Sunday, September 28, 2014

Judgment and humility

I went to a wake this week. The deceased was a former policeman and a former criminal. Yeah, both of them. He had been a crooked cop with close ties to organized crime. There were a lot of people at the wake; the man had a lot of friends. In addition to the ordinary assortment of people you see at any funeral, there were a number of rough-looking guys there. Some of them were cops. Others were criminals.

I was there to pay my respects because the deceased and I had collaborated on a book. I’m not going to give you his name because the purpose of this piece is not to promote the book. Instead I want to talk about my complicated feelings about the man, our relationship, and the judgments we make about people.

I’m a law and order guy; I have a brother who’s a cop and another brother who’s a prosecutor. We were raised in a religious household with clear-cut attitudes toward right and wrong. I’ve never felt much sympathy for criminals. And crooked cops have always occupied a particularly low place on my scale of infamy. Betrayal is a powerful aggravating factor.

When an acquaintance e-mailed me a few years ago asking if I would be interested in sitting down with a mob-connected ex-policeman who was looking for a writer to help him do a book, I said yes, with some trepidation. I had never met an actual professional criminal and wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to. The last line of the e-mail read: “He’s a nice guy.” That piqued my curiosity; we were talking about a hoodlum, weren’t we? I gave it a little thought and decided I had to at least meet him.

When I did, I was immediately hooked by his story. This was a man who had rubbed elbows with organized crime his whole life, been close to some of its most notorious figures, and protected its interests as a serving police officer. It was the type of story that shocks us and fascinates us at the same time.

My prospective co-author told it all with self-deprecating humor. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of him, but I knew that there was an interesting project here that I would be foolish to pass up. We agreed to begin work as soon as I had spoken to my agent about preparing a collaboration agreement. Over the succeeding months I got 150,000 words of interviews transcribed and cut and shaped into a book. He was frank about his own misdeeds; he was frank about the culture of corruption that he had participated in, with enthusiasm. He cheerfully admitted doing things that appalled me. He didn’t wallow in remorse but neither did he make excuses.

He was generous, funny, courteous and good-humored, if a little rough around the edges sometimes. I wound up liking him quite a bit, in spite of my scruples. I’m still not quite sure what to make of that. “A lot of criminals are charismatic,” my brother the prosecutor told me, by way of a warning against being taken in by his act. I don’t think I was taken in; I cross-checked, fact-checked, prodded and challenged him. I know he wasn’t a choir boy. But he was, as advertised, a nice guy.

That’s not the same as being a good man. I can’t say he was a good man. But I could tell he knew what a good man was, and increasingly, as he saw the consequences of the life he had chosen, including a federal prison term and half a dozen friends slain in gangland killings, he knew he could have been a better one. His father had not been a criminal, and he was haunted by the sense of having failed his father.

We sold the book, got an advance, met with the publisher and started planning the promotional campaign. The book is scheduled for release next year. On a sunny day in late August, my co-author had a severe stroke in front of his house. After lingering for a few weeks in critical condition, he passed away.

I had met his family in the course of doing the book, and I went to the wake for his wife and his children as much as for anything else. His wife knew what he was all those years, and you could call her complicit, but he loved her and they raised a family together and she stood by him when he went to jail. Their children are productive, law-abiding citizens. They loved their father, and they’re hurting. They’re entitled to mourn him, even if his life was in many ways a moral failure.

I had a grandfather who was a racist; he hated black people. That’s a moral failure, too. But it didn’t stop me from loving my grandfather. People are complicated, and we can deplore things they do while cherishing things that redeem them. We are entitled to judge people; we have to, in fact. We have to teach our children right and wrong and hold them accountable. But we should judge with humility. Scorn does not encourage redemption.

Sam Reaves

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Sunday, September 21, 2014

Better together?

The Scots have voted to stay in the United Kingdom, and there seems to be a consensus, outside Scottish nationalist circles at any rate, that this was the right call. The prospect of breaking up a centuries-old nation-state at the heart of the developed world was keeping a lot of people awake at night.

Scotland is not the only place where sovereignty disputes are making headlines. In Catalonia the debate is still peaceful, if heated, while in eastern Ukraine there’s a shooting war going on over who should be in charge. Sovereignty is about who should collect the taxes and make the rules, but more deeply it’s about who commands enough loyalty to get people to risk their lives in a fight. The issues are as tangled as the populations.

The apparent orderliness of maps, with their sharp lines between different colored nation-states, obscures the messiness of real-world ethnic and linguistic groups that spill over imaginary borders and mingle in cosmopolitan cities. The idea that if you live in Spain you are Spanish and if you live in Russia you are Russian was always too simple, but the modern ethnically defined nation-state, as it emerged in the nineteenth century and gradually replaced the old feudal idea of diverse communities owing allegiance to a monarch, seemed a reasonable response to the need for large organizational units in a rapidly globalizing world.

A nation-state might be best understood as a defense alliance; when the Huns come sweeping in from the steppes, the more towns you can draw on for volunteers the better your chances are. Of course, aggression is also enabled by bringing more towns under your control; either way the nation-state was designed to consolidate power. And to wield power you need an organizing principle; a common language and culture seemed a reasonable one to adopt.

But the ethnic map is too complex and fragmented to fit with the map of consolidated power. And nobody likes being ruled by foreigners. Centralizing governments repressed regional cultures to varying degrees, leading to today’s map with a relatively homogenized France next to a restive, unreconciled Spain and the unhappy marriage of Belgium next to a fairly successfully unified federal Germany.

What’s the proper approach? Do the Scots and Catalans deserve their own country? What about the Flemish? Was the unification of Italy under Garibaldi a mistake? For that matter, is the EU a mistake? Is it possible to reverse course and go back to smaller, more homogeneous political units? If so, what happens to Britain’s national debt and the million or so residents of Barcelona who are not of Catalan descent?

I don’t have answers, but we can think about principles. One thing we can say for sure is that if we’re going to avoid more of what’s happening in Ukraine, we’re going to have to compromise; not everybody’s going to get everything they want.

There is an inherent tension between the desirability of broader global networks and the need for citizens to identify with the governments that rule them. The European Union has brought great benefits in increased trade and mobility while arousing great resentment as people sense that decisions involving their quality of life are increasingly made in Brussels rather than in their national capitals. Sovereignty requires loyalty, and bureaucrats don’t inspire loyalty. Britain can still get young men to risk their lives for Queen and country (even Scots!), but who is willing to die for Brussels?

The solution to most sovereignty disputes would seem to be some kind of federalism. But there are various models of federalism with varying degrees of success. A successful federation will accommodate local aspirations while inspiring loyalty at the federal level. Ask an American what his nationality is and the answer probably won’t be “I’m a Kansan.” The United States successfully inspires loyalty to the federation as a whole. The same is probably true of Switzerland or Germany.

The UK is not a federal state but may be moving toward that with more devolution in the wake of the Scottish referendum; protracted debates lie ahead. (Home rule for England?) Federalism may be the answer in Spain, which has granted a great degree of regional autonomy to its least contented regions but is still constitutionally a unitary state. But then the Franco dictatorship and its efforts to forcibly stamp out regionalism may be too recent for Catalans and Basques who see a better future for their countries as independent states in a federal Europe.

Which would, of course, bring its own problems of sovereignty. The hope for a peaceful resolution of sovereignty disputes rests on the degree to which democratic habits of open debate and willingness to compromise prevail. An imperfect solution can be accepted as legitimate as long as the process that gets there is seen as fair. Ultimately, sovereignty is less important than a commitment to the open society.

Sam Reaves

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Islamic Reformation

With their mass executions of prisoners, enslavement of women, threats of genocide against non-Muslims and webcast beheadings of hostages, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or simply the Islamic State as it now styles itself, has established a new benchmark for savagery. These people are, as I heard it put, cartoonishly evil.

It is difficult to imagine what the ISIS leadership thinks it is accomplishing with its provocations; they have already succeeded in prodding a reluctant American administration into military action. Osama Bin Laden’s attack on New York in 2001 hardened western attitudes toward Islam and provoked a reaction that killed thousands of Muslims and radically destabilized the Middle East. ISIS appears to have concluded that another round of violent Western intervention is a good thing. Sober judgment does not appear to be a notable characteristic of jihadists.

There are many difficult calls to make in judging a proper response to ISIS. First, of course, it’s necessary to determine how great a danger it actually poses. Columnist Steven Chapman says action against ISIS will be “another unnecessary war against an overblown foe.” ISIS has established a solid base in northern Syria and swept aside feeble opposition in northern Iraq, but the question for Western leaders is how durable its reign of terror will be and to what extent it can export its violence.

Prudence would seem to dictate that the threat of murderous attacks exported from an ISIS statelet be taken seriously. Survivors in New York, London and Madrid can attest to the lethality of jihadist plots. Some kind of concerted action on the part of the civilized world is certainly warranted; Barack Obama’s attempt to organize a broad-based coalition including Arab as well as Western governments seems a sound approach. A military campaign to reverse ISIS’s territorial gains and degrade its capabilities seems achievable.

But the military effort is only the start. The long-term struggle is to win the cultural war, to defuse the appeal of jihadist ideology in a deeply unsettled world. In the West, opinion seems to gravitate toward either of two competing factions, one claiming that Islam itself is at the heart of the problem, the other apparently desperate to avoid offending Muslims by recognizing any religious element. (“They are not Muslims, they are monsters,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron.)

Of course they are Muslims, and the fact is significant. But it is also true that the latest ISIS outrages have sparked a backlash in the Muslim world, with religious leaders denouncing the group and ordinary Muslims defiantly burning the black ISIS flag on YouTube. ISIS is clearly Islamic, but that does not mean that ISIS is Islam.

The truth is that ISIS, or more generally jihadism, is the latest incarnation of utopian totalitarianism, an ideological virus that may go dormant but never dies. It just mutates and looks for a likely host.

The twentieth century saw the rise and defeat, at great cost, of two totalitarian ideologies. Fascism, a nationalist strain, was destroyed in the Second World War, and Communism, an internationalist variant, expired as a viable system at the end of the Cold War. But the totalitarian temptation is always with us, and now, in the 21st century, it comes linked to a world religion with a billion and a half adherents.

There are reasons for that, and it’s important to understand them. It’s not an adequate response merely to say, “They are not Muslims” for fear of offending constituents. Though jihadism does not invalidate Islam, the Islamic element of jihadism is not an accident.

In Europe, the idea that church and state are best separated, with religion left to the individual conscience, was a hard-won consequence of the Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War. The religious fanaticism and brutal theocracies we see now in the Muslim world would have looked familiar to any European five hundred years ago. Religious wars laid waste to Europe and religious persecution chased whole communities to a different continent before a consensus for the secular state became one of the foundations of modernity.

Islam never underwent a Reformation; the Muslim world has never internalized any concept of separation of mosque and state. “Islam is a nation,” I was told by a Palestinian friend once, an educated, tolerant, forward-looking Muslim who worked as an interpreter at a U.S. embassy. I have no doubt that he is horrified by ISIS. But the idea that Islam is a nation is a pre-modern idea, and if Muslims are to attain modernity they are going to have to find a new way to think about their faith.

That need not mean rejecting their faith; I have known enough Muslims whose integrity is obviously derived from their religious beliefs to know that Islam itself is not the enemy. But I think it’s time for the Reformation; I believe that the Muslim equivalent of the Thirty Years’ War has begun. I only hope, fervently, that it doesn’t take thirty years.

Meanwhile, jihadism attracts the same type of wayward and vicious young male that was attracted to the fascist gangs in Italy and Germany and the Bolshevik shock troops in Russia. Society always throws up a certain number of thugs, and some of them are happy to find a justification for their thuggery. Ideology has the power to make even decent people do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do, and when combined with a native penchant for violence it produces the type of man who cheerfully slits another man’s throat on camera.

These are our enemies, and they have to be fought. They will have to be defeated militarily, but just as important they will have to be discredited ideologically. And that will involve making distinctions about Islam, respecting the Islam embraced in good faith by peaceable millions while emphatically rejecting its totalitarian variety and insisting on a debate about the role of Islam in society. Modernity will come to the Islamic world; how soon and how thoroughly is yet to be determined.

Sam Reaves

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Monday, October 21, 2013

Redskins on the Warpath

Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder insists he is not going to change the team’s name. In the face of mounting criticism of the time-honored nickname, which many insist is a racial slur, Snyder refuses to budge, saying the name is not intended to be offensive and has decades of tradition behind it.

I’m surprised it has taken this long for the debate to catch up with the Redskins; most college teams with Indian-themed names and emblems were ambushed by this years ago. Colleges, which are of course hotbeds of fervent political correctness, have often caved in to the pressure, with Stanford leading the way in 1972 by ditching the relatively respectful “Indians” for “Cardinals” and subsequently the singular and baffling “Cardinal.” It is, they say, a color, and that’s something we can all root for without fear of offending.

I tend to roll my eyes when the ethnic dignity fanatics get going; I think too much can be made of what is intended to be a compliment, if a playful one. After all, you don’t call your team the Vikings because Nordic raiders were known for fainting at times of stress. To most of us, the American Indians, whatever other baggage they carry, represent ferocity, courage and endurance, qualities we hope our teams can at least fake.

However, like Charles Krauthammer, I’m not totally insensitive to the feelings of the people whose names get appropriated. In the first place, it’s interesting that we only adopt mascots when they are no longer threatening, i.e. when they are defeated. I don’t think too many Texas high schoolers thought Indians were cute when the Comanches were still cutting up settlers just over the rise, and I don’t think the good citizens of Havana would have named a baseball team the Pirates when Henry Morgan was still ravaging the Cuban coast. Can you imagine an Israeli soccer team called the Fedayeen? Somehow I don’t think we’re going to see that for a while. By the time a group gets adopted as a team symbol, they’re pretty much finished as an active fighting force. And maybe if you’re the one who got defeated, you see that adoption, however intended, as just rubbing it in.

I don’t think it’s necessarily racist to adopt Indian themes for sports teams, but I do think you have to be aware of history. And I think that if you are going to let a bunch of suburban white kids (or professional athletes) pretend to be Indians, you have to at least have a little respect. And Redskins... boy, I don’t know. Just change the damn name to the Washington Warriors, keep the logo (which, to be fair, is a lot more respectful than that silly cartoon Cleveland Indian) and be done with it. The diehards can keep calling them the Redskins the way Canadiens fans talk about the Habs and Pirates fans talk about the Bucs, but it won’t be the official name. Everybody will be happy.

But OK, Daniel Snyder doesn’t want to change it, and he’s the boss. Let’s take him at his word: nobody intends “Redskins” to be offensive. I’m willing to let him and all the fans keep the name if they show their respect in other ways, and here’s what I propose.

The Washington Redskins made $104.3 million last year. That’s income minus expenses, i.e. profit. Meanwhile, out on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, home of the Oglala Lakota nation, alcoholism is an existential threat for the defeated people we call the Sioux and mythologize as a great tribe of warriors. Anpetu Luta Otipi is an alcohol and drug treatment center at Pine Ridge that gratefully accepts donations of clothing, bedclothes and toiletries. What percentage of the Washington Redskins’ annual profit would it take to assure that Anpetu Luta Otipi doesn’t have to go begging for basic necessities for its patients? Oglala Lakota College in Kyle, South Dakota serves 1,800 students, mostly from Pine Ridge. It’s not exactly Harvard, and its endowment is somewhat smaller, but it trains teachers, nurses, social workers and technicians in an attempt, as its motto says, to “rebuild the Lakota nation through education.” What percentage of the Washington Redskins’ profits would it take to meet the needs of the nursing department for one year? Or fund a few fellowships for promising graduates to go on for advanced degrees?

I say let Daniel Snyder call his team whatever he wants, as long as he shows a little concern for the real people who have lent his business their image. Putting some of his money where his mouth is would go a long way toward co-opting the opposition. Of course, my suspicion is that the closer Daniel Snyder got to real redskins the less comfortable he would be with the name of his football team. And then maybe even people at Pine Ridge would cheer for the Washington Warriors.

Sam Reaves

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Sunday, October 6, 2013


I’m disgusted with our political scene these days, so disgusted it’s hard even to think about it let alone write about it, but I do have two casual thoughts on the current government shutdown and the tussle over Obamacare:

1. When Wisconsin’s Democratic state senators walked out back in 2011 to prevent a vote on a bill they opposed, turning the state capitol in Madison over to either mob rule or a stirring people’s protest movement, depending on your point of view, I called them on it. I said if they didn’t like the bill, even if they didn’t like the Republican governor’s tactics, the thing to do was to show up and cast their votes and then constitute a principled and tenacious opposition until they could persuade the electorate to give them a majority. That’s how it’s done in a democracy. You don’t retain the high moral ground by running away or by playing obstructionist games.

The shoe is on the other foot now, and I have the same message for the Republicans in Congress: if you don’t like Obamacare, you have to wait until the electorate gives you the votes you need in both houses to repeal it. Until then, it’s the law of the land, and you don’t retain the high moral ground by holding the whole machinery of state hostage in an attempt to starve it to death. If the Affordable Care Act is as bad as you say, the voters will get tired of it soon enough and you’ll have a chance to mend it or even end it then. Right now, you’re just making people all over the world wonder if you’re responsible enough to govern the world’s greatest power. Give it up.

2. Joan Walsh, in an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune the other day, claimed that the principal force behind Republican opposition to Obamacare (and the rest of Obama’s agenda) is racism. She says that the Republican party has been working for fifty years to inflame white fears and equate liberal policies with special breaks for blacks. Now, with a black president in the White House, the strategy has come to a head.

I have no doubt that many of Obama’s opponents are motivated, overtly or covertly, by racial prejudice. I also have no doubt that the Republicans are happy to have those people on board; politicians aren’t especially picky about where their votes come from. But I take issue with the attempt to equate Republican policies with racism; that looks to me like an attempt to dodge argument on the issues. If you can smear your opponents with an accusation of moral infirmity which undermines legitimacy (and racism is just about the only moral infirmity left that serves that purpose), then you don’t have to talk about policies. It saves time and trouble and homework.

There are legitimate objections to various aspects of Obamacare and, for that matter, legitimate objections to any number of policies touted by the Democratic party. Now, if you don’t like what our first black president is doing, you have to be able to give a better reason than that you don’t like the color of his skin. And if on the other hand you support Obama you ought to be able to say why you think his approach is better than the alternatives; you can’t just say the only reason people oppose him is because he’s black. The policies are the point, and black politicians should not be insulated from criticism because some of their opponents are motivated by racial hatred. A racist attack speaks for itself and needs no refutation; a reasoned critique of Obama’s policies can be debated on its merits, and the motivations of the people who present it are irrelevant as long as the argument is sound.

When people on both sides of the aisle are ready to play by the rules and engage in rational discussion of the problems facing us, we’ll start making headway on some of our problems. Until then, I’m going back in my shell.

Sam Reaves

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Sunday, August 4, 2013

War and Peace in Pakistan

Of all the countries in crisis across the broad arc of the Muslim world, Pakistan may be the most important. For one thing, while Iran is working feverishly to get nuclear weapons, Pakistan already has them. And Pakistan has nervous relations with its next-door neighbor, which also happens to armed with nukes. That alone qualifies it as an accident waiting to happen.

Pakistan also is the key to the future of Afghanistan, where a decade’s worth of American blood and treasure risks being spent in vain if the country reverts to a Taliban death camp or, more likely, merely slides into murderous anarchy.

So I was glad to see Secretary of State John Kerry making a rapid visit to Islamabad last week to sit down with Pakistani leaders. Meeting with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz, Kerry discussed Pakistani grievances (drone strikes) and American irritations (jihadist sanctuaries in Pakistan’s tribal areas). He invited them to Washington to meet with President Obama and issued the usual platitudes about partnership in a press conference.

I think this was long overdue, about twelve years overdue in fact. Hindsight is a wonderful resource not available to crisis managers, but I have to say that if I had been at the helm in late 2001 or early 2002, looking at the wreckage and deciding which countries were most likely to promote further attacks on the U.S., Iraq would have been way down my list. I’d have sent the Special Forces into Afghanistan, and then I’d have devoted a whole lot of resources to engaging the ramshackle mess that is Pakistan.

Pakistan has never been a stable and healthy polity; cobbled together in the wake of the British exit from India in 1947, it grouped together a grab bag of ethnicities with little in common but the Muslim religion and incorporated a conflict between local communities and a massive influx of refugees fleeing Hindu-majority India. Consequently unstable from the start, Pakistan has been a military dictatorship, more or less overtly, for most of its history, and the main concern of the Pakistani military has always been the threat of a war with India. This is what has driven Pakistan’s alliance with China, its acquisition of nukes, and its support for Afghan jihadists as a counterweight to feared Indian encirclement.

An American president concerned with eliminating terrorist havens in South Asia has to look at the big picture. If Pakistan and India can be brought to resolve their differences and coexist as the peaceful neighbors their shared history says they ought to be, a number of favorable consequences could follow. Pakistan would become less focused on external threats and could reestablish the rule of law in its anarchic tribal areas, relieving pressure on Afghanistan. The military could lose clout, democratization could progress and the country could tackle its enormous problems of corruption and incompetent governance.

There’s a limit to what outsiders can do, of course, but the U.S. has leverage with both countries and could bring them to the table. The main source of conflict is Kashmir, the Muslim-majority region which became part of India in 1947 and has caused three wars between the two countries. Pakistani support for terrorists and brutal Indian repression have kept the region on the boil. We should be devoting as much effort to resolving this conflict as we are to the one between Israel and the Palestinians. We should press for concessions from both sides leading to a resolution of Kashmir’s status and a firm and lasting peace between Pakistan and India. When Pakistan feels secure it will be a more willing ally in the fight against jihadism.

Prime Minister Sharif has moved to revive Pakistan-India peace talks, and the U.S. should make clear its support for the peace process. Had an American president concentrated on this geostrategic problem in 2003 instead of launching a disastrous adventure in Iraq, it’s possible that the past decade would have been far less bloody and turbulent in the Middle East and South Asia.

Sam Reaves

Monday, July 22, 2013


I don’t want to write about Trayvon Martin; I really don’t. First of all, I wasn’t there when it happened and I didn’t take notes on the trial, so I have no particular expertise to offer, and secondly just about everybody else is already writing, talking or shouting about the case. Most of all, I know that whatever I say, somebody will object to it. But people keep asking me what I think, and failing to answer can be construed as cowardice, so here goes.

Trayvon Martin shouldn’t have gotten killed; I think that’s one thing we can all agree on. The case is a tragedy any way you look at it. But nobody’s arguing about that. The arguments are about whether or not justice was done and what if anything the case proves about American society.

I tend to think that no single court case proves much of anything about American society; you need to look at big sample sizes to draw conclusions. But I was challenged on that recently by someone who thought it was obvious that the case was one more piece of evidence that white prejudice continues to hamper the prospects of African-Americans, and that if I questioned the significance of the case I must be in denial or perhaps harboring some of that prejudice.

I still don’t think one court case is enough to hang big generalizations on, but I understand that a high-profile case is enough to hang a narrative on, and narratives are very powerful. Furthermore, they’re necessary; they help societies organize their thinking about problems and they can contribute to their solutions. But it’s also true that narratives can be manipulated and they can be inaccurate; if they get too entrenched they can help us shut out new information and experiences.

Just to be clear, I don’t question that a young black man bears a burden of suspicion in everyday life that a young white man doesn’t. That is not entirely due to white perfidy; a lot of violent crime is committed by young black men and it’s rational to notice. But based on fact or not (and of course not all of it is), that burden of suspicion is undiscriminating and tiresome (or worse) to black Americans. I don’t have any trouble believing that what happened to Trayvon Martin was a result of that reflex of suspicion. What I question is the rush to claim the outcome of the case (or any single case) as proof of favored narratives.

It’s possible that George Zimmerman went after Trayvon Martin out of pure racial animosity. There’s a lot of it around. It’s possible that he provoked the whole thing with malice aforethought. But it’s also possible he was just being officious and overly zealous in his role as watchman and that he panicked and overreacted when Martin got mad. I wasn’t there, and I don’t know George Zimmerman, so I don’t know which of those is the case, and I marvel at the confidence of those who claim they do.

If this case makes me want to question anything, it’s the Stand Your Ground laws that several states, including Florida, have passed in recent years. I support the right to self-defense, but it has to be subject to legal constraints, and it seems to me that Stand Your Ground weakens those constraints. I oppose attempts to ban private ownership of guns, but I’m a big fan of training and licensing. Panic and overreaction can get real ugly real fast when you have a gun in your hand. So given that the unarmed kid got killed, it’s hard to say justice was done.

But I think some of the narratives that are being peddled are false. I don’t think the Trayvon Martin case proves that young black men are routinely in danger from angry white men; I think they are far more routinely in danger from other young black men. I don’t think the Trayvon Martin case proves that the judicial system is biased against blacks; I think it proves that prosecutorial overreach is a good way to lose a case. And before you accuse me of naivety, let me say that I think there are other cases that better illustrate systemic unfairness to African-Americans, such as the disparity in sentencing for drug crimes.

The main thing this case proves to me is that emotions run high when racial injustice is invoked. And that’s a pity, because emotion clouds vision. I’d love it if we could all sit down and discuss the complex aftereffects of slavery and Jim Crow dispassionately, but that’s not going to happen. The best I can do is state what I think and let people take their shots.

So here’s what I think: The United States has a hideous history of slavery, segregation and lynching. But it also has a history of abolitionist agitation, freedom marches, federal intervention against segregation, lively opposition to discrimination and collective soul-searching. The record, in short, is mixed, like human society. A narrative that recounted only the afflictions suffered by black people without noting the legal, social, educational and economic progress of the African-American community over the past decades would be incomplete.

In short, I’m an optimist when it comes to race relations in the United States. Why don’t I just get on board along with all the right-thinking people and support the narrative of implacable, endless racism? First because I think it’s false, and secondly because I think that the worst thing that could happen to the African American community would be succumb to despair. Tell people that there is no hope of progress and they will withdraw into fortified ethnic camps. Tell them that in spite of setbacks and derailments they live in a society that is capable of responding to their legitimate grievances and they will buy into that society. And that’s what we need.

That doesn’t mean I’m in denial or willfully ignorant of the problems that remain. It means I’m aware of what’s possible in imperfectible human societies. I look around the world and see ethnic conflicts turning lethal in countries that don’t have our mechanisms for noisy debate, messy political fixes and slow but inexorable cultural and institutional change. Our racial conflicts have deep roots, but so does our vocation for reform.

If you’re Trayvon Martin’s parents, you’re not ready to hear that, and who can blame you? But it’s true. There is a risk that high-profile heater cases like Trayvon Martin’s can distract us from the big picture. And the big picture is that African Americans have made heroic gains in the face of opposition that lessens with each generation. That’s a narrative I believe will survive a painful and contentious criminal case in Florida.

Sam Reaves