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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Our Selective Outrage

WASHINGTON — The killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown has rightly provoked widespread outrage, drawing international media attention and prompting a comment from President Obama. The same should be true — but tragically is not — of the killing of 3-year-old Knijah Amore Bibb.

Brown was killed Saturday in Ferguson, MO; Knijah died the following day in Landover, MD. Both victims were African-American. Both had their whole lives before them. The salient difference is that Brown was shot to death by a white police officer, according to witnesses, while the fugitive suspect in Bibb’s killing is a 25-year-old black man with a long criminal record.

I want to be clear: From what we know so far, the anger over Brown’s death is understandable and appears justified. Absent a full narrative from the police officer’s side, we are left with witness accounts alleging that the fatal encounter was triggered when Brown committed the unpardonable crime of “walking while black.”

We’ve been through this so many times. Brown, from all reports, was a good kid who had just graduated from high school and was about to enroll in college. But young black men are automatically assumed to be dangerous thugs — and not given the benefit of the doubt that young white men would be accorded. This is racist and wrong, and must change.

But we should be just as outraged over Knijah’s death — and just as determined that this kind of killing should never happen again.

According to police, Knijah’s family was visiting friends at a house in Landover on Sunday afternoon. Among the people who lived at the address was a young woman whose boyfriend, Davon Antwan Wallace, had also dropped by.

Wallace got into a heated argument with the girlfriend’s teenaged brother, police and family members told The Washington Post. At issue was clothing that belonged to Wallace — and that the brother had apparently been wearing. Wallace allegedly left, went to his car, got a gun and fired about six shots at the second floor of the house, apparently aiming for the brother’s room.

One of those bullets struck Knijah and killed her.

“She liked to wear silver boots in the summer,” Knijah’s grandmother, Brenda Bibb, told the Post. “She had a Hello Kitty sticker on one boot and a Dora [the Explorer] on the other.”

The entire Prince George’s County police force — not just the homicide division — has been working long hours to try to find Wallace, and is motivated by what a police spokesman called a “sense of moral outrage.”

That feeling should be universal. The near-constant background noise of black-on-black violence is too often ignored. Yet it continues to claim victims at a rate that our society should consider outrageous and unacceptable.

Landover is adjacent to Washington, D.C., where it has been a particularly bloody week: a total of 21 people struck by gunfire since last Friday. Among them were an off-duty D.C. police detective who was shot in an attempted carjacking. Most of the victims fortunately do not have life-threatening injuries, but at least one is reported in grave condition and one other has died.

I’ve written about the sad customs that have developed in neighborhoods plagued by this senseless violence — the makeshift memorials of teddy bears and balloons, the speed with which T-shirts bearing the victim’s likeness are produced. This kind of death should never be thought of as ordinary.

The phrase “black-on-black violence” is more often used to distort rather than clarify. Crime depends largely on proximity and thus reflects patterns of racial segregation; the overwhelming majority of white murder victims are killed by whites, just as the overwhelming majority of black victims are killed by blacks. By the standards of most other developed countries, “white-on-white violence” in the United States is also of crisis proportions.

But it is disingenuous to pretend that a shocking disparity does not exist. According to FBI statistics, in 2012, the last year for which figures are available, 2,614 whites were killed by white offenders and 2,412 blacks were killed by black offenders — similar numbers. But the non-Hispanic white population is almost five times as large as the African-American population, meaning the homicide rate in black communities is staggeringly higher.

Treating every young black man as a criminal — as may have happened to Michael Brown — is not the solution. We can understand the socioeconomic causes of violent crime without surrendering to them. We need to get angry — before we have to mourn the next Knijah Bibb.

Eugene Robinson’s email address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.

AFP Photo/Scott Olson

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Paying For The 2003 Invasion

WASHINGTON — As President Obama struggles to deal with the crisis in Iraq, it’s useful to remember who gave the world this cauldron of woe in the first place: George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

Their decision to launch a foolish and unwarranted invasion in 2003, toppling Saddam Hussein and destroying any vestige of the Iraqi state, is directly responsible for the chaos we see today, including the rapid advance of the well-armed jihadist militia that calls itself the Islamic State.

Bush has maintained a circumspect silence about the legacy his administration’s adventurism bequeathed us. Cheney, however, has been predictably loud and wrong on the subject of, well, just about everything.

“Obama’s failure to provide for a stay-behind force is what created the havoc we see in Iraq today,” Cheney told CNN last month. “When we left, Iraq was a relatively stable place. We defeated al Qaeda, we had a coalition government in place.”

Cheney predicted “the history books will show” that Obama bears much responsibility for squandering the peace and stability that the Bush administration left behind. If so, they will have to be books that don’t go back very far.

Let’s review what actually happened. The U.S. invasion toppled a Sunni dictatorship that had ruled brutally over Iraq’s other major groups — the Shiite majority and the ethnic Kurds — for decades. It seems not to have occurred to anyone planning the invasion that long-suppressed resentments and ambitions would inevitably surface.

The leader of that “coalition government” Cheney mentioned, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, turned out not to be a Jeffersonian democrat. Rather, his regime acted quickly and shamelessly to advance a Shiite sectarian agenda — and to marginalize Sunnis and Kurds.

What followed, predictably, was anger and alienation among the disaffected groups. The Kurds focused largely on fortifying their semi-autonomy in the northeast part of the country. Sunni tribal leaders twice cast their lot with violent Sunni jihadist forces that stood in opposition to the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad — first with al Qaeda in Iraq and now with the Islamic State.

Obama opposed the U.S. invasion and occupation from the beginning. He was nominated and elected president largely because of his pledge to end the war. He withdrew all U.S. troops only after Maliki refused to negotiate a viable agreement to leave a residual force in place.

Could Obama have found a way to keep more of our soldiers in Iraq if he really wanted to? Perhaps. But this would have required trusting Maliki, who has proved himself a far more reliable ally to the terrorist-sponsoring government of Iran than to the United States. And anyway, why would U.S. forces be needed to keep the peace in the “relatively stable” democratic Iraq of Cheney’s hazy recollection?

As I write, Maliki has barricaded himself inside Baghdad’s Green Zone and is refusing to leave office, despite the fact that Iraq’s president has named a new prime minister. The United States has joined with respected Iraqi leaders to try to force Maliki out, but he holds enormous power — he is not only prime minister but also heads the Iraqi armed forces and national police.

Rewind the clock. If there had been no U.S. invasion, Iraqis surely would have suffered grievously under Saddam’s sadistic rule. But at least 110,000 Iraqis — and perhaps several times that many — died violently in the war and its aftermath. Is it likely that even the bloodthirsty Saddam would have matched that toll? Is it conceivable that the Islamic State’s ad hoc army would have even been able to cross the Syria-Iraq border, much less seize huge tracts of territory and threaten religious minorities with genocide?

Even after the invasion, if the U.S. occupation force had worked to reform the Iraqi military rather than disband it, there would have been a professional army in place to repel the Islamic State. If Maliki had truly acted as the leader of the “coalition government” that Cheney describes, and not as a glorified sectarian warlord, Sunnis likely would have fought the Islamic State extremists rather than welcome them.

Why is Obama intervening with airstrikes in Iraq and not in Syria, where the carnage is much worse? My answer would be that the United States has a special responsibility to protect innocent civilians in Iraq — because, ultimately, it was our nation’s irresponsibility that put their lives at risk.

Obama’s cautious approach — ask questions first, shoot later — may or may not work. But thanks to Bush and Cheney, we know that doing things the other way around leads to disaster.

Eugene Robinson’s email address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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The Emerging ‘Drone’ Culture

WASHINGTON — The age of the drones has arrived. It’s not possible to uninvent these Orwellian devices, but we can — and must — restrain their use.

As instruments of war, pilotless aircraft have already become essential. The Washington Post reported last year that more than 50 countries had developed or purchased drones to use in surveillance — and that many of those nations were working to weaponize the aircraft. Deadly missiles fired from drones are among the most effective U.S. weapons against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

There has been far too little discussion of the moral calculus involved in using flying robots as tools of assassination. At the very least, the whole thing should leave us uneasy. Collateral damage — the killing of innocents — can be minimized but not eliminated. And even if only “bad” people are killed, this isn’t war as we’ve traditionally understood it. Drone attacks are more like state-sponsored homicide.

But similar complaints were raised when tanks replaced horses on the battlefield, and nothing stopped the mechanization of war. Drones allow governments to achieve military objectives without putting the lives of soldiers, sailors and pilots at risk. Robots do not bleed and do not vote, so they will do much of the fighting for us.

The thing about drones, though, is that the technology required to deploy them is nowhere near as daunting as is needed, say, to develop nuclear weapons. As they become more commonplace in the arsenals of the world, we will surely begin seeing them used by “rogue” nations — or even by non-state actors such as terrorists and drug smugglers.

If Colombian cartels are able to build dope-smuggling submarines, when will Mexican crime lords begin sending up surveillance drones to identify unpatrolled sectors of the U.S. border? Soon, I reckon, if it’s not already happening.

So maybe — maybe — there might be a role for surveillance drones in patrolling the border. Perhaps there’s a role in search-and-rescue missions and the like.

But the idea of police departments or other agencies routinely flying drones over American cities and towns, using them to snoop on the activities of anyone deemed snoop-worthy, is repugnant. It brings out the tea party in me — or maybe that’s the spirit of the Occupy movement screaming bloody murder. Drones are a subject on which the far left and the far right can agree.

In fact, they do.

Here’s quote no. 1: “Rules must be put in place to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of this new technology without bringing us closer to a ‘surveillance society’ in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the authorities.”

Now quote no. 2: “Flying over our homes, farms, ranches and businesses and spying on us while we conduct our everyday lives is not an example of protecting our rights. It is an example of violating them. … When I have friends over for a barbecue, the government drone is not on the invitation list.”

The first quote is from the American Civil Liberties Union. The second is from an op-ed written by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

The Federal Aviation Administration, meanwhile, is “working to ensure the safe integration of unmanned aircraft systems” into U.S. airspace, according to an announcement in May. Dozens of federal, state and local agencies have applied for permission to operate drones; some are already doing so, although it is unclear how many robot aircraft are in use and for what purposes.

The FAA is trying to streamline the authorization process for agencies that want to fly drones. This is one case, however, in which we need more good old-fashioned bureaucratic inertia and inefficiency. That would give us time to have a much-needed debate.

Just because we can deploy fleets of surveillance drones doesn’t mean we should. Not every incremental gain in security is worth the attendant surrender of privacy and freedom.

I realize that security cameras and debit-card records already keep a pretty good record of my daily movements. I also realize that my computer usage is like a diary of what’s on my mind. Privacy isn’t what it used to be. But this doesn’t mean we have to surrender the little we have left.

The idea of robots acting as guardians of public order has become a staple of dystopian fantasy — “Terminator,” “Minority Report,” “The Matrix.” It is our duty to keep that stuff in the movies where it belongs.

Eugene Robinson’s email address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.