The police killing of Amadou Diallo and the exoneration of the four officers
who shot him have naturally set off heated debates on police procedures and
race relations in our cities.
But this tragedy has implications of a broader and more profound nature:
Viewed in light of ongoing trends in our criminal-justice system, it exposes
deep-seated contradictions in our conception and practice of personal
Three of the most fundamental principles of democracy is at issue. One is
the right to do what one pleases as long as it entails no harm to others.
Another is equal justice for all. Last is the principle that no person or
other agent, including the state, has the right to tell a citizen what is in
his or her best interest -- a current of antipaternalism that has always run
far stronger in the American idea of democracy than in other liberal Western
These principles normally work well together if none is taken to
extremes. But developments in America have placed them on a collision
course, especially in the sphere of criminal justice.
Of course, our liberties have to be protected from criminals among us.
But there are two complementary ways of going about this: We can take
preventive measures, such as the rehabilitation of those who commit crimes,
to reduce crime before it happens, and we can punish those who do commit
crimes, giving the police and courts strong powers of enforcement and
America had a history of using preventive programs prior to the 1970s.
But over the last three decades, our approach has become almost entirely
punitive: We have the second-highest rate of incarceration in the world,
trailing only Russia, and are the only Western democracy with the death
Nonetheless, we still have one of the highest rates of criminal activity
and violence in the world, even after taking into account the recent
declines in overall crime rates.
Nearly all criminologists consider our punitive approach a disaster.
There is no evidence that it has had any long-term impact on reducing crime,
and incarceration makes career criminals of many of the nonviolent offenders
whom we throw together with hardened, violent ones.
Why have we taken this contradictory punitive course? Why do nearly all
of our leaders, trumpet their ``toughness'' on crime and defense of the
The easy argument is that Americans are simply prone to violence.
However, there is a better reason: our commitment to the principle that
the state should avoid telling citizens how to lead their lives.
Crime-prevention measures that have proven to work well -- from programs
aimed at youths at risk to therapy and rehabilitation for offenders both in
prison and after release -- are all in some way paternalistic. It is not
only conservatives who resent such programs -- they often cause animosity in
the very people they are supposed to help. Very often these are poor people
and members of racial minorities whose sense of freedom and dignity leads
them to reject such programs.
Our rejection of a preventive approach, however, creates a paradox in
that we are forced to surrender more and more of our liberty to increasingly
powerful police operations, like the street-crimes unit in New York, and
draconian laws we pass in order to guarantee safety.
Unlimited power always corrupts, and when a police officer can defend
himself against the killing of an
unarmed civilian with the nearly unassailable argument that he feared for
his own life, we are edging closer to unlimited power.
In pursuing the principle of noninterference, we are eroding the
principle of doing anything we please without being blasted away by jittery
agents of the state.
As for the principle of equality under the law, nobody can deny that the
probability of having our liberty violated by the police is directly related
to wealth and status.
Not only are wealthy Americans treated with more respect by the police,
they are also less likely to be indicted than poor Americans for similar
acts, are less likely to be found guilty if they are indicted, are less
likely to be incarcerated if they are convicted and are likely to serve less
time if incarcerated.
One result of the unequal impact of our law-and-order stance is a deep
distrust for authorities on the part of poorer citizens of all ethnic
groups, from white chauvinists who decry the Waco disaster to African
Americans outraged over the Diallo shooting and the beatings of Rodney King
and Abner Louima.
For all of our failures and contradictions, we can still justly claim to
be the land most passionately committed to the cause of liberty.
But the Diallo trial and similar instances of growing police powers,
along with our irrational penal system and the unequal application of our
increasingly harsh laws, compromise our international status and undermine
the credibility of the nation best qualified to lead the world into a
century of global freedom.