Local Columnists

August 18, 2014

Dave Helling: Events in Ferguson, Mo., offer lessons for liberals and conservatives

Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and others are taking a libertarian perspective on the violence that has followed the Aug. 9 fatal police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb. The approach is likely to appeal to younger voters from across the political spectrum.

Ferguson, Mo., is still battling fear and tear gas, but that hasn’t stopped the pundit world from finger-snap judgments of the political impact of the riots.

Not all of this is helpful. Surely the biggest issues in Ferguson are police behavior and community violence, not whether the disturbances have damaged Gov. Jay Nixon’s chances for a place on a Democratic presidential ticket.

At the same time, though, a careful review of the response to the crisis may help Ferguson’s residents, and all of us, avoid similar disasters in the future.

Nixon will be at the center of that review, of course, but equally interesting, and important, will be the reaction of political conservatives to the unrest in suburban St. Louis.

A generation ago, that reaction would have been predictable: Conservatives would have backed the police, no questions asked. Indeed, we saw some of that last week, when Fox News host Sean Hannity worried about “outside agitators” in Ferguson and the New Black Panther Party, language cleanly lifted from a 1960s playbook.

Other conservatives, though — most notably Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky — watched the pictures of police officers in military gear and saw something different. “The images and scenes we continue to see in Ferguson resemble war more than traditional police action,” he wrote for Time magazine.

Libertarian conservatives have darkly warned against the “black helicopter” threat for decades, prompting chuckles from mainstream politicians. But it turns out police departments across the country have been quietly loading up on surplus helicopters of all colors, and helmets, semiautomatic weapons and mine-resistant, armored-protective vehicles, too.

You would think that would bother the Hannity crowd. In April, when rancher Cliven Bundy battled federal officials in Nevada, the pundit said: “I’m just afraid of what this government is capable of doing. … We saw what happened in Waco.”

As far as I can determine, Hannity has yet to link authorities in Ferguson with those in 1993 in Texas.

That kind of double-talk seems more and more like old news. Younger, more energetic conservatives are discarding such easy labels as “law and order” and “agitator” for a more consistent and important libertarian critique of government’s role in our lives.

“Americans must never sacrifice their liberty for an illusive and dangerous, or false, security,” Paul wrote, a sentence that probably will appeal to liberals and conservatives in Ferguson and beyond.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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