It has been a bad few weeks for law enforcement in America.
In late May, Americans were appalled by a video showing a white police officer kneeling for several minutes on the neck of a black man, George Floyd, until he died. Two autopsies confirmed that Floyd died from asphyxiation.
The video of Floyd’s death captured perhaps the most egregious and incontrovertible episode of police brutality ever recorded in America. It has sparked a new wave of nationwide protests that hearken back to those of 2013 following the death of Trayvon Martin. Floyd’s final words, “I can’t breathe,” have sparked an international movement to reform police practices.
Unfortunately, violent elements detracted from the message of peaceful protestors by spraying graffiti, looting businesses, and assaulting police officers. In the first weekend of protests, nearly 400 law enforcement officers across America were injured in the line of duty. Sadly, sometimes the police have harmed peaceful demonstrators as well.
As demonstrations continue, a new rallying cry has emerged: defund the police. Some proponents explain they don’t want to do away with policing entirely, but simply redirect funds to social programs.
For others, “defund the police” is absolute. On Sunday, nine of 13 city council members in Minneapolis announced they would “begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department.” In Seattle, protestors have evicted police from a six-block area of downtown, including a police precinct and city hall. The governor and mayor have largely refused to take action against the protesters, who have set up armed checkpoints around what they call the “City Hall Autonomous Zone.”
Some have reacted to this apparent toleration of rioting and domestic terrorism with calls for “law and order,” President Trump among them. One reporter called this phrase a “racist ‘dog-whistle.’” Another insisted that all Republicans have a racist agenda when they use this phrase.
Of course, the politically correct thing to do when someone calls you a racist (with or without justification) is to apologize profusely. And more and more people appear inclined to do so, according to an article under the gleeful headline, “Is This the Last Stand of the ‘Law and Order’ Republicans?”
But this new narrative must wrestle with the question: what is left if we abandon law and order? The answer: anarchy and chaos.
A basic fact of human nature is that we are inclined to do whatever we think we can get away with—even if it is wrong. (Before you argue, when’s the last time you drove 5 miles per hour above the speed limit?) Anarchy and chaos lead to injustice and grief for all but those strong enough to abuse others.
Order means a stable peace, and law means the power that enforces it. Law and order mean nothing without enforcement. Enforcing law and order is called “police power,” and the institution with exclusive legitimate authority to exercise this police power is called a “government.” To get rid of law and order, or to get rid of policing, is to get rid of government and descend into anarchy.
Law and order have provided the basis of every single functioning government since the dawn of time. This is so basic it’s non-negotiable. Hurl whatever epithet you like, but this is still true.
What, then, when police officers themselves commit atrocities against vulnerable minorities? When law and order are themselves unjust?
The blood of George Floyd and others unjustly murdered cries out to God, who will ultimately punish every injustice. But in the meantime, the solution we must work towards is a better law and order, not less.
History can provide endless examples of unjust laws, and of unjust rulers ignoring the law. Yes, in America, too. We ought to labor tirelessly to ensure that no unjust law remains, and that no officer is above the law. But as unjust as laws sometimes are, law is the only means by which we can achieve justice.
All people, particularly the vulnerable, need law and order. Without law enforcement, the strongest will trample unchecked on the vulnerable.
In Federalist Paper No. 51, James Madison justified the separation of powers in the U.S. Constitution by pointing out that men are not angels. The principle that follows speaks precisely to America’s situation in 2020:
“In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
In our zeal to prevent more tragedies like George Floyd’s (killed by police), let’s not create more tragedies like Ahmaud Arbery’s (killed by self-appointed vigilantes).
While police killings are down since 2013, the change was too slow to save George Floyd. It’s clear—and increasing majorities of people recognize—that reform is needed and needed now.
Until Christ returns, we will never see a perfectly just government on earth. Until then, we ought to pray and work for justice. We must pursue complete justice while maintaining a posture of humility, recognizing that we will never usher in utopia through our efforts.
I’m thankful to live in a country that bases its laws on universal principles like: “all men are created equal.” I’m pained that this country has so often failed to fully reflect these principles, particularly with regard to black Americans. But I’m confident that America cannot do better than by striving to live up to the principles of law and order she espouses.
Joshua Arnold is Media Coordinator for Family Research Council.