The shots that killed five police officers and wounded several others reverberate far beyond Dallas. They strike fear in the hearts of police everywhere, the very sort of fear that led to the deaths of two more black men this week. Those shots upend the Black Lives Matter movement, an overwhelmingly peaceful response to years of dehumanization of some communities by officers who swore to protect them. And those murders in the midst of a protest march terrify all of us who are now forced to wonder whether we have just witnessed an irrevocable break in the fabric of society, one that leaves us all less safe.
We still know little about Micah Xavier Johnson, 25, of Mesquite Texas, the man police say took up a position in a parking garage and fired with deadly precision at the officers watching over the crowd near Dallas' city hall Thursday night in an act that can only be described as domestic terrorism. Before he was killed by a police robot bomb during a standoff, he told police he acted alone, though it's unclear whether that's true. Three other suspects are in custody. The city's police chief says Johnson was angry about the recent police shootings and "wanted to kill white people," specifically police officers.
Johnson could not have conceived of an attack with greater potential to drive police and communities apart. People gathered in Dallas and other cities Thursday night to protest the killings of two more black men — Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile near St. Paul, Minn. — both shot by police who made snap judgments that they posed mortal threats. Now police cannot help but feel more threatened, more embattled — and more justified in using force rather than seeking to de-escalate conflicts. We now face a real risk of deepening a cycle of fear and mistrust with disastrous consequences on all sides.
In Baltimore, we have seen up close how destructive that can be. Since the unrest that followed Freddie Gray's death last year, some officers have crouched farther behind the thin blue line, adopting an attitude of victimization at the hands of the city's political leaders, prosecutors and residents of crime-torn neighborhoods who are now quick to question and videotape everything they do. The city police union has repeatedly fostered an us vs. them mentality, most recently in a pair of tweets (since deleted) gloating about the acquittal of one of the officers charged in Gray's death but also in statements referring to the prosecutions as "malicious," protesters as a "lynch mob," and the police on the street as "more afraid of going to jail for doing their jobs properly than they are of getting shot on duty."
Meanwhile, we have also seen some exhibit a wonton disregard for the law and social order. We got a reminder of that this week when a 22-year-old Baltimore man pleaded guilty to obstructing firefighters when he punctured the hose being used to put out the fire that consumed the CVS at the intersection of Pennsylvania and North avenues during the riots after Gray's death. Last year was the deadliest Baltimore has ever seen on a per capita basis, and the recent murders of rapper Lor Scoota and his manager, Trayvon "Truz" Lee have brought a pall of despair over the community.
But all hope is not lost. During the past year, Baltimore has also seen a genuine effort to repair the fractured relationship between police and communities that have felt victimized by them. Body cameras on officers, cameras in vans like the one in which Gray was fatally injured, a new use of force policy and a new chief who has spoken openly and passionately about the mistrust between the police and community all give hope that we can repair the rift, that we can come together again.
Now the Dallas shootings threaten to push us farther apart.
We cannot allow that to happen. Instead, we all must acknowledge the truth that police face real danger every day in what is an extraordinarily difficult job under the best of circumstances. We also must not allow the malicious acts of madmen to discredit the very real grievances that have animated the Black Lives Matter movement during the past two years. We all must be horrified both by the killings of Sterling and Castile and those of the police officers in Dallas. This is a time when it would be easy to retreat in fear, but it is also an opportunity to build mutual understanding. We have to take it.