No matter how you feel about the killing of five Dallas police officers by black Army veteran turned sniper and self-avowed black avenger Micah Johnson, or former U.S. Marine Gavin Long who shot and killed three Baton Rouge police officers because he was distressed by the “unlawful” killing of unarmed black men, there almost has to be a twinge of respect and admiration for any man who would sacrifice his life for a cause greater than himself. Whether Johnson and Long are considered demented and violent, or martyrs for black liberation is entirely a matter of perspective. In almost any other context, acts such as these—whether on the battlefield or in a hostage situation—are at the pinnacle of heroic endeavor. Noble acts of bravery, heroism, and self-sacrifice have always been the foundation of humanity’s sense of courage and honor. To kill the enemy without regard to one’s own safety and the risk of almost certain death, is commendable in any culture and dates back to the beginning of time.
This statement begs the question for the context of this writing. Who are the traditional enemies and enforcers of a system that encourages and perpetuates racial inequality and oppression of African Americans in this country? I, for one, would never advocate murder or the senseless killing of innocent people. But under what circumstances does killing become justified or applauded as a means of self-defense? Is killing under color of law always justified as the prerogative of government? Or, is murder always murder, no matter who the perpetrators? I would argue that murder of a police officer or murder committed by police officers is still murder, no matter who pulls the trigger.
Like the Japanese kamikaze pilots of World War II, the buffalo soldiers who made their suicidal charge up San Juan Hill, or even the suicide bombers of radical Islam, it takes an unwavering commitment to the cause—whatever it is—to lay down one’s life for a belief system or a philosophy. That ultra-rare commitment to a struggle, which enables and compels one to make the ultimate sacrifice, has to be applauded and admired. Whether the deadly act of killing is applauded or condemned is all a matter of perspective, depending on who is deemed the enemy. American sniper Chris Kyle who boasted more than 150 kills in combat, is honored and decorated with the highest medals of heroism and valor for his acts of deadly violence against America’s enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact the book which led to the movie American Sniper, was made to celebrate and inspire patriotism based on the trained killer’s deadly exploits during the U.S.-led invasions of Middle Eastern sovereign countries.
Whether such killing is justified or considered murder depends solely on whose side you’re on. Understandably the so called “Iraqi insurgents” viewed Kyle in a far different light than the Americans who considered him a hero. To the Iraqis, he was known as Kyle Shaitan Ar-Ramadi (The Devil of Ramadi). On the other hand, former Iraqi President Sadaam Hussein was characterized by the U.S. as a brutal dictator. This negative characterization, created and perpetuated by the U.S. and its allies, is what eventually led to his assassination. If the United States can celebrate the deadly violence of an American sniper whose cause is perceived as just against the enemies of government, should not a race of oppressed people celebrate the heroism of one of its own under the same or similar circumstances? What makes the killing at the hands of the United States military honorable, while the actions of an oppressed people to protect their own considered dishonorable? It is a strange paradox where governments can murder with impunity (regardless of motive) while individual oppressed peoples are deemed terrorists when they take up arms in defense of those who cannot protect themselves.
I suggest that the unique ability to conquer fear and ignore the first rule of nature—self-preservation—is admirable under any circumstance. Most of humanity is unwilling to sacrificially die for any reason, much less a cause that is bereft of self-benefit. This is what makes these types of acts in the annals of history so remarkable and so memorable. It summons up memories of the Christian martyrs who fearlessly practiced their faith in the face of eminent death by the Roman Empire, or the choice made by many Native Americans to die on the battlefield rather than become slaves, or be dispossessed of their land and marched off like cattle to the white man’s reservations. The resolute courage of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s is also instructive. Although Dr. King faced death threats daily from white supremacists and the governmental enemies of the Negro’s fight for justice, his commitment to the struggle for black equality propelled him forward, with full knowledge of eminent death.
How are these noble acts of courage and heroism so different from the acts of Micah Johnson and Gavin Long? Heroic men who, in the face of certain death, decided to do something radical to avenge and possibly avert the murder of more innocent black men—past, present, and future, by sacrificing their lives for their people. It all depends on the context and the lens in which these actions are viewed. Consequently, I refuse to view the actions of Johnson and Long as those of “demented violence and racial hatred” as characterized by U.S. President Barack Obama in his speech at the memorial of the Dallas police officers. Blue (police) lives matter, but so do black ones! This is the message of the protesters for whom U.S. history has answered consistently with a resounding “No!” From the arrival of the first slave ship docked in Jamestown Virginia in 1619, black lives have never mattered, especially when compared to white lives. This fact is documented throughout the centuries-old sojourn of the Negro in America. It is this continuing oppression, with oftentimes deadly consequences, that has created the likes of Johnson, Long, or even slave revolt leader Denmark Vessey in 1822.
Perhaps Johnson and Long believed their sacrifice would end the racist culture among police departments that for centuries has devalued black life. This impatience with a justice system that has failed to acknowledge or rectify the continuing oppression of African Americans is what fueled the latest rash of protests and civil unrest. Misguided or not, this is the hopelessness and frustration that I believe drove these young black men to commit those acts of horrific violence. If nothing else, their sacrifice has gained the attention of America and the world and cast a spotlight on the continuing presence of 400 years of systemic and institutionalized racism in this country. Johnson and Long illuminated this pervasive reality in the most radical way that they knew how—by making the ultimate sacrifice.
Gerald Torrence is a lawyer, educator, writer, social and political activist, and motivational speaker living in Atlanta. You can find more insightful opinions from TheTruthTeller at the-truth-teller.com. You can follow Gerald on Twitter @tttspokentruth.