Yes, the President of the United States, in the aftermath of the police murders in Dallas and Baton Rouge, has gotten off the fence. Up to now, he spoke in irreconcilable tones in an effort to offend no one, no side, by arguing that police were needlessly killing black men while praising the police for the great job they were doing, when he just said the job they were doing was needlessly killing black men.
But that was then and this is now. If the GOP convention rhetoric about crime and police is disconcerting, then this open letter from the president should be a big eye opening to those who refuse to recognize that this isn’t a one-party issue.
You might think these words were clipped from the script of a police union official, but you would be wrong. Then again, in the aftermath of the police murders in Dallas and Baton Rouge, perhaps the president can be forgiven some hyperbolic tummy rubs to those who have suffered the murders of fellow officers who bore no connection to any specific harm.
To the brave members of our Nation’s law enforcement community:
Every day, you confront danger so it does not find our families, carry burdens so they do not fall to us, and courageously meet test after test to keep us safe. Like Dallas officer Lorne Ahrens, who bought dinner for a homeless man the night before he died, you perform good deeds beyond the call of duty and out of the spotlight. Time and again, you make the split-second decisions that could mean life or death for you and many others in harm’s way. You endure the tense minutes and long hours over lifetimes of service.
Every day, you accept this responsibility and you see your colleagues do their difficult, dangerous jobs with equal valor. I want you to know that the American people see it, too. We recognize it, we respect it, we appreciate it, and we depend on you. And just as your tight-knit law enforcement family feels the recent losses to your core, our Nation grieves alongside you. Any attack on police is an unjustified attack on all of us.
Notably, this goes well beyond the wrongfulness of the killings, and deep into the cop-tropes of “courage” and “valor,” “split-second” and “life and death” decisions. But at the end of the letter, President Obama closes with a sentence that brings a commitment heretofore unsaid:
Thank you for your courageous service. We have your backs.
This final sentence has a special meaning. It’s the retort to the old mob threat, “watch your back.” It’s the sentiment of one made man to another in the Family. It’s what a parent feels toward his child. The meaning is that right or wrong, good or evil, he will cover their back. No matter what they do, no matter how bad it is, he will back them up. The president of the United States said this publicly to law enforcement.
Now you know where this progressive administration stands on the issue.
Is it possible that the president didn’t realize the meaning of the words he used? The president’s speeches are deeply vetted, as has been explained at painful length in the discussions of the past few days regarding Melania Trump’s “plagiarizing” of Michelle Obama’s convention speech. Words don’t appear in a president’s speech by accident. They are chosen with the utmost care. These are the words he chose.
What is the significance of announcing that the Obama administration will support the actions of law enforcement without regard to whether they are right or wrong? According to Paul Cassell at Volokh Conspiracy, it’s not good enough.
The president’s words are welcome. In the wake of recent killings of police officers in Dallas, Baton Rouge and (yesterday) in Kansas City, Kan., they are more important than ever. Hopefully his letter can help change the poisonous atmosphere that too often surrounds discussions of policing, as Heather Mac Donald has been so eloquently documenting in her posts here, here and here, as well as in her excellent new book, “The War on Cops.”
For those unaware of Heather MacDonald’s book and position, she contends that there is, indeed, a War on Cops in America, and that Black Lives Matter, and indeed, all complaints of police use of force excesses, are lies.
While Obama’s open letter is laudable, one claim in the letter is worth at least some discussion. The letter’s concluding two sentences are: “Thank you for your courageous service. We have your backs.” I wonder about this last claim — does the administration really have law enforcement’s back? More precisely, has the administration done everything that reasonably could have been done to prevent attacks on law enforcement?
If you get the impression that police are a vulnerable, marginalized group suffering from the microaggressions of an unappreciative public that has failed to give them the respect and adoration they deserve, you would be right. And Cassell devolves into a 7 Step program he devised after the killing of two officers in New York that, he claims, would protect police from being murdered.
His program is more a bizarre public relations campaign of gestures to show support for police than anything else, because some folks believe gestures stop bullets. Then again, that belief is shared by both sides of this discussion, so one can’t blame Cassell for being as ineffective as others.
But his chief complaint, that saying “We have your back” isn’t the same as actually doing so, isn’t good enough. Promises from presidents and politicians are occasionally broken, you know. And some of the good work done by the administration, such as vigorously fighting all efforts to reform qualified immunity, tend to fly under the public’s radar.
Certainly nothing here suggests that the administration itself is guilty of waging a deliberate war on cops, as some intemperate remarks may have suggested. But at the same time, the administration clearly has failed to do as much as it could have done to support law enforcement, leaving it open to the charge that it has indirectly caused a war on cops.
If you thought the government hadn’t done enough to protect the public from the cops, then you just don’t see the nation through Paul Cassell’s eyes. If the government doesn’t have cops’ back no matter what, then it is indirectly responsible for their deaths. The cost of having cops’ back is paid by the dead. For Cassell, there is no price too high to have cops’ back.