Of Rioters and Lamp-posts

ARRAYED, pp. Drawn up and given an orderly disposition, as a rioter hanged to a lamp-post.

That’s a quotation from The Devil’s Dictionary, by Ambrose Bierce. It popped into my head just now for some reason, but before exploring that reason and the inferences that might be drawn from it, let’s spend some more time with Bierce.

Ambrose Bierce was an American soldier and writer. He was born in 1842 in Ohio and apprenticed at age 15 to an abolitionist newspaper, the Northern Indiana. When President Lincoln called for volunteers in 1861 to quell the rebellion in the Southern states, Bierce joined the Union Army and saw service in the early fighting that established West Virginia and in most of the great battles of the Western Theater, including Shiloh, Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge. Badly wounded at Kennesaw Mountain outside Atlanta, he recovered in time to fight in the battles of Franklin and Nashville, which were the South’s last gasp in the West.

When he later gained fame as a journalist, short story writer, memoirist, and literary critic, Bierce’s war experiences imbued his work with qualities variously described as “cynical,” “sardonic,” “bitter,” “strikingly insightful” and “grimly realistic.” These are all on display in his best-known piece, The Devil’s Dictionary. Here’s a taste of it:

ACCOMPLICE, n. One associated with another in a crime, having guilty knowledge and complicity, as an attorney who defends a criminal, knowing him guilty. This view of the attorney’s position in the matter has not hitherto commanded the assent of attorneys, no one having offered them a fee for assenting.

ADVICE, n. The smallest current coin.

“The man was in such deep distress,”

Said Tom, “that I could do no less

Than give him good advice.”  Said Jim:

“If less could have been done for him

I know you well enough, my son,

To know that’s what you would have done.”

ALTAR, n. The place whereupon the priest formerly raveled out the small intestine of the sacrificial victim for purposes of divination and cooked its flesh for the gods. The word is now seldom used, except with reference to the sacrifice of their liberty and peace by a male and a female fool.

BIGOT, n. One who is obstinately and zealously attached to an opinion that you do not entertain.

CALLOUS, adj. Gifted with great fortitude to bear the evils afflicting another.

EDIBLE, adj. Good to eat, and wholesome to digest, as a worm to a toad, a toad to a snake, a snake to a pig, a pig to a man, and a man to a worm.

GALLOWS, n. A stage for the performance of miracle plays, in which the leading actor is translated to heaven. In this country the gallows is chiefly remarkable for the number of persons who escape it. 

HOMICIDE, n. The slaying of one human being by another. There are four kinds of homicide: felonious, excusable, justifiable, and praiseworthy, but it makes no great difference to the person slain whether he fell by one kind or another—the classification is for advantage of the lawyers.

MACHINATION, n. The method employed by one’s opponents in baffling one’s open and honorable efforts to do the right thing. 

MAN, n. An animal so lost in rapturous contemplation of what he thinks he is as to overlook what he indubitably ought to be. His chief occupation is extermination of other animals and his own species, which, however, multiplies with such insistent rapidity as to infest the whole habitable earth and Canada.

“And Canada.” 

When I was a boy, my grandfather encouraged my taste for classical music by typing me up a list of “The Great Composers.” As I recall, it started with Henry Purcell (1659-1695) and ended with Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924). Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schubert, Schumann, Handel, Haydn, Verdi, Vivaldi, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov all were included.

I didn’t know enough about music to ask, “What about Stravinsky? Or Copland? Or Holst? Or Shostakovich?” But I did have a recording of “Rhapsody in Blue” in my house, so I asked, “What about Gershwin?” Grandaddy wasn’t having it. For him, great music meant the German pantheon, spiced up with a few Italians, Englishmen, and Russians. Twentieth-century Americans need not apply.

But I insisted, and so he typed me a new list, which he titled “The Great Composers and George Gershwin.”

Years later, I inherited some of Grandaddy’s books, among which was The Devil’s Dictionary. That’s how I learned that his “and Gershwin” crack was inspired by Ambrose Bierce.

So now, back to Bierce and his lamp-posts, and to the spectacle of Minneapolis burning.

The first thing to be pointed out is that the reference to hanging rioters does not mark Bierce as a “white supremacist.” In his day, American race riots were largely a matter of white mobs attacking blacks, rather than the other way around. And Bierce’s most famous short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” recounts the hanging of a white plantation master by Union troops during the Civil War. So whites were definitely included in his list of candidates for the gallows.

But neither were blacks excluded. Here is another Devil’s Dictionary entry, one even more caustic than those cited already:

TREE, n. A tall vegetable intended by nature to serve as a penal apparatus, though through a miscarriage of justice most trees bear only a negligible fruit, or none at all. When naturally fruited, the tree is a beneficient agency of civilization and an important factor in public morals. In the stern West and the sensitive South its fruit (white and black respectively) though not eaten, is agreeable to the public taste and, though not exported, profitable to the general welfare. That the legitimate relation of the tree to justice was no discovery of Judge Lynch (who, indeed, conceded it no primacy over the lamp-post and the bridge-girder) is made plain by the following passage from Morryster, who antedated him by two centuries:

     While in yt londe I was carried to see ye Ghogo tree, whereof

  I had hearde moch talk; but sayynge yt I saw naught remarkabyll in

  it, ye hed manne of ye villayge where it grewe made answer as


      “Ye tree is not nowe in fruite, but in his seasonne you shall

  see dependynge fr. his braunches all soch as have affroynted ye

  King his Majesty.”

      And I was furder tolde yt ye worde “Ghogo” sygnifyeth in yr

  tong ye same as “rapscal” in our owne.

Trauvells in ye Easte

Leaving aside any question of race, or of due process, what are we to make of the notion that certain “rapscals” constitute a burden whose continued existence the world is better off not bearing? That point seems to be what President Trump was getting at when he warned, regarding the current disorders:  “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” 

Mind you, the president wasn’t talking about what happened to George Floyd, which is something Trump has deplored and vows to see punished. Even if Floyd did try to buy some cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill—and anyone who handles money in daily commerce knows that many people pass such bills unwittingly, having received them uninspected from others—what the cops did to him was clearly a cruelty, likely a crime, and certainly not good police work. I haven’t heard of anyone, in or out of law enforcement, who defends it. Trump’s anger was directed entirely at the “THUGS,” as he put it, who seized on Floyd’s death as an excuse for wholesale robbery, assault, and arson.

While Trump’s “looting, shooting” tweet provoked the usual pearl-clutching from all the usual suspects, it likely played much better with the public at large. Even those who hate Trump, even those who abhor racism and wouldn’t dream of hanging criminals, can hardly help desiring to see a more “orderly disposition” among their fellow citizens.

But how could the gallows, or a lamp-post, or a “tall vegetable,” play any role in bringing such order into being?

Start with what led to Floyd’s death. Why don’t people go along quietly when officers arrest them? Most of us have been pulled over for a traffic violation, many of us more than once. Is that the signal for a fight? No, we cooperate, as civic duty requires. It’s “Yes, officer,” “I understand, officer,” “I’ll watch it next time, officer,” until the citation or warning is issued. 

And suppose the traffic stop leads to an arrest? It’s still our duty to cooperate. I once was taken downtown in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, on suspicion of DUI. I had passed the field sobriety test, but I did almost sideswipe the officer’s patrol car (I was fastening my seat belt while pulling away from a convenience store), and I did have an open can of beer in my vehicle (I had taken one swallow, perfectly legal at the time). When the breathalyzer at the police station registered a 0.00 blood alcohol level, the officer turned me loose, complaining good-naturedly that I had spoiled his perfect record in picking out the drunks.

For someone who really is driving drunk or is involved in other illegal activity, cooperation with the arresting officer isn’t such an easy, obvious choice. But the duty to comply remains. It seems so obvious: Don’t fight the cops! If you are suspected of a crime, it’s their duty to arrest you. If you resist arrest, it’s their duty to subdue you. And as Floyd’s death shows, you can’t count on their being competent and careful enough to do it without killing you. They may get in trouble afterwards. They may get kicked off the force. They may even be charged with your murder. But in any case, you’ll be dead.

(This advice is only for the Floyds of this world: citizens, whether innocent or not, who suddenly find themselves in the hands of the police. The rioters are another matter. Advice is wasted on them. They can’t be reasoned with, only dealt with.)

Fighting the cops is a fool’s game. Richard Pryor’s character Sharp Eye Washington knew this way back in 1974. In 1988, the Wayan Brothers’ Kung Fu Joe learned it the hard way. Still, some fools will try it anyway. Why don’t they ask themselves, “What if I win?” 

When the bad guy wins, it often means a dead cop. Forty-eight American officers died that way in 2019. In 2018, it was 55. This can’t help but contribute to the fear and hair-trigger overreactions seen in some cops, which have produced (as, for example, in the Philando Castile shooting) very tragic results.

That’s where the gallows come in. For centuries, the legendary British “Bobby” has exerted authority over the Queen’s subjects without even the aid of a nightstick, let alone a firearm. This worked because everyone knew the Bobby was backed by British law, which would hang you at the drop of a hat. Times have changed, with British law getting much softer and British “yobs” getting much more unruly and aggressive (not to mention the rise of jihadist violence). The Brits are clinging to their tradition of unarmed policing, but who knows for how much longer?

Digital Vision/Getty Images

In America, there is no question of the police going unarmed. What America’s cops don’t have is a system of law backing them up that will strike fear into the hearts of our own “yobs” (we call them “thugs”) and thus make everyone—officers, honest citizens, and even the thugs themselves—more orderly, and therefore safer.

At American Greatness and at other websites, I’ve been arguing the case for such a system even before the election of Donald Trump as president—Trump, who promised us a quick end to “the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation.” 

I’ve related my encounter, decades ago now, with an elderly black man in a shanty town near Dallas who was being victimized by neighborhood thieves and who told me, “We should do like they did in the cowboy days, and that’s look for the nearest tree.” I’ve told of other black Americans who feel much the same way about crime.

I’ve described how American frontier history and modern social science both give us reason to believe that actual enforcement of capital punishment can have an impact totally unsuspected by most of us, who have been instructed for years that death does not deter.

I’ve added the voices of Martin Luther and other Christian luminaries ranging from Augustine to Aquinas to C.S. Lewis, as well as those of Bierce’s compatriots Will Rogers and Mike Royko, who expressed thoughts along similar lines.

I’ve explored the legal issues involved, arguing that the “obstacle course” the Supreme Court has erected to impede the death penalty’s enforcement has no basis in the Constitution as originally understood and accepted by the nation.

The president’s failure to produce dramatic results in restoring law and order hurt his party badly, I believe, in the midterm election. This year, the GOP’s prospects are better—at least, they were before the coronavirus scrambled everything. Until then, Trump had enjoyed great success in reviving the economy, as he has in fulfilling many of his other promises.  

The current storm will pass. But in its wake, Trump will need, among other things, to make good on his vows to crush crime. He also will need to realize that the desire for a sudden end to crime, which brought so many of us to his side in 2016, can work against him this year if he does not remember those vows.

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About Karl Spence

Karl Spence is a retired journalist living in San Antonio. His work has appeared in National Review, the Chattanooga Free Press, American Thinker and at www.fairamendment.us.

Photo: Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

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