When I was 21, the United States experienced a national trauma: the planes crashing into the World Trade Center, the nearly 3,000 people killed in that day’s terrorist attacks, the ruins left smoldering for months at Ground Zero, and the unnerving knowledge that sooner or later, al-Qaeda would almost certainly strike again. Thoughtful deliberation is never so difficult as in such moments. Like tens of millions of other Americans, I felt fear, anger, anxiety, flashes of moral righteousness, and a desire to fight and vanquish evil as I thought about what had just happened and how America ought to respond. With hindsight, though, I can see that thoughtful deliberation is never so vital as in the aftermath of national traumas. The country would have been well served then by a better debate with less aversion to dispassion and dissent and fewer appeals to moral clarity at the expense of analytic rigor.
Street protests don’t need to stop. Pressure for reforms and accountability should continue. But demands for conformity may permanently damage institutions that can enrich society with their diverse missions and priorities. Short-circuiting debate may deprive Americans of insights on what sorts of protests are effective; how to reform police departments without a spike in murders or other violent crime; how to distinguish between and combat ideological racism versus authoritarianism; how to educate children more equitably; how to determine the potential costs and benefits of race-based reparations; how to determine the relationship among journalistic institutions, their missions, and their readers; how to assess the protections that capitalism can afford to ethnic and religious minorities; and much more.
Absolutely, Black lives matter, which is part of why everyone should encourage constructive dissent, even when it seems frustratingly out of touch with the trauma and emotion of the moment. Identifying changes that will achieve equality is hard. Avoiding unintended consequences is harder. Without a healthy deliberative process, avoidable catastrophes are more likely.