GUEST EDITORIAL: When the powerful say nothing

The Baltimore Sun Editorial Board (TNS)
FILE - In this Sept. 21, 2018, file photo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis speaks during the 2018 POW/MIA National Recognition Day Ceremony at the Pentagon in Washington. A U.S. administration official says Mattis will leave his post Jan. 1, 2019, as President Donald Trump is expected to name deputy defense chief Patrick Shanahan as acting secretary. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

This week, The Atlantic published a stunning critique of President Donald Trump by retired Gen. Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis warning against a militarized response to the nationwide civil rights protests of recent days and calling the president a threat to the Constitution. “Never did I dream,” he wrote, that troops would be called on to “violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens” for the sake of a “bizarre photo op,” a Bible-hefting stunt in front of historic St. John’s Church in Washington, D.C.

Decorated U.S. Marine generals don’t commonly speak out so forcefully against their former commander in chief. Nor do ex-Cabinet secretaries. Mattis is both, but he is also a man who, apparently, can only swallow so much outrageous behavior and social injustice. These are not normal circumstances. This is not a normal presidency. The pandemic makes this an abnormal time generally. And the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis makes this a critically important time for redressing one of the nation’s most long-standing grievances, the right of people of color not to be abused, not to be tortured and killed, not to be treated as lesser citizens.

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Under these dire conditions, the burden of speaking truth to power, to calling out gross transgressions, to objecting to institutional racism falls not just to those directly hurt by these crimes but most especially by those who are in a position to do something about them. Our elected leaders don’t have to bemoan every injustice that happens, but the death of Floyd, a horrific murder captured on videotape, is something extraordinary. It has provided a moment of moral clarity for the nation. In this death, we can see decades of unequal treatment, of brutalization, of disparity, of callous disregard for a person based on skin color alone.

Even President Trump has observed that something wrong has happened. He just can’t bring himself to do something meaningful about it, to challenge racial discrimination, for example, or perhaps condemn his past flirtations with white supremacists or decry police brutality. But we surely could not have expected enlightenment from the birther president. What we should expect is that he won’t make things much worse. At least current (meaning not yet fired) Defense Secretary Mark Esper has spoken out against using active duty military to quell domestic protests unlike his boss. Good on him, but where are Senate Republicans not named Lisa Murkowski? Or do they all fall in line behind the vile Tom Cotton, who this week penned a New York Times op-ed taking the opposite view? The nation deserves to know.

Admittedly, there are many institutions where dissent is discouraged. You speak out and you are branded a troublemaker or worse. You see it in politics. You see it in police departments. You see it in many walks of life. But then there are those moments of truth when honorable people must recognize that enough is enough. We have already seen it from police chiefs who condemn the Minneapolis Four. We have witnessed it from Sen. Murkowski, the Alaska Republican who on Thursday praised Gen. Mattis’ rebuke as “true and honest and necessary.” We have heard it from some Republican governors willing to break ranks with President Trump on National Guard deployment. We need more, many more, to stand up to this out-of-control administration.

Speaking out, condemning the brutal murder of Floyd, recognizing racial disparities and the right of Americans to decry them, and pledging to do something meaningful about these inequities, those are the actions that are going to resolve the nation’s unfortunate circumstances much faster than using military force on our own people like some tin-pot dictator looking to embellish his tough guy reputation. To paraphrase the nation’s foremost civil rights leader, it’s not the words of our enemies that we will carry to our graves, it’s the failure of decent people to break their silence.

— From The Baltimore Sun Editorial Board.