As Bruce "The Boss" Springsteen brings the infamous Amadou Diallo case back into the limelight with his song, "41 Shots," the usual lines are being drawn. One side, led by professional activists such as Al Sharpton of Tawana Brawley fame, sees the Diallo case as nothing short of an execution of an innocent man by rogue white cops acting purely under motivation of racism.
On the other side, there are the defenders of the police who speak of the difficult and dangerous job that policemen have as they enforce laws against lawless people. Certainly the mixed-race jury in Albany, New York, that acquitted the four policemen charged with murdering Diallo agreed with the latter assessment. Given the circumstances of the incident, they said, it was clear the four white cops did not act under any observable "racist" motivation.
(At present, the U.S. Department of Justice is reviewing the case to see if the men are to be charged with deliberately violating Diallo’s civil rights. If Janet Reno and her lieutenants believe prosecution will help Hillary Clinton’s U.S. Senate campaign in New York, they will prosecute. Otherwise, they will not.)
Once again, the more relevant points regarding the Diallo case and hundreds of other police shootings and the like are ignored. What needs to be pointed out and discussed again and again is the fact that Americans hold the state to much lower standards than we hold for private citizens. The real lesson of the Diallo case — and the numerous cases in which innocent people are railroaded into prison — is that the modern state and its hopelessly flawed system of justice could not survive if we had the same expectations from this institution that we have from each other.
Instead of the police shooting Diallo, let us look at another scenario. A young black girl is raped and her father, two brothers, and an uncle (all black) grab their guns and go looking for the perpetrator. Given a description of the rapist, they see a black man who seems to fit the profile as given them.
The four men pile out of the car as the many looks to be trying to slip into his apartment. They call out to him, and one of them mistakenly thinks he has seen the suspect pull out a gun. In the next few seconds, shots are fired and the "suspect" lies dead. He is armed only with a wallet.
This is precisely the turn of events that confronted the police officers that fateful night in 1999. However, had it been that four private citizens who had done the shooting, there is no doubt what would have happened next. All four would have been rounded up, charged with second-degree murder, and quickly convicted by a jury of any racial mixture the court officers could have concocted.
In the situation of the police officers, this is called a tragedy but is quickly written off as a hazard of police work. With private citizens, however, the incident would have been called "unacceptable vigilantism" and an unwarranted case of "taking the law into their own hands."
Let us take another situation. Each year, dozens of people are freed from prison after it has been discovered that they were wrongfully convicted. The celebrated death penalty moratorium in Illinois comes after authorities find that nearly half the death row inmates most likely have not committed the crimes for which they were sentenced to death.
During that time of incarceration, these prisoners have been removed from their families and loved ones, deprived of earning a living, ruined financially, forced to work at prison labor at prison wages (and some are not paid at all), and generally brutalized by inmates and officers of the prison system. In fact, in typical Orwellian misuse of the language, this whole barbaric assemblage is called a division of the "Department of Corrections," as though anything was actually being "fixed."
Some people mistakenly imprisoned are given some compensation by the state. Other states, however, have no provision to indemnify those wrongfully convicted and often the state’s prosecutors will insist even against hopeless odds that they really did convict the right person.
Now take a parallel scenario. Someone beats and rapes a member of my family and the victim mistakenly identifies Joe Doakes as the perpetrator. Enraged, I kidnap Mr. Doakes and hold him prisoner on my property. For the next several years, I make him do menial chores around my (obviously) secluded homestead. At night, he sleeps in a small room in my basement. He is always either shackled or guarded by an armed family member who is instructed to shoot to kill if the man tries to escape.
However, Mr. Doakes does escape and now leads the authorities to my home. My family and I would surely be arrested and imprisoned ourselves, and, no doubt, we would have to liquidate all of our possessions and them some in order to compensate Mr. Doakes for his losses.
In the first scenario, the wrongful imprisonment of an innocent person is written off as a "mistake" that is bound to occur in the vigilant pursuit of justice. Those who put the person into the system usually face no sanctions themselves, even when it is discovered that they either manufactured evidence or withheld vital information that almost surely would have led to an acquittal.
In the second scenario, however, there would be no end to the implementation of the law in all its majesty. Again, there would be the cries of outrage against "vigilantism" and "taking the law into your own hands." The authorities would not be able to act quickly or forcefully enough to contain this outrageous behavior.
However, if one carefully examines all the situations that have been described, there is no difference between the "public" and "private" actions of those involved. Amadou Diallo is dead, whether killed by a "private" gunman or shot down by police. Joe Doakes was deprived of liberty whether or was by officers of the law or an enraged neighbor. The only difference is that those empowered by the state have a license to kill and wrongfully incarcerate.
Therefore, one can only conclude that those who work under the auspices of government have been granted liberty to work under extremely low standards. None of us would ever accept such low standards from private citizens, but, apparently, the political classes with "the consent of the governed" have been able to protect themselves from their own incompetence.
Like the jury in Albany, we might well sympathize with the police officers that killed that unfortunate African immigrant. It was clear from the start that the shooting was a mistake, not an act of rogue racism. We can also understand that prosecutors do make honest mistakes and that jurors will wrongfully convict not out of malice, but simply because they were given bad information.
What we must understand, however, is that if we are to have a free society, the same standards must be upheld universally. Once we lower standards for those working for the government, there is no end to the mischief and misery that government will bring upon us. It seems that such mischief has long been happening and will continue to occur unless there is real change.
William L. Anderson, Ph.D., is assistant professor of economics at North Greenville College in Tigerville, South Carolina. He is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.