The Mayor of Baltimore, who graciously “gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well,” was heeding Talmudic advice in giving the green light to her citizen-rioters to loot, burn, terrorize and perform other acts of violence. The Talmud (Yoma 78b) suggests that an older child should be given “clay vessels” to break, so as to have an outlet for his aggressions or anger. Rabba even bought damaged clay vessels and provided them to his children to break when they felt like it. (Of course, Rabba gave them his own vessels; he didn’t tell his offspring to go break someone else’s vessels or burn down someone else’s store…)
One would assume the Mayor misspoke and meant to say “protest,” not “destroy,” but some mistakes are so unfortunate that they are irreparable. That is not to say she will take responsibility and resign – that is not the ethos of modern America – but her words were, unintentionally or not, grounds for the mayhem that ensued, abetted by the passive response of the police obviously under orders to let the “protesters” vent. The President, whom we have been told repeatedly is a “role model” for young black men, waited a day to casually condemn the violence. It was a desultory commentary; Obama summons more passion in condemning Israelis for adding rooms to their homes in Ofra or Efrat that he did in criticizing young blacks for burning down their own neighborhoods.
Needless to say (actually, quite needful to say), the frustration of many blacks is real, and not necessarily the frustration over the police actions herein. The death of Freddy Grey remains a mystery, and even presuming his innocence, bad things do generally happen even to the innocent when one runs from the police, assaults a police officer, is arrested by the police or finds oneself in police custody. It is best not to get arrested, and even better not to commit crimes (or be in arrears on child support) or do anything that might result in an arrest. There are several recent cases – this is just the latest – in which it does not seem that anyone should have died at all, and those responsible should be brought to account. Of course, non-blacks have also died in confrontations with the police when the police tactics might have been overly aggressive. Rarely, though, have the aggrieved taken to the streets and burned down homes and businesses.
The real frustration of the black community should be over the persistent lawlessness, endemic poverty and social dysfunction that, for some reason, cannot be overcome. The narrative that there is open season on blacks by police officers across the country is patently false, and the statistics bear this out so blatantly that it needs no real analysis. The WSJ reported that twice as many blacks were killed in Chicago alone in one recent year as were killed by the authorities in the rest of the entire country – and 90% of blacks are killed by other blacks. That is the real scandal and the real cause of outrage, or should be. Good black parents – and the lingering tragedy is that most black children are raised by single mothers because of the disappearance of their fathers – must be petrified of sending their children to schools, friends, and even to play ball in the street because gang violence is common, illegal guns rampant and premature death a sad fact of life. The reality is that the young black has more to fear from other young blacks than from any white police officer, but no one seems to internalize that fact.
This is not a “white” police problem, although – without rationalizing any of the recent incidents of death in police custody – it is understandable why the police would be a little edgier in high crime environments than they would be when patrolling in tonier neighborhoods. The police also have families and children, and also want to get through the day alive and in one piece. Some have suggested that the police should just look away and stop ticketing for quality-of-life crimes, stop arresting for outstanding warrants on “minor” matters like failure to pay child support or driving without insurance or a valid license – in other words, look away in order to calm tensions.
The image of Baltimore in flames is exactly what happens when the police look away and decide not to enforce the law. Our Sages (Avot 3:2) taught that we should always “pray for the welfare of the government; but for fear [of government], a person would swallow his friend alive.” Alive! It is what enables people to break into a business and loot the assets, whether liquor, sneakers or bars of soap.
And that, for me, is the heart of the problem. It’s not “racism,” a tedious contention especially given that Baltimore (like many other big cities) has been governed by blacks for years. It has a black mayor, black police commissioner, large black population, and a police force with black representation that is proportionate to the population. That allegation is so clichéd that it is an attempt – usually successful – to avoid dealing with the major problem. And the problem is not education, jobs, police, income inequality, etc.
The problem is a moral deficit that cannot seem to be surmounted and is getting worse as time goes on. The Baltimore riots were typified by one particular act of anarchy: someone broke into stranger’s car, apparently hotwired it, and drove it right into a fire. He then emerged with hands raised in exultation (Touchdown!!) as the car caught flames because he had now succeeded… in what exactly? Stealing a neighbor’s car and destroying it, thereby inconveniencing him, perhaps depriving him of his means of getting to work in the morning? One who can do that and be proud of himself suffers from a deficit of morality that is not easily reversed. It is worse than lawlessness; it is moral emptiness, an obtuse ignorance and blithe rejection of the fundamental rights of another human being.
That moral deficit is manifested in the welfare culture that has created multi-generational families of dependence on others; in black men who routinely procreate and then evaporate, leaving their progeny fatherless; in disparaging the importance of education; in nurturing feelings of entitlement and fostering an industry of grievance; and in cultivating an environment in which crime and immorality are justified or excusable because of past wrongs done to blacks.
Obviously, all blacks are not subject to these harmful forces and probably not even most blacks. Many have rightly lauded the black mother who smacked her teenage son’s face and ordered him off the streets. Good for her! May there be many more like her. But there is another factor that underscores the dysfunction in the black community and the difficulty is shifting gears: the clergy.
Many black clergymen – think the Sharpton’s, the Jackson’s, the Wright’s, et al – stoke the flames (sometimes literally) of violence, grievance and anger at others. Blaming others, especially white people generally and sometimes Jews specifically, is a traditional sermon topic. They never call for introspection, for owning up to their mistakes, for taking responsibility for their own lives; it’s always someone else’s fault. And they disproportionately receive media attention and even White House accolades.
Jews – and their clergy – are the exact opposite. Whenever any Jew stumbles –and we have our own share of miscreants – they routinely blame the entire community, lament where we have all gone wrong, demand soul-searching on the part of the innocent and sometimes the victims. We always blame ourselves first, not others; indeed, we usually go overboard in our self-flagellation for Jewish misdeeds are rightly perceived as desecrations of G-d’s name.
For sure, there are black clergy who do the same. They exist throughout the country – some of them are known to me in New Jersey. They want blacks to take responsibility for their lives, they themselves are exemplars of morality and goodness, they realize the problems are internal and not external – and they are largely ignored by the media. And that is a media that still harp on the evils of slavery exactly 150 years after the Civil War ended – in a country in which slavery not only existed but also was the only country on earth in which other white people went to war with hundreds of thousands getting killed in order to bring about the abolition of slavery.
Can these conundrums be resolved? Not easily. The sale of illegal narcotics in the inner city is out of control and ravaging lives, gang violence is pervasive and there are only two ways to stop it. One is to have an increased police presence, but now the community has been primed to see the police as enemies and uniformly hostile. Any arrest of a black – especially one who resists and is subdued – will be met with suspicion and enmity regardless of its justification. It might work but in the short term can only exacerbate tensions.
The other way is from the ground up – to rebuild the black family with mothers and fathers and children, something that was the norm until the 1960’s; to halt the teenage out-of-wedlock births that demeans the young mothers and is occasionally simply a means to receive additional government assistance; for parents to encourage, monitor and promote their children’s education so the resort to gangs, violence and criminality is unnecessary, not to mention immoral and self-defeating; to raise the profile of true black leaders of vision and decency who recognize the dysfunction and yet are often silenced by the shrill voices of others and a media that knows now to inflame; and above all to preach and embody eternal values and objective morality so children are raised with a clear sense of right and wrong and do not look for day jobs in the grievance industry.
The irony is that most blacks already know this and most live it as well. The collapse of the black community in the inner cities after decades of black, liberal rule does not reflect the broader black community. The liberal paternalism that subtly encourages helplessness and “the soft bigotry of low expectations” (in President Bush’s elegant phrase) has devastated black life and needs to be upended; instead, it just goes on and on in a classic money for votes transaction.
But the dangers still abound and need to be checked or “The Burning of Baltimore” will soon be playing at a theater near you.