Hot Week in July Changes U.S. Debate on Security

Hot Week in July Changes U.S. Debate on Security
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The searing and seemingly separate debates about imported and homegrown terror collided in Dallas Thursday. Headlines about wars beyond America’s borders were overtaken with confusion at home about who is predator and who is prey.

Political handwringing about whether the government is keeping America safe from external threats shifted gears into an escalating outcry about whether local law enforcement departments are menacing minorities or are themselves the targets.

Micah Johnson, a former Army Reservist who served in Afghanistan and had no criminal record, allegedly shot and killed five police officers in Dallas during a peaceful protest against police shootings of two black men. Johnson, armed with an assault weapon and a handgun, said he wanted to lash out at “white people” following the shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota. Police killed Johnson, an African-American, with a robot-deployed bomb inside a parking garage.

Even politicians, rarely at a loss for words, found themselves temporarily speechless after the carnage. Over three days, police killed two black civilians, one in Louisiana and one in Minnesota, and a 25-year-old military veteran who gunned down five police officers and wounded seven other officers in Dallas. Police in turn killed the shooter. Two civilians were wounded by gunfire in that gun battle, and scores of onlookers – including millions who viewed events via video – became witnesses.

At least four other episodes Friday around the country involved police and civilians injured by gunshots during altercations.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump canceled planned campaign rallies Friday in Pennsylvania and Florida, respectively, but issued statements that attempted to straddle the worries of African-Americans, as well as law enforcement.

“I'm going to be talking to white people -- I think we're the ones who have to start listening to the legitimate cries that are coming from our African-American fellow citizens,” Clinton said during a CNN interview. She called for national guidelines to outline when police should use deadly force, and said as president she would support more police body cameras and work to promote trust between police departments and communities they protect.

Trump, in a written statement and later in a video release, commended law enforcement and lamented “the tragic deaths” of the two civilians killed earlier in the week. “Our nation has become too divided,” he said in a statement. “We must stand in solidarity with law enforcement [who represent] the difference between civilization and total chaos,” he said in a video released to media.

President Obama, who reacted to the deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile near St. Paul, Minn., by describing “racial disparities” in the criminal justice system, spoke again hours later from Warsaw, Poland, to condemn the “vicious, calculated and despicable attack on law enforcement” in Dallas.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch called the deaths of five police officers an “unfathomable tragedy” and said “the answer is never violence.”

But what the answer is remains unclear. Despite police department reforms, changes in police training, greater use of police body cameras, and public debates about race, crime, and gun safety, the number of deadly shootings by police has been rising, according to nationwide data reported by the Washington Post.

The newspaper’s findings suggest the prevalence of graphic social-media videos has not been a deterrent to excessive force. The majority of those killed by police this year had guns, knives or toy weapons with them. This year’s statistics show that blacks are more apt to be targets, although half those killed by police this year and in 2015 were white.

“It is more dangerous to be black in America,” observed Newt Gingrich, who is being considered by Trump as a potential running mate. African-Americans are “more likely to be in a situation where police don’t respect you,” he said during a Facebook Live discussion Friday with Democratic political commentator Van Jones.

Gingrich likened police officers to domestic soldiers. “Police actually lead lives that are as much on the front line of saving civilization as our military, but we don’t quite have the same sense of awe and the same respect, and yet they put their lives on the line every day,” he said.

In fact, many in the Black Lives Matter movement object to “weapons of war” used by police, a conversation rekindled in Dallas by the police department’s unusual decision to kill Johnson with a remote-controlled robot carrying a bomb. The “militarization” of police, embraced by some advocates as necessary for terrorism preparedness, is a hot topic in New York and other major cities. 

Clinton in April stood squarely behind New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and Mayor Bill de Blasio to oppose Obama’s proposed $90 million cut in federal funding for New York under the Urban Areas Security Initiative within the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The program, according to its advocates, supports first responders and law enforcement through investments in active-shooter drills, police training, bomb sniffing dogs, chemical and radiological sensors and cameras. FEMA encourages “dual use” applications of the funding beyond fighting terrorism. 

“I have a great confidence in and commitment to making sure that New York has all the homeland security funding that it needs from the federal government, and I believe that its request is reasonable and I would very much want to see the Obama administration produce that $90 million it has otherwise decided to withhold,” Clinton said in an interview with the New York Daily News.

When it comes to their New York-influenced reverence for law enforcement, Clinton and Trump are not far apart. But more broadly, among their many disagreements are whether America is in tatters or is strong, whether the most serious threats are external or within, whether society is more divided or united, and whether government at every level is working for or against the people. 

Nothing about this hot week in July helped elected leaders or voters settle those questions  

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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