to those Bill O’Reilly T-shirts. The federal investigations into Ferguson lay bare a corrupt, racist kleptocracy in which police harassed African-Americans with impunity, stuffing the city’s coffers with their money and its jails with their bodies. But when officials or their friends broke the law, they had no problem pardoning themselves. “Don’t steal, cheat, harass or discriminate”: that’s what these white people should have on their T-shirts.
This was the system that killed Mike Brown and produced his killer. The Justice Department found no evidence to prosecute Darren Wilson, but ample evidence to incriminate the Ferguson police and the broader criminal-justice system. As of this writing, the county clerk has been fired, the city manager has “parted ways,” and two police officers, the municipal judge and the chief of police have resigned. Wilson, it appears, was the only incorruptible man in the city. Nobody has been charged. The law apparently does not apply to them.
“Where all are guilty, no one is,” argued the political theorist Hannah Arendt. “Confessions of collective guilt are the best possible safeguard against the discovery of culprits, and the very magnitude of the crime the best excuse for doing nothing.”
Welcome to Ferguson, where Mike Brown allegedly stole cigarillos and is dead, while the members of the white power structure stole an entire civic apparatus and the constitutional rights of black residents but remain at their desks.