In 1838 Abraham Lincoln gave a speech called On the Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions. Lincoln argued that if we should ever surrender the blessings of this country it would be by our own hand, and that could happen if lawless people so control our society with no effective response from the government, that our way of life is destroyed. The Mattapan massacre and the killing of Trayvon Martin suggest we are some distance down that path.
Lincoln saw mob rule in locations across the country and found the direct consequences awful but limited, but the more indirect consequences as much worse. He said that lawless people will do as they do but without the fear of punishment will be further emboldened. Next the lawless in spirit, who have been held in check only by the fear of punishment will feel themselves restrained no more. Then, “While, on the other hand, good men, men who love tranquility, who desire to abide by the laws, and enjoy their benefits, who would gladly spill their blood in the defence of their country; seeing their property destroyed; their families insulted, and their lives endangered; their persons injured; and seeing nothing in prospect that forebodes a change for the better; become tired of, and disgusted with, a Government that offers them no protection; and are not much averse to a change in which they imagine they have nothing to lose.” When “the attachment of the People” is lost, “this Government may not last.”
Consider the lives of the people in Mattapan, neighbors of the two-year old Aminhotep Smith and the four other victims. How many of us can conceive of raising our children day-to-day in an environment where such a thing could happen? Recall the man who disrupted the trial of the accused murderers by heckling the prosecution’s key witness with accusations of “snitch” and “rat bastard.” Who goes to the trial of the murderers of a toddler and threatens the witness? But according to news reports the investigation was hampered by the unwillingness of potential witnesses to come forward, probably out of fear. Good point. Who is going to protect them?
The tension in the court room showed the danger in simply conducting a trial. Budgetary issues in the commonwealth have made it difficult to even open the courts for business and assure the safety of parties, participants and the public. I’ve spoken of this during the Massachusetts Bar Associations’s “Protecting the Rule of Law” campaign, video here.
Then we come to the awful killing of the teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida. The facts are disputed and emerging slowly but we do know this: the shooter, neighborhood watch leader George Zimmerman claims the protection of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which privatizes the use of lethal force when an individual “reasonably believes” him/ herself threatened with death or great bodily harm. To quote my colleague Professor Ubertaccio’s post yesterday, “how does a law that allows, even encourages, people to escalate confrontations square with our goal (it is still a goal, I hope) to live in a civilized society with due process, a professionalized police force, and the rule of law.” Stand Your Ground is a Wild West fantasy.
Lincoln covered social decay in dreadful detail; recounting terrible injustices done by those who were certain they were right, in the heat of the moment and motivated by unjust impulses. It is, as Lincoln put it in 1838, an abdication of our faith in government and places the ultimate power in the hands of the angry mob (in our day, the angry individual).
When we read the “Perpetuation Speech” in my class The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln last month a very good student forwarded me links to articles concerning the deterioration of budget starved law enforcement in Detroit. In some dangerous areas residents calling 911 wait up to 24 hours before police arrive. Understandably, fearful and law-abiding residents of these areas have begun to arm themselves. Read Lincoln to ponder what is likely to happen there.
Unless we find ways to revive our collective project such tragedies will not be confined to toddlers living in neighborhoods where catastrophe is commonplace, or to African-American teens wearing hoodies. They are the unfortunate vanguard of worse things to come and they need help.
We have incalculably expensive Afghanistan and Iraq policies. Where is our urban policy?