The Dallas shooting brings together two of the worst problems in American politics: racial mistrust and guns. It also shows that both problems are intractable. Most Americans like the idea that if something’s wrong they can fix it. Hard experience suggests otherwise.
First, race. The old heritage of slavery, followed by a century of segregation and the continuing reality of widespread racism, often makes the rhetoric of equality and democracy ring hollow. White fear of blacks is common, and has contributed this year to Donald Trump’s success.
Second, guns. The Constitution’s Second Amendment gives citizens the right to bear arms. Written in the 1780s to promote an effective militia, it’s now taken to mean that everyone is entitled to own a gun, ostensibly to protect home and family.
The reality is that these guns do far more harm than good. Family squabbles regularly lead to fatalities instead of bruises; toddlers picking up carelessly placed family weapons often shoot their parents, their siblings, or themselves; gang members hunt and kill one-another in astonishing numbers, while ideological fanatics or deranged individuals commit mass killings in schools, malls, and clubs. It’s been going on for decades.
Armed police represent the abrasive edge of black encounters with the rest of America. Improvements in video technology enable bystanders to film these encounters when they turn violent. Dozens of cases since 2014 have shown that police often use excessive force. That’s because the policemen believe suspects are likely to be armed and that less forceful measures might endanger their own lives.
Deaths inflicted by police, including two this week, in Louisiana and Minnesota, further sour race relations. Community leaders, black and white, try to keep demonstrations peaceful, but it’s not surprising that some onlookers develop a taste for vengeance. The Dallas sniper, Micah Xavier Johnson, told the police before they blew him up that he wanted to kill white people, especially white police officers.
Does the fact that some senior police officers are black, including the police chief of Dallas, mitigate the situation? Not really. Black figures in historically white organisations are vulnerable to the charge that they have sold out the members of their own race and sacrificed their own dignity for the sake of career advancement. The allegation helps to poison community relations.
Will the latest massacre lead to effective gun control? Almost certainly not. The victim list is far shorter this time than it was in Orlando, and the attack will be construed by some onlookers, including the powerful gun lobbies, as evidence in favour of arming more people, rather than fewer. There will be a round of lamentation and hand-wringing, then nothing will change.
Both presidential candidates have condemned the attack. Soon, Hillary Clinton will issue renewed appeals for gun control, but by British standards they’ll appear pathetically weak. Donald Trump won’t go even that far; he’ll just make ringing declarations on behalf of law and order. Congressional deadlock on the issue will persist. Voters’ conflicting attitudes will harden.
One aspect of the crime scene that’s hard to miss, incidentally, is its proximity to Dealey Plaza, where President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. The role of snipers in both events adds symmetry to the comparison. Dallas, after decades of struggling to repair its public image, suffers another grievous blow. It regains its position as America’s prime symbol for unnecessary and avoidable violence.
Racial tension and gun violence; neither problem will disappear and both may yet get worse rather than better. Are there any glimmers of hope? Well, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was able to demolish the structure of legally enforced segregation and open up new avenues of advancement for African-Americans. Openly voiced public support for racial discrimination ended in the mid 1960s. Racism is still a powerful force but at least now it has to be covert. That’s progress of a kind. Whether a similarly benign legal transformation in the matter of guns can follow, making America incomparably safer for everyone, remains much more doubtful.