The United States seems yet again to be on the verge of disintegrating, which would be disastrous for Americans, Canadians and the world. Could people try to look a bit less pleased?

Many leftists seem happy because they think the turmoil confirms that America is racist, repressive and rotten to the core and the people are finally rising up in violent revolution. Many rightists seem happy because they think it confirms that the left is violent and irresponsible and the people are finally rising up in populist revolt.

In fact it’s tragic and ominous.

First, a man was killed. Some protestors are demanding “Justice for George Floyd”. But justice for him would be that he’s still alive which nobody can deliver. So what do we want going forward? Surely truth and reconciliation, not bloody vengeance in a howling wilderness.

For my part, I want justice for the officers involved. Which in these troubled times might seem inflammatory because when people say “justice” they often seem to mean “vindication”. I don’t. I mean a proper investigation, charges as warranted and a conviction if justified.

Yes, if. I don’t know the facts and neither do you. When you’re an officer on the ground subduing an uncooperative person in a troubled neighbourhood, you’re terrified of who’s sneaking up behind you. You don’t believe every suspect who claims you’re hurting him. And your life can be changed forever by a split-second decision, good, questionable or perhaps criminal.

Even if one or more of the officers involved is convicted, disgraced and jailed, we should feel pity not Schadenfreude. And not just for the ruined individual. If after all these years many American police and much of the public are bigoted it must be exposed and fought. But not gloated over. So why could Justin Trudeau not wait to call Canadians racist, along with much of his cabinet, the NDP and my local school board?

There’s nothing to celebrate here even at the coldest, most cynical level. If you wanted to re-elect Donald Trump a very good approach would be to unleash chaos in American cities and sneer at normal people’s distaste for arson, riot and murder. It worked with Nixon in the 1960s and early 1970s. There’s no excuse for doing it again.

There’s also no excuse for making policing even harder in the United States. Showering them with rocks and insults will not improve the behaviour of current members or the quality of recruits. Right now some officers are holding protest signs, “taking a knee” and so on which I hope will go some way to building community relations, because the last thing anyone needs is surly, demoralized cops who sit in their squad cars watching chaos unfold in poor neighbourhoods or, when forced to venture forth, do so with drawn guns.

Of course policing should not be brutal or bigoted. But burning down your own neighbourhood, or clapping while others burn down theirs, won’t get us there. Those Canadian commentators chortling over the chaos would not be if it were happening where they live. And while looting and burning the local store might be therapeutic, in the morning your home will be a commercial and employment desert. And going and burning someone else’s store is not an improvement.

Fantasies of revenge are evil things. Even if prompted by real and terrible historical injustice they drain the best of all conviction and fill the worst with passionate intensity.

One cannot imagine Lincoln or Washington saying the equivalent of Trump’s tweet that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”. No government and no society on earth will tolerate anarchy and none should, regardless of the legitimacy of rioters’ grievances. But Trump was clearly rubbing his hands while saying it. And so are the pundits blaming Trump for the situation.

The right must recognize the legitimate concern that American law enforcement is too brutal, especially toward non-whites. And that black Americans have been victims of excessive and abusive state power and the tyranny of the majority on a massive scale over centuries.

The left must recognize that American law enforcement is difficult and that its absence helps make “inner city” neighbourhoods miserable places. Liberty exists in the interstices of order and if the chaos does not subside then sooner or later the police, the national guard or even the army will have to restore order, as in Detroit in 1967. Would that outcome make healing easier?

Despite everything there is hope. The United States has always been chaotic and to a regrettable extent violent. Its history is deeply stained by the racial slavery Barack Obama called his nation’s “original sin”.

But it has also been resilient and may yet find its way from confrontation toward peace with justice and love. Which unlike riots would be something to celebrate.

John Robson

John Robson is a documentary film-maker, columnist with the National Post, Executive Director of the Climate Discussion Nexus and a professor at Augustine College. He holds a PhD in American history from...