Toward the end of the 1969 political thriller “Z,” a senior Greek army officer, long a pillar of the establishment, finds himself accused of murder for involvement in the 1963 assassination of the leftist politician Grigoris Lambrakis. Striding angrily out of the prosecutor’s office, the officer must make his way through a crowd of reporters and photographers, one of whom asks him, “Are you a martyr like Dreyfus?” His spluttering reply: “Dreyfus was guilty!”
Thus did the notorious “Dreyfus Affair” reverberate across Europe more than a half-century after its conclusion. In brief, French Captain Alfred Dreyfus was convicted in 1894 of treason and sent to Devil’s Island for supposedly betraying military secrets to Germany, France’s mortal enemy. Two years later, the real culprit was discovered, but rather than admit its mistake, the Army covered it up and reaffirmed the original conviction.
When celebrated writer Émile Zola took up the Dreyfus cause, the affair exploded into a full-blown culture war, pitting anti-clerical, anti-“militarist” intellectuals against anti-Semitic elements in the Army and the Catholic Church (Dreyfus was Jewish).
Dreyfus was finally exonerated in 1906 and reinstated in the Army, serving honorably in World War I. But for his countrymen, questions of his guilt or innocence had long since been superseded by the bitterness, even the rage they felt against one another.
The result was to make the Dreyfus affair a byword for foolish political hysteria. Among the nations, it gave France her worst black eye since the Reign of Terror.
Two illustrations of this:
- The early 20th-century American satirical cartoonist Gluyas Williams included among his many full-page illustrations of the human comedy a picture of the proceedings of a certain legislative assembly. At the tribune, an orator is in full flight, weeping, gesturing with one hand, and holding a handkerchief with the other. Behind him, the presiding officer yawns and the clerks to either side show head-in-hands boredom. But all else is bedlam. Members applaud or boo, and glare at each other for it. One kicks another in the shins. Members tear their hair, they tug at their beards, they climb the tribune to cheer the speaker on or they stand in the well of the house, challenging him to come down and fight. One member pounds the wall, another lies flat, drumming his heels on the floor. Another tears a sheaf of papers to shreds, like Nancy Pelosi during the last State of the Union address. Yet another aims a revolver at his own head, while his colleagues seek to dissuade him from pulling the trigger. In the backbenches, a phalanx of patriots waves the tricolor and sings “La Marseillaise.”
The drawing’s title? “The French Chamber of Deputies Debates a Minor Appropriation Bill.”
- When, in 1982, Argentina suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Great Britain in the Falklands War, Argentine strongman Leopoldo Galtieri’s Italian roots (a heritage shared by more than half his countrymen) gave currency to this contemptuous comment: “An Argentine is an Italian who speaks Spanish, wishes he were British, and acts like he is French.”
So Argentina’s humiliation became the punchline for a joke about France. And that was 13 years before “The Simpsons’” Groundskeeper Willie coined the phrase “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.”
No one wants to become a byword to the nations as France did. We Americans certainly don’t want our country to go that way. We like to think of the United States as a “shining city on a hill.” That’s what Ronald Reagan called her, referring to the sermon John Winthrop preached in 1630 while bound for Massachusetts. What few people now realize is that Reagan had turned an admonition into a boast. Here’s what Winthrop actually said:
For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.
Winthrop didn’t use the word “shining.” If he had, and if we had begun dealing falsely with our God, as he feared we might do, then our shining would likely strike him the way John Randolph once described a political rival: “He is a man of splendid abilities but utterly corrupt. He shines and stinks like rotten mackerel by moonlight.”
The question of whether we shall end up dealing falsely with our God is, I regret to say, very much an open one. But I don’t raise this byword business to drive home Winthrop’s point, well-taken as it may be, nor to expatiate on the ongoing feud between Donald Trump and his Democratic foes, for all of Pelosi’s paper-shredding tantrums.
After all, Trump, despite the endless calumnies his enemies have thrown at him, has yet to take ship for Devil’s Island. He is not what is making America a byword through the world. It is our race relations that threaten to do that.
Race has always been a black eye for us. Back in 1775, the English writer Samuel Johnson answered our complaints about “taxation without representation” with the retort, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” Sometimes the black eye has worked in our favor. During our Civil War, distaste for slavery helped keep a cotton-starved Britain from intervening in favor of the Confederacy and thus breaking the United States apart. Other times, it has worked against us. In the heyday of the Soviet Union—long before “Russian meddling” supposedly tipped the 2016 election in Trump’s favor—condemnation of American race relations was a constant theme in communist propaganda. (Billy Wilder included a throwaway gag about that in his 1961 Cold War comedy, “One, Two, Three.”)
What stands out is this: Despite all the progress America has made over the years—the abolition of slavery, the integration of the military and of professional and collegiate sports, the prohibition of racial discrimination in education, employment, housing, and public accommodations, the acceptance of interracial marriage, even the election and reelection of an African-American as president of the United States—racial strife is afflicting us as much as ever.
I won’t even try to analyze all the causes for that, let alone try to offer solutions for each one. Better men than I are already hard at it. Let me instead focus on just one aspect of the problem: violent encounters between police officers (or in one case a neighborhood watch volunteer) and unarmed black men.
These are the flashpoints for rioting, as they were in the 1960s. They also paint America in the strongest resemblance to the France of the Dreyfus Affair. For while some officers’ handling of black men has been so clearly wrong that no one disputes it—the death of Walter Scott, for example—other notorious examples look much different upon closer examination than they first appeared. Yet some Americans are too caught up in bitterness and rage against other Americans either to know or care about such findings.
Consider the following four cases.
Rodney King. America was shocked in 1991 when a bystander’s video of Los Angeles police beating King came to light. I remember reading aloud to my family a George F. Will column denouncing the officers involved. But the video, which covered only the last part of the struggle, did not give a complete picture.
King, a convicted robber who feared having his parole revoked if he was arrested for DUI, had led officers on a high-speed chase (over 100 mph at one point). Once the cops finally pulled him over, they ordered him and his two passengers (both black) to exit the car and lie face down with hands behind the back so they could be handcuffed. The passengers complied and, having committed no crimes, were later released unharmed. King likewise could have escaped harm, but he chose to fight instead.
Not wanting to risk killing King, the sergeant in charge ordered everyone to holster their guns. Four officers then “swarmed” him, one on each hand and foot, so as to wrestle the cuffs onto him. King, who was buffed by the use of prison weightlifting equipment, shook them off. The police next tried tasing him, but the intoxicated man shook that off, too. That’s when the batons came out. Careful not to strike his head, officers rained blows on his limbs and torso, pausing between salvos to give him a chance to comply. His rolling around under this onslaught, which looks so pitiable on the videotape, showed the cops he was determined to keep resisting. Finally, King said, “Please stop.” He still wasn’t in the required compliance posture, but those words ended the beating. The officers swarmed him again, and he was cuffed, hogtied, and sent off to the hospital.
The force used was the minimum necessary, because of King’s own choices, to effect his arrest safely. What were the cops supposed to do, just let him walk away? When a California jury heard it all, it found the four officers charged in the beating “not guilty.” But when that verdict was announced in 1992, people who hadn’t been paying attention were amazed. Few wanted to hear the jury’s reasons for its verdict. Instead, Los Angeles saw the worst rioting since the 1960s.
Trayvon Martin. When neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman shot and killed Martin in 2012, no video existed to set people off on the wrong foot. But the media accomplished that anyway, through means such as the choice to deceptively edit a police dispatcher’s recording to make it appear that Zimmerman had focused on Martin because “he looks black” rather than because of any suspicious behavior, and the choice to call Zimmerman a “white Hispanic,” the better to support a racial oppression narrative. (Hispanics do come in all colors, as white as Marco Rubio or as black as Roberto Clemente, but Zimmerman, whose mother is Peruvian, is as brown as any San Antonio Mexican.)
When Zimmerman went to trial in 2013, the jury found no reason to doubt testimony that Martin, angered at being shadowed by the watch volunteer while walking around in the gated community, confronted Zimmerman, knocked him down, pounded his head against a concrete sidewalk, and continued punching him, cursing him and threatening to kill him, with him screaming for help all the while, until Zimmerman drew his pistol and fired one shot, killing Martin. Police dispatcher tapes, photos of Zimmerman’s injuries, and neighbors’ eyewitness accounts corroborated that version of events, and the verdict was “not guilty.”
The moral of this story might have been, “Before you try to beat a guy’s brains out, check to make sure he’s not packing heat.” But that’s not the lesson that was drawn. Instead, people went full Dreyfus. Retaliatory assaults against whites ensued around the country, along with a few larger disturbances, though nothing to compare with the L.A. riots. The verdict did, however, inspire a woman named Alicia Garza to use the phrase “black lives matter” in a Facebook post, and that led to the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Michael Brown. BLM really got going after Brown was shot to death in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Rioting started the very next day. Ferguson went up in flames, and what Heather Mac Donald has called “the Ferguson effect” had police departments drawing back from “proactive policing” nationwide. Yet in this case, the evidence that Officer Darren Wilson was justified in shooting Brown was so clear that a grand jury declined to indict Wilson and a federal civil rights investigation also cleared him. Brown didn’t put his hands up in surrender, and he didn’t say “Don’t shoot.” He did punch Wilson and wrestle him for his gun, and he did charge toward him as the fatal shots were fired. But that didn’t stop people from chanting “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” all over the country. The facts of the case just don’t matter to Black Lives Matter.
George Floyd. As in the Rodney King beating, we have video of Floyd dying while pinned to the ground by Minneapolis police officers on May 25 this year. As in the Michael Brown shooting, rioting in response to the case began immediately, in many cities around the country, with everyone from BLM and Antifa to President Trump decrying Floyd’s death and vowing punishment. I myself called what was done to Floyd “clearly a cruelty, likely a crime, and certainly not good police work.”
But then I read George Parry’s American Spectator article, “Who Killed George Floyd?” “Why couldn’t Floyd breathe, and how did he die?” Parry asks. “The clear answers to those questions are to be found in his toxicology report, which overwhelmingly and unerringly supports the conclusion that Floyd’s breathing difficulties and death were the direct and undeniable result of his ingestion of fentanyl mixed with methamphetamine.” Floyd—who repeatedly had cried “I can’t breathe” while he was still standing and also while he was sitting, well before he ended up lying on the ground—had 11 nanograms per milliliter of fentanyl in his blood. People have died from fentanyl overdoses of as little as 3 ng/mL, with symptoms identical to those Floyd exhibited.
The police had already called for an ambulance for Floyd before they pinned him down, and one of them gave him CPR on the way to the hospital. But he was already dying before they ever touched him. Parry—a former federal and state prosecutor who for five years investigated cases of police brutality for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office—doesn’t think the cops in the Floyd case should be on trial at all. “Who killed George Floyd?” Parry asks. “He did.”
Does any of this matter, in America’s own “Age of Dreyfus”? I wish I could say it does. For now, blind rage is driving events, and we indeed are becoming a byword throughout the world. Bringing us out of it would require someone as famous and as courageous as Emile Zola to shout “J’Accuse!” to our country’s cultural masters, to the ones who are cultivating that rage. Pray that someone will, and soon.