Criminal Justice

The fire this time: What will history say about a nation so prone to violence?

Baton Rouge police pump bullets into Alton Sterling after pinning him to the ground.

Internet video

A cell phone video that went viral shows Baton Rouge police pumping bullets into Alton Sterling after pinning him to the ground.

Baton Rouge, St. Paul, now Dallas. And that’s just in the past few days. We are living in the teeth of history. But here’s the question: What will history spit back as its recap of our troubled, increasingly bloody times?

Was this the moment when long-seething class and racial tensions boiled over? Is this the beginning of a long, hot summer of a type not seen since American cities — including Detroit, Newark, Baton Rouge, Plainfield, N.J. — were scorched in the late 1960s? (I mention Plainfield because it was my home at the time. The rampage that destroyed half of downtown included images of a woman in spike heels jumping up and down on the chest of a police officer who had been beaten with a shopping cart and shot to death with his own service revolver.)

Will it be the moment that prompted a scared and nervous America — country-club Republicans and gung-ho survivalists alike — to mob its gun stores and arm up in preparation for open war?

Or is this the moment in which it became clear that political leadership in a nation as torn by racism was simply insane to have allowed — even encouraged — the proliferation of pistols and assault rifles in virtually every corner of the land? Will history decide that congressional conservatives, more petrified of the NRA than of the bullets flying in low-income neighborhoods, turned out to be the Dr. Kervorkians assisting a once mighty nation bent on collective suicide?

Is this the moment in which Americans became finally revolted with themselves and their flirtation with a rich narcissist willing to pick at the scabs of racial and ethnic discord — willing to say almost anything — on the chance that it would turn TV celebrity into a presidency?

Or will it turn out to be the moment when Americans decided there was brutal logic as well as delicious self-righteousness in the rhetoric of racial and ethnic division, the moment when a politics of disruption tinged with fascist yearnings began to seem like a sensible choice?

As I write these words, little is known about what actually went down last night in Dallas. The unstated expectation — among cynics in the white community this is an outright hope — is that the sniper or snipers will turn out to be blacks furious with the spate of police-involved shootings of fellow blacks, many of them young men.

A less useful meme will be served up if the snipers turn out to have no political motives at all, but were simply hoping for mayhem and the opportunities for enrichment that come with smashed storefronts.

A determination that the shooters were white provocateurs — eager to goad black Dallas into retributive chaos — will have a much more explosive impact on the politics of race in America.

The least likely scenario in the early hours of the investigation was that, like the shootings in Orlando and San Bernardino and Paris and Brussels, as well as the 9/11 bombings, Dallas will turn out to be the work of crackpot jihadists. Such a development would, of course, be seized upon delightedly by another crackpot provocateur as a further argument in support of his presidential bid.

Turning points are apparent only in hindsight. If this is one of them, we can only hope that it does not portend veering in the direction of even greater violence. If there is a grounds for hope, it lies in the peacefulness and forbearance demonstrated by the throng of Dallas protesters before the gunfire rang out. Baton Rouge and other cities have been witness to similarly enlightened self-restraint.

We would like to assume that the Dallas sniper or snipers will be condemned to the same ash heap of historical irrelevance as that city’s more famous sniper, Lee Harvey Oswald, or the gunmen, white and black, who ran through the streets of Plainfield after an officer was killed, smashing windows, torching houses and snatching TV sets.

Maybe we’ll be that lucky. Maybe the center will hold. But eventually something’s got to give.

Jed Horne edits opinion columns for The Lens. 

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