Bombs For Baby Kittens!
Back in 2018 Will Truman wrote about the idea of breaking rules in the name of protesting, concluding that you gotta be willing to take your punishment when you want to protest because authorities need to enforce the rules fairly across the boards rather than suspending them whenever a cause happens to be popular.
His essay was targeted at high school students walking out over gun control, but it feels true to me universally; at any time when a group protests against the status quo in ways that disrupt order, even breaking the law itself, surely the individuals in that group should face some sort of penalty for that. Not because we are big fat meanie heads who hate protest, and not even because we think the protestors are wrong necessarily, but because when authority figures enforce rules for some members of society and not for others, it invites abuse. It invites a tyranny of the majority over the minority, because as Will so eloquently pointed out, at any point if a popular cause is granted special privileges (including disrupting the lives and even the safety of the minority who hold less popular opinions), and those same privileges are not extended to everyone, then that is tantamount to creating different sets of rules for different people in society.
On May 30, 2020, two lawyers by the name of Urooj Rahman and Colinford Mattis decided to make some Molotov cocktails and attempted to distribute them to others at the site of a clash between police and rioters at the 88th Precinct Stationhouse, in Fort Greene, New York. They themselves threw at least one Molotov cocktail into the window of an abandoned police car. This act was captured on security footage and is not in dispute. Rahman herself had stopped to give an interview in which she admitted to intentionally resorting to violence to advance her political aims not long before the incident.
It’s an open and shut case.
Rahman and Mattis have been charged with seven felonies and may face as many as 30 years in prison. Some have said that the charges they face are draconian, much more than others who have committed the same crime under different circumstances have faced in the past. This is possibly because there is more to the case we have yet to learn. Perhaps there was some complicating factor that has led to the more severe charges being filed, or the government has decided to apply greater sentences from here on in to hopefully stop the civil unrest. Maybe it has to do with their motives. It may even be that because Mattis and Rahman were lawyers who were supposed to respect the law, the book is being thrown at them. Or maybe it’s a petty action taken on by a vengeful prosecutor. No one yet knows.
Some have said that these are otherwise good people who made a mistake. And by and large, I agree with those sentiments – both that the possible sentence seems quite high, and also that Rahman and Mattis seem like decent people who may very well deserve a second chance. I have made no secret about my penchant for giving people second and even sometimes third chances when they screw up – at least when that screwing up has taken some sort of human and understandable form.
But then again, these folks were making bombs. And they were making bombs to advance a political viewpoint. These weren’t just a couple desperate kids in a terrible situation doing something stupid. These were highly educated – educated in the law, no less – professional people who were making bombs to achieve political aims. This seems bigger than just some wanton and senseless destruction. It seems purposeful and malevolent. Mattis and Rahman may, on the whole, be quality people, but their actions here seem very far from a reasonable course of action that a couple good-hearted, misunderstood individuals (one of whom had dependent children to care for) might pursue. It makes me wonder very seriously what might be going on inside their heads, makes me wonder if these two people, for all their normie exteriors, might be a little more revolutionary than they’re letting on.
A revolutionary throwing a bomb trying to tear down the system is vastly different than a bored teenager who wants to see something go boom. A revolutionary throwing a bomb should probably face more time in prison than just a garden variety thug, should possibly even face terrorism charges if their actions qualify. And bombs thrown to advance political aims are by definition terroristic in nature.
Many will disagree, but I can’t seem to shake the feeling that some of sympathy these two wannabe rebels are garnering is a lot less about the merits of the case and much more about what Will wrote about – a movement afoot to bend the rules for popular protests. Just like with the gun control kids, a whole lot of people support what Rahman and Mattis stand for, and I think that philosophy, not legality, is coming into play. Not concern that these folks are being overcharged, not forgiveness for a couple of people who screwed up in the heat of the moment, but because these people represent a fundamental philosophical belief in tearing down America to rebuild it in the way that they want it.
And as someone who doesn’t want to tear down America, I honestly don’t know what to do with that. Because this seems to me to be a case of not only the rule of law, but of public safety. To put it another way, I don’t care if people are throwing bombs for baby kittens or Unicef, bombmaking is not something we want to encourage even for just causes. And to not pursue the full punishment under the law for MAKING BOMBS and using them to destroy the tools of law enforcement in the name of overthrowing the American system itself feels like a dangerous erosion of norms that we all would be better off upholding.
A lot has been made of erring in favor of public safety. I am told, for example, that AR-15s are too dangerous for me to own because of the POTENTIAL for harm, by some of the same people who are now apparently telling me that making, distributing, and throwing Molotov cocktails – a premeditated act that took some time and forethought to enact – ought to be a misdemeanor, or weirder still is a form of free speech, and that these poor people have suffered enough. I am being told that a couple defending their home and lives from a mob that broke through their gate and entered their yard is in the wrong and a couple who with malice aforethought made bombs, albeit small bombs, and distributed them to others are basically the modern day versions of Gandhi and Mother Teresa. I am being told wearing a mask must be mandatory and punishable by arrest because people could potentially die, by people now calling burning bottles of flammable liquid like totally NBD.
It appears public safety only matters some of the time. I don’t know what to do with that kind of gross disconnect coming from people who have sworn to uphold the law.
It is evident to me that political philosophy is overriding the rule of law even for some who work within the bounds of the legal system like Mattis and Rahman. Philosophy has overridden even good sense because it seems to me that anyone – let alone a couple of lawyers – involved in making Molotov cocktails ought to know going in that they’re going to face some pretty substantial legal time and that trying to overthrow the government is going to be looked upon none too kindly. This seems like something we as a people should all kinda agree on – making bombs is bad, mmmkay? Even if the cause is difficult to argue against, like Bombs for Baby Kittens, we as a society simply cannot have people resorting to violence to bring about their political aims. We just cannot have that.1
At this point some clever person may say something along the lines of “but the Boston Tea Party, reeeeeeeeeee!” and think they are very wise and insightful. But it’s an unserious comparison of two completely different situations. Firstly, because we do not have taxation without representation – the situation may be screwed up in many American cities, but at the least we get to vote for our leaders, they are answerable to We The People to some extent. When they suck, we really have ourselves to blame. Additionally, the Tea Party patriots took great lengths to destroy as little property as possible. They did not destroy the vessel, they didn’t burn down the businesses and warehouses, they dumped only the tea, and not even much of that. The men involved in the Boston Tea party even replaced a padlock they had broken. And finally, the men involved in the Boston Tea Party went into it accepting that if caught, they would face a charge of treason, which at that time was punishable by death. They were willing to risk that punishment to accomplish their protest. They felt their protest was that important that that they would give their lives to say what they felt needed saying.
They didn’t go out and break the laws and then cry and say “wahhhhh!!! this should be a misdemeanor! Haven’t I suffered ENOUGH??”
Brief aside – both Ben Franklin and George Washington were super pissed about the Boston Tea Party because property was illegally destroyed. Nor did most colonists post memes on Ye Olde Fafebook celebrating the destruction. Franklin, Washington, and most of the colonists hoped for a LAWFUL resolution and the Tea Party interfered with those ends.
Of course the world of the Boston Tea Party was not the world of today. People at that time regularly encountered all manner of violence. Miraculously, and wonderfully, the rule of law instituted (yes, imperfectly) by Franklin, Washington, and their ilk has created the modern world, a world safer for people of all races than the world had heretofore known. And if we want that peace and security to continue, we MUST uphold the rule of law.
Steven Pinker wrote a book called The Better Angels Of Our Nature in which he outlined all the ways the world has gotten better and less violent over time. And in that book, he identified one of the biggest reasons for this transition – a monopoly on the legitimate use of force by the “Leviathan”, meaning the hands of the government. Only lawfully assigned agents working on behalf of the government are allowed to use force to punish transgressors. This is a good thing, because it prevents people from taking the law into their own hands; we can look back through history at civilizations that have come before and find that whenever the people take the law into their own hands, violence skyrockets.
We can argue about the seemingly absent benevolence of government agents like Derek Chauvin, but the truth is, at the least he had been tasked with the job of law enforcement and was authorized to use force towards those ends. Urooj Rahman and Colinford Mattis were private citizens seeking revenge on what they saw as a corrupt system, and while their belief may be popular in some quarters, it is very far from universal. Even aside from matters of right and wrong, vigilante violence should not, indeed, MUST not, be endorsed by authority figures even when the cause is just because it undermines the government monopoly on the use of force. It undermines the rule of law, and that makes all of us worse off. If what Mattis and Rahman were protesting was that important that they were willing to endanger the lives and property of others (and at times, I agree, causes may be that important, and criminal justice reform is desperately needed) then they and those who support them need to accept that the punishment will fit the crime, just as the Boston Tea Party protestors did. Because if there’s not a sufficient penalty for violence, then plenty of people will be willing to take the slap on the wrist for it.
Making bombs to accomplish political upheaval has a pretty stiff penalty, rightfully so. Because we don’t want people going around making bombs, duh, and we for sure don’t want them to be making bombs for political reasons. We don’t want people who are ready, willing, and able to make and use bombs to be out on the street. Even if we personally feel that violence is justified, we don’t want people to take the law into their own hands because history has taught us that it will lead to terrible things. After all, The Mad Bomber George Metesky probably felt he was justified in making bombs. Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, all but certainly felt he was justified. In all likelihood, Tim McVeigh thought he was fully justified in his actions (lest we forget, the government had just killed a 14 year old boy, a woman holding a baby, and 75 Branch Davidians including 20 children and two unborn babies) and we rightfully consider him a monster.
Bombs are bad, mmmkay? Even Bombs for Baby Kittens.
I’m all about forgiveness and second chances and understanding that people get caught up in the heat of the moment sometimes, but bombs, even small ones the size of a Bud Light bottle, are not remotely equivalent to getting behind the wheel of a car drunk or mooning someone (yes, someone actually made this comparison). Bombs aren’t even robbing a liquor store while armed. You have to do a lot of thinking before you make a bomb – no spur of the moment decision making involved – and the potential harm they cause is vast. Bombs are kind of a big deal even if you only throw them at inanimate objects (at first, anyway). Because just like shooting into a crowd, bombs have the potential to cause great harm to many people very easily, even if you were just trying to make some loud noises. And even if Rahman and Mattis had the purest of intentions, they went the extra mile and attempted to distribute these bombs to other people whose intentions we cannot divine.
It seems quite a dangerous game to play to lobby for the rules to apply to people only some of the time; for the government to kinda shrug and say “well, their heart was in the right place, they were only trying to provoke political change whatreyagonnado” while ignoring the laws on the books. Because if the rules are not fairly enforced, if the laws are ignored, if the norms are eroded, then we can no longer trust the Leviathan, and then it’s game on. Not only for some rich lawyers but for the mass of humanity itself (sadly, a whole lot of people are already like 90% of the way there – on all sides of the political quadrant). And as history has shown, when people take the law into their own hands, terrible things are sure to follow.
Some would say “but we already cannot trust the Leviathan, Exhibit A, Derek Chauvin”. And it may well be that you’re ready to burn it down rather than fix it. Own that. Don’t wrap yourself in the law and yet still claim that these people were any different than Tim McVeigh and should get a slap on the wrist because Muh Law, because they weren’t, and they shouldn’t. We have a standard of behavior in this country and that standard is, you do NOT affect political change through violence, because we have mechanisms in this country to right wrongs and air grievances that are legitimate. They may not be perfect mechanisms, but they are LEGITIMATE mechanisms.
Regardless of what the Reeeeeee Cosplayers like to pretend, we do not live in a dictatorship where the people have no redress. We have a justice system, and yes, it may move slowly, but that is by design. It is by design so cooler heads may prevail, so facts can be gathered and precedents considered, and the proper course of action – not just for ONE group of people who happens to be screaming the loudest at any given moment, but for the entire nation – can be taken.
In order for those mechanisms to continue to work, we need to make the alternative – going outside those mechanisms and taking matters into your own hands – unattractive. Otherwise people would never wait around for the reformers to work their magic, would never wait for the wheels of justice to turn oh-so-slowly. They’d just go join a mob and blow something up. Because if there’s nothing to lose, why not?
If there were no consequences for bad behavior, everyone would be doing it.
Sometimes your cause may be so noble, so right, that it might be worth the price you’re going to pay. Absolutely. This is the very nature of civil disobedience itself. But you can’t expect to break the law and then skate away with no penalty because your cause was just. Because EVERYONE thinks their cause is right. And we cannot rely on the endlessly corruptible government to adjudicate the rightness of causes, we can only expect justice to be blind, to treat everyone the same in the eyes of the law.
In other words, if you do the crime, you better be ready to do the time.
And lawyers, like Urooj Rahman and Colinford Mattis, should know this.
A good number of them actually work within the system itself in some fashion or another, and/or have benefited from the system in myriad ways. And the vast, vast majority of the people who post memes supporting these “peaceful protestors” have done even less to effect change – never written a letter to the editor, for example, couldn’t tell you the definition of “civil asset forfeiture”, and in a shocking number of cases, have NEVER EVEN VOTED. So if you go from doing absolutely nothing to supporting Molotov cocktails in the streets because “we tried everything and nothing worked” sorry, but I think you’re being incredibly disingenuous.
- As a longtime political activist myself I find it is utter nonsense to claim that people tried to work within the system and had exhausted every avenue to achieve non-violent change of the criminal justice system before resorting to firebombs. Most of the people rioting in the streets have never done a single solitary political act in their entire lives and simply took the opportunity to go out and smash when it was provided to them.