Covid, Cops and Killings

On the one hand, dead is dead. When a human being dies of other than natural causes at the end of a long life, we generally feel a sense of tragedy about it, as well we should. And yet it feels very different if the cause is something we believe to be beyond our control, such as cancer, as opposed to something we believe can and should be controlled, such as crime. That makes the comparison between deaths caused by Covid versus deaths caused by homicide seem deeply flawed. But is it?

Clearly, the issues Conor raises about murders being up, police killings being down, and the failure of reform activists to come to grips with this reality, are significant in the scheme of criminal and policing policy. Murders rising isn’t the sort of thing any rational person can ignore, despite the efforts to trivialize it by comparisons with the bad old crack days. No one wants to be murdered, to have their children murdered, and to ignore this is to delude oneself.

But then, no one wants to die of Covid either. Or cancer. Or heart disease. Or in a car crash, whether due to a drunk driver or negligence. What makes crime so distinct that we’re prepared to accept extraordinary changes, the limitations of rights, compliance to authority, adherence to rules, to address fear of crime that we would be reluctant to, or refuse outright, for any other purpose?

When the perception of rising crime finds its way on our radar, we call for new criminal laws, ever-increasing penalties, more extreme and intrusive policing. David’s point appears to be that if the rise in homicides is going to compel people to throw rights to the wind, then why not a far more pervasive cause of death like Covid?

It’s not to say that David is arguing to impose increased restrictions due to Covid, from forced jabs to quadruple masks, although he might. But that the “fear-mongering” surrounding the rise in homicides, and the impact it has on our willingness to submit to governmental authority out of this fear, is disproportionate and ultimately irrational when we feel no similar depth of fear for things that cause far more deaths.

Is it because death by disease feels natural? Is it because a bullet to the head pretty much guarantees a really bad outcome whereas not getting jabbed seems to have a significant lower potential to put us in the ground? When we can avoid death by disease with relatively clear actions, and the fact that more than 800,000 Americans have already died from (with?) Covid, many still resist.

This isn’t a commentary on the propriety of resistance to masks or vaccines, although I’m fully vaxed and boosted and, if asked, wear a mask. You be you, provided it’s for sincere reasons rather than buying into bullshit to “own the libs.” But then, is it any less serious a restriction of your liberty to have a cop stop you without legitimate cause, call you “motherfucker” because you haven’t shown him the obsequiousness he feels due and beat the crap out of you for not respecting his authority? And yet, we generally fail to compare and contrast these relative “indignities,” even though the command to wear a mask seems a lot less onerous than the command to get on the ground and spread ’em.

This isn’t to say that the issues Conor raises aren’t legitimate issues, both as a matter of concern to rational people who prefer not to be tomorrow’s homicide victims and as a matter of sound public policy. Crime is still crime, something we as a society have decided is not the sort of thing we can ignore. There is still the matter of moral culpability of people who harm other people, whether out of greed, impulse control or otherwise.

At the same time, David’s point, that we tend to lose our heads when it comes to increases in crime while simultaneously acquiescing to the vicissitudes of disease over which we could exert greater control if we saw it as a battle to save lives the way we do street crime. The gut reaction is that comparing killings to Covid is apples to Chevys, but both result in death and, to the extent our acceptance of extreme measures is warranted, why are we so much more inclined to subject ourselves to the potential restraints on our freedom of police control, and its attendant abuse, when it comes to crime while so many of the same folks will risk it all to fight against restraints when it comes to Covid?

There is a Latin expression embodying a legal concept that comes to mind with some regularity these day, inter arma enim silent lēgēs. In times of war, the law falls silent. The notion that we need to mount a war on crime has long been used to take advantage of public fear to gain approval of extreme intrusions into our constitutional rights and freedoms.

And yet, in the scheme of things that will harm us, kill us, destroy our economy, deprive our children of education, crime is hardly the most serious concern at the moment. So why are people willing to sacrifice their liberty to win the war on crime but not wear a mask to win the Battle of Omicron? Why do so many shrug off 800,000 deaths as something that can’t be helped, but consider half as many deaths a catastrophe? What is it about crime?

8 thoughts on “Covid, Cops and Killings

  1. Keith

    I have always chalked this phenomenon up to people being really bad at assessing and evaluating relative risks, coupled with the tendency to believe they can control certain risks (e.g. people that think driving will be safer than flying because they are careful).

  2. B. McLeod

    There is little accounting for such differences in perception. As far as can be discerned from second hand reports and social media traffic, it appears at least some people believe COVID-19 is not real. Others apparently accept that it is real, but fear that the vaccines could have unforeseen, dangerous side effects.

    In part, these issues are related to the decay of government and media credibility. Every source of information could be unreliable, and fear of death from COVID-19 is probably offset by fear of death or other horrible consequences from the vaccine. The ordinary members of the public can have no real confidence as to what is real, and so they make varying decisions on what to believe.

  3. Eliot J Clingman

    There is very little solidarity in modern America. Covid restrictions happen to oneself. Being tossed by the police or being subjected to a procedurally unfair criminal trial happen to “other people”, so one doesn’t care. To use economic jargon, there is “cost shifting”.

  4. delurking

    “What a terrible way to go.”
    “He died doing something he loved.”

    People simply do not regard all deaths as equivalent. Rankings may vary from person to person. Across society, though, there are some common themes. It is best to live to old age and die peacefully in one’s sleep. It is not quite as good to live to old age and die in a hospital connected to a bunch of machines. It is worse still to die accidentally while not yet old, but better to die accidentally doing your favorite sport than doing your hated job. It is even worse than that to be killed by a criminal who steals your wallet, and worse still to be killed by a terrorist who hates you for your country.

    Some will argue until they are blue in the face that death is death, but even a cursory look at our culture shows that is not the case.

    1. Miles

      Thank you, Dr. Obvious. Now why they value death differently, and whether it’s justified or just some weird human psychological quirk, would have been interesting.

  5. Conor Friedersdorf

    Two parts of David’s argument frustrate me.

    1) It isn’t as if the United States isn’t doing anything to prevent Covid-19 deaths. We shut down society to a degree unprecedented in our history. We launched Operation Warp Speed and closed schools. Millions of us, myself included, spent a year isolating ourselves away from loved ones, and we’re still testing ourselves and donning masks. The expense and infringements on liberty alike are far greater than those associated with any change I’ve urged to reduce the murder rate.

    2) Murders are many times more numerous than police killings. Yet David and I both have a long track record of caring about police killings. At least in that case, it seems he believes it is not irrational to care about a kind of death even though a different kind of death is much more common.

    1. Miles

      It seems that David, as a zealous advocate, tends to get a bit overheated in his rhetoric, attacking the messenger rather than the message. You, on the other hand, tend to be one of the most fair-minded commentators around, which can be infuriating to the unduly passionate. As our host has written on occasion, you have a tendency to be too kind to your adversaries.

      If I understand David (and I may not), his fight is that the increase in murders will be used to undermine the reforms he supports, and that by juxtaposing the raw numbers of deaths, he hopes to suck the wind out of fear of murders.

      No one who has read your work doubts the depth and sincerity of your concern about wrongful police killings. It’s just that your eminently fair concern about the increase in murders, an entirely separate problem from deaths due to Covid, plays into the hands of those who want to stir fear and quell reforms, and David feels compelled to do what he can to diminish these fears and these arguments. Unfortunately, activists tend not to have any tolerance for anyone who doesn’t toe their party line, and so he attacked you, a tactic that plays well in the echo chamber but is otherwise unpersuasive.


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