Muftic — Ferguson: Lessons about U.S. exceptionalism |

Muftic — Ferguson: Lessons about U.S. exceptionalism

We in America take pride in the exceptionalism of our form of government and our caring about human rights. We could be exceptional in another way: the example we set.

Ferguson dramatized the good, the bad, and the ugly. We can hope the takeaway for the world will be, while local government sometimes fails, the federal government’s reaction was the good part, and American values and governing systems finally prevailed.

As a frequent traveler spending time with family and friends scattered over Europe, what I do know is that those abroad look to the U.S. for setting a standard. When we successfully meet challenges similar to what they themselves experience, they watch us closely to see if there is a template for future policies that might work for them too.

Europe itself has had its checkered past in dealing with “others” and experiencing civil disobedience that became violent. In post-World War II, the 1990s Balkan wars are the poster child of hatred and ethnic cleansing. There have been other localized ethnic and racial violent protests, some suppressed, some resolved peacefully. Spain still is in pain, though for now, violent separatist movements have either been dealt with by compromises or by granting more autonomy to its restless parts. Paris suburbs experienced violent uprisings in their Muslim community over discrimination.

What American democracy does provide is a model for peaceful regime change by honest elections, the rule of law, and outlets for frustration when citizens perceive their government is unfair. Human nature is to rage when unfair treatment is not pacified by hope that the powerful are listening.

Channeling violent and anarchic anger to lawful and constructive actions takes leadership and empathy. President Obama showed both. He was uniquely equipped to let Ferguson know he understood. No one conveys credibility like one who has experienced discrimination himself and who looks like the aggrieved.

In the Treyvon Martin case, Obama said that if he had a son, he would have been Martin’s age, and in Ferguson, he agreed minorities had a real problem with police, and “the problem is not just a Ferguson problem, it is an American problem.” His empathy went only so far. He had no sympathy for those who destroyed property. They were criminals and should be prosecuted. He supported those who protested peacefully. To justify his endorsement of peaceful protesters to those who sympathized with rioters, his message was, “I’ve never seen a civil rights law, or a health care bill, or an immigration bill result because a car got burned.”

Now it is up to local governments to do their part in accepting the existence of a police problem with minority relations and to take steps to change. It may take honest re-evaluations, federal pressure, minority hiring, retraining of police forces, and changing protocols and attitudes. If we get that done, we affirm that peaceful protest is more effective than violence. It is then that we are indeed an exceptional nation worthy of being a standard for others to follow.

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