Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
In one of Chief Justice Earl Warren’s farewell interviews given to The New York Times in 1969 prior to stepping down from the High Court, he was asked to identify the three major areas in which he felt the court had impacted the future of the nation during his tenure in office. Warren cited civil rights, reapportionment, and protecting the rights of the defendant. In historical terms Warren of course was correct; but after the events of the past week the nation once again has become starkly aware of how far it still must go. This is especially true in freedom and equal treatment for all citizens under the law balanced against the need to protect those charged with law enforcement from citizens who take the law into their own violent hands.
No set of events in recent memory so exemplified how far the nation still needs to still travel to address the fundamental prejudice and hostility which has made equal justice under law so very distant for so many people. At the same time, there remains a huge dichotomy among the law enforcement agencies in the country as to how deal with alleged perpetrators and still protect themselves from the insane attacks to which Warren referred.
Racial prejudice in America has once again risen to a position of scary prominence. During the past 18 months or longer there have been numerous incidents identical or similar to those which occurred last week in Minneapolis and Baton Rouge where presumed dangerous Black individuals have been shot–by mostly White law enforcement officers–during what appears to have been grossly disproportionate acts of unnecessary violence by police.
The events that occurred on Thursday night in Dallas, of course, represent a piece of the other side of what Warren was observing in 1969. Police officers had been over-reacting and citizens needed to be protected from police abuse; yet Warren understood the difficult balance and tension that require law enforcement officers to be able to perform their duties without endangering their lives in the process at every turn.
A sense of racial injustice and rage apparently drove a disgraced Army reserve marksman returned from Afghanistan to seek to settle the growing racial crisis in America as he had been trained in the military. The tragic death of five Dallas police officers seeking to maintain calm during a public demonstration only to be caught in a military style attack, sent shudders through police officers throughout the country as well as to the minds and hearts of all police chiefs and political leaders.
Once the mourning and the grief period passes, local and national leaders will need to reopen all the old wounds. They must openly and seriously address how to insure that law enforcement officers can succeed in doing their job without fear of personal danger. At the same time, there is clearly a major failing in police training which has contributed to the dramatic increase in the number of mishandled racial confrontations. It will not change quickly but it must be addressed immediately. Warren believed the Court under his leadership had moved the nation forward on a constructive path. The last week has continued to demonstrate that the nation still has a very long, difficult way to go.