It had to have cost Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings to refer to the shooter in Thursday’s sniper attack on police officers there as a “lone gunman .” Because even now, that phrase has the power to summon the “city of hate ” reputation Dallas has struggled to live down since JFK was killed more than a half-century ago.
Though the assassinations in 1963 and 2016 couldn’t be more different, Dallas remains deeply insecure about the way it’s viewed nationally. And a friend of mine in that city, where I had my first reporting job covering the Dallas cops, thinks it’s her hometown’s eagerness to get out in front of fresh portrayals of Big D as racially backwards that’s behind the wrongheaded headlines labeling last week’s attack an act of terrorism.
First, when human beings have been slaughtered in a premeditated strike, does it make a lick of difference what we call it? Yes, because just as black, blue and all lives matter , so too do words, as Rawlings himself said while the stand-off with Afghanistan veteran Micah Johnson was still going on.
In recent years, we’ve already taken an impressive amount of time off from arguing about gun violence and, well, more gun violence , to argue about when and how we use that word 'terrorism.' President Obama is supposedly too afraid to call the bloody handiwork of Islamic terrorists by its right name. But that's not because a commander-in-chief with a convert’s zeal for drone attacks doesn’t want to hurt the tender feelings of the bad guys, but because he doesn’t want to give them exactly what they want, which is recruiting video of the POTUS seeming to declare war on Islam itself.
At the same time, we’ve redefined ‘terrorism’ to include almost any well-planned act of violence. The self-professed pro-lifers who have murdered abortion providers are part of a supposed terror network that I guess includes Pope Francis . A guy arrested for threatening to kill a pro-life priest must have decided he wanted a piece of that status upgrade, and styled himself as a “pro-choice terrorist ,” though he, too, was really just a criminal.
Last year’s massacre of nine people in a Charleston church was widely called an act of domestic terrorism against black people by those arguing that white supremacists are terrorists, too. And now Rush Limbaugh and others are talking about what happened in Dallas as a terror attack on white police officers.
Of course Tim McVeigh, who bombed the Alfred F. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, was as much a terrorist as Osama bin Laden, and it isn’t as though terrorists of any stripe are necessarily rational actors; the many contradictions of Orlando shooter Omar Mateen show that clearly enough.
But in behaving as though all of these troubled people are motivated by some political agenda, aren’t we giving murdering haters a veneer of rationality that they don’t deserve?
(And when the Dallas shooter was hustled out of the military following a domestic violence complaint, did that attack, too, involve a political agenda?)
The narrative that we are a nation at war with itself, literally, is not only self-fulfilling — a recruitment tool, really — but pretends that these vile acts are inevitable, which they are not.
Remember when the right was (rightly) outraged that Sarah Palin was pilloried for those ‘crosshairs’ ads that supposedly contributed to the 2011 Tucson shooting that killed six people and wounded 12 more, including then-Rep. Gabby Giffords?
Yet now we have a whole parade of conservatives similarly blaming Black Lives Matter, because a gunman with no apparent ties to that organization violated the spirit of its peaceful protest against recent cop shootings in St. Paul and Baton Rouge by gunning down five police officers. Even the president himself is being blamed for the attack in Dallas.
“Black Lives Kill,’’ was a headline on the Drudge Report. Rush Limbaugh called BLM a terrorist group. Former Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) tweeted, “This is now war. Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you.”
What the president says, meanwhile, is that we’re not as divided as some would suggest. But much as I wish that were true, what I see is a country trained by cable and social media to respond with a reflexive partisan jerk of the knee even to issues that aren’t left or right at all.
Mention, say, Roger Ailes being accused of serial sexual harassment, you can be confident that some dutiful conservative will bring up Bill Clinton’s alleged predations, as if abusers and stand-up guys aren’t unpredictably affiliated.
Or criticize Hillary Clinton’s handling of her email and count the seconds until you will be treated to a recitation of Donald Trump’s many moral detours. Again, as if nothing can be assessed right or wrong on its own merits, but only in contrast to misdeeds on the other team.
We Americans think of ourselves as extraordinarily blessed with common sense, but arrogance is an obstacle to both wisdom and its down-home derivative, and we seem to have lost the habit of thinking other than tribally.
One exception to the left-right divide? There is a reason that police unions – not exactly bastions of lefty ideology — have always heavily favored some gun control, and that’s that they are the ones on the front lines every day, up against criminals with easy access to weapons of war.
“We’re the most heavily armed violent society in the history of Western civilization and we dump this duty on 25-year-olds” in police departments, Ed Flynn, the police chief in Milwaukee, told the New York Times before the shootings in Dallas.
Naturally, the city where I grew up when I was already supposed to be a grown-up has changed dramatically since I filed Dallas Morning News stories in the 80s, on my Trash 80 , from the cop shop where Oswald was murdered.
In the 90s, Dallas elected its first black mayor , and in ’07, its first black district attorney . Dallas County’s top law enforcement official, Sheriff Lupe Valdez , a Hispanic, lesbian former Army captain, is running for her fourth term this year.
Since 2010, the city has also had an African American police chief, David O. Brown, whose de-escalation training has been credited with cutting the number of citizen complaints of excessive force from 147 the year before he arrived to 13 through mid-November of last year.
But the shooter, who reportedly sang and laughed during the long stand-off with cops, was not either a rational actor or some tactical mastermind — and didn’t have to be to inflict all that damage.