Article by Marvin Lim and Ann Danforth.
A line from literature -- "all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others" -- provides a witty and devastating response to those who say "All Lives Matter."
Written by George Orwell in Animal Farm, this line takes on new meaning when used to criticize our American democracy today, as opposed to the communism that Orwell wanted to condemn. Communism is theoretically all about equality, but clearly fails to achieve it. Meanwhile, our very Constitution proudly boasts not only equality under the law, but also the idea that the government cannot take any person's life, liberty, or property without due process.
But, like with communism, what matters is whether we uphold our principles in practice. And in the backdrop of a society that values liberty as much as it does true equality, the people charged with upholding our Constitution have systematically interpreted it to value the liberty of certain people and institutions -- and particularly their freedom to kill -- at the price of the lives of all people, especially minorities.
Obviously, policing is one place where this problem exists. Our Supreme Court has stated that police can use deadly force, if it is "objectively reasonable" for them to believe it is necessary to protect lives, or to prevent a dangerous suspect from escaping. Fair enough -- in theory. But, with the way our courts have interpreted these principles, police have been given too much leeway to kill on the basis of their subjective, often biased beliefs about what (and who) actually is a threat. And, as tragedies like the recent Philando Castile and Alton Sterling shootings show, police have gotten away with making shoot-or-don't-shoot decisions that they could have avoided entirely, if they had engaged in de-escalation earlier on. And so the law often overvalues police choices, but undervalues actual lives.
But the problem is hardly just with policing. These same issues exist with laws, like "Stand Your Ground", that expand the ability of private individuals to kill in self-defense. Like with policing, these kinds of laws not only give too much credit to people's subjective beliefs about danger, but also protect people who could have easily avoided having to make a shoot-or-don't-shoot choice at all -- like with George Zimmerman.
Laws like "Stand Your Ground" stand for another problematic idea: that Second Amendment rights are somehow absolute. But by privileging those who choose to carry guns, these laws also fail to value the lives of all people. And even among people who do choose to carry guns, not everyone is equal. The police killings of lawfully armed minorities, like Castile and Sterling , show that, for some people, exercising the Second Amendment is more of a liability than a right.
And we can level the same criticisms at "targeted killing" practices that the government uses overseas. Our constitutional principles have been interpreted to authorize our government to kill American citizens they think are terrorists, but without giving those citizens a chance to challenge what amounts to a guilty-until-proven-innocent scenario. The Obama Administration has never explained, even in broad terms, how it determines these targets, or what safeguards exist to ensure that it is not relying on bad evidence before it kills them. And unlike policing or individual self-defense, these are premeditated acts of violence that result in the killings of innocent civilians, like the 16-year old American citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlaki .
But perhaps the coup de grace is capital punishment, where our government kills even though the killing doesn't meet an imminent need to protect anyone's life. Since 1976, a staggering 156 people put on death row were later declared innocent. Yet, courts still refuse to read the Constitution as requiring certain safeguards to ensure against this capital injustice. For example, the Supreme Court has essentially foreclosed legal claims to challenge all but the most explicitly discriminatory biases in the capital jury process, even though it is undeniable that race plays a big role in that process. Here, then, the right to life takes another backseat to the power, selectively wielded, to kill.
It can't be any clearer: our democracy promotes George Orwell's quip no less than his Animal Farm pigs did: all animals are equal (i.e. matter) -- but some animals are more equal (i.e. matter) than others. Communism, in suppressing liberty, totally fails to achieve equality. But our special brand of American democracy, in overvaluing the freedom of some people to do what they want, doesn't protect the lives of all.
[Marvin Lim, Atlanta, GA, is a public interest attorney and graduate of Yale Law School; Ann Danforth, New York, NY, is a recent graduate of the Columbia School of Social Work.]