This week, as the Republican National Convention unfolds in Cleveland, Baton Rouge residents will be dealing with the aftermath of a shooting that left three local law enforcement officers dead and three others wounded – part of a recent pattern of violence here and elsewhere that has shaken the nation.
What happened in Baton Rouge on Sunday surely will shape the discussion in Cleveland this week, and it will certainly affect the tone of the upcoming Democratic national convention, too. Events this profound call the country’s political nominees to lead, and their involvement is what voters demand.
But as we continue a presidential campaign season that’s understandably focused on what government policy can do to answer national tragedies, maybe it’s time to recognize the limits of government in addressing the dysfunctions driving our culture.
Gavin Eugene Long, the gunman who committed the carnage on Sunday, is a case study in the kind of pathology plaguing us so routinely these days that its basic character has become predictable. As soon as news broke about the terrible act of violence that claimed three lives, most of us assumed that the second-day story would reveal a culprit or culprits crazed by delusions. Happy, well-adjusted souls don’t descend to such depravity.
Long’s personal story is bizarre, yet banal in the way that evil often is – the sad striving for glory in a cause so confused that it reads like a brainstorm of grievances. He had gone online to question peaceful protests in the wake of police shootings of a black man in Baton Rouge and another black man in Minnesota – arguing that “power doesn’t respect weakness,” and hinting that bloodshed was a better response. It was a message strikingly out of sync with sentiment in Baton Rouge, where demonstrations were overwhelmingly nonviolent.
His biography was an exercise in free association, cluttered with failed dreams and self-published manifestos, the usual leavings of a life frayed by insanity. He died on his 29th birthday in a pathetic bid for greatness – the same impulse, apparently, that drove a Dallas gunman to kill five policemen, and an Orlando shooter to turn a nightclub into a war zone.
It’s a perversity of our times that we can no longer remember the names of these gunmen because they’ve become so plentiful, an irony given their desperate hunger for fame.
Sunday’s victims, of course, have the rightful claim on posterity, since they acted honorably in circumstances they did not choose. We find ourselves haunted by the words of Baton Rouge police officer Montrell Jackson, one of the officers who died at Long’s hands. In a Facebook posting during recent protests in Baton Rouge, Jackson made an offer to his fellow citizens: “I’m working these streets so any protesters, officers, friends, family or whoever, if you see me and need a hug or want to say a prayer, I got you.”
In seeking spiritual intimacy with friends, family and strangers alike, Jackson offered what no government policy, however well-intentioned, can easily extend. It is in the absence of that bond that evil breeds, which is why Montrell Jackson’s call for connection must now become our own.