Dear Ferguson Rioter:

August 21, 2014

Dear Ferguson Rioter:

Congratulations on your choice of this time-honored means of expressing discontent while also obtaining expensive new  Nikes (for free!). The arch support will allow for sustained flatland sprints at speeds in excess of those obtainable by armor-encumbered riot cops. Clever. If standing your ground and fighting the man is more your style, loot something with stronger ankle support; New Balance cross-trainers or Asolo mountaineering boots. In any event, you’ve certainly shown outrage by helping yourself to other peoples’ property. The moral highroad, indeed.

You must be tired after a week of nightly looting; help yourself to Gatorade from the burned-down Quik Trip convenience store. The revolution relies on electrolytes. Hydration in the face of tyranny is more important to your community than the security of local businesses (and your neighbors’ houses).

If you find a free minute, maybe clarify the purpose of your riot. To express anger over the shooting death of Michael Brown? If so (and if there is a purpose to looting, other than opportunistic greed), what is the basis of that anger? That an unarmed black man was shot by a white policeman? Unless you know more than the rest of us, those three facts (the race of the decedent, the race of the policeman, and the lack of equal arms) seem sufficient by themselves to have driven you to a murderous rampage – to the extent that one of your number, when asked whether she would be satisfied with a federal civil rights investigation into the shooting and appropriate punishment, said “I will be satisfied when that cop is executed for murder.”

But are a black decedent and a white shooter synonymous with guilt? It seems so, in your mind. Never mind that the circumstances surrounding the shooting are almost entirely unknown – whether Mr. Brown attacked or threatened the officer, reached for the officer’s gun, rushed him, etc. These are things that might be useful to know before calling for an execution, but you seem not to mind not knowing them. Bravo, for your single-minded pursuit of revenge in the face of a complete ignorance of relevant and potentially mitigating information. Apparently, the only evidence you require for conviction is race. In earlier days, this was called racism: a readiness to convict and execute based on race alone. It was an evil then, but apparently you’ve found a loophole: when the shooter is white, a jump to conclusions and call for vengeance based on race isn’t racism, it’s justice. Good work thinking outside the box.

And attacking entirely unrelated policemen, including Missouri State Highway Patrol officers who couldn’t have found your suburb on a map last month and have only arrived now because of your unwillingness to leave your neighbors in peace? Assuredly, you have a clever motive for it – and you have been equally clever in criticizing officers for appearing overly militarized; that is, wearing tactical riot gear and driving Hummers. You would have them remove the gear to appear friendlier toward the community. Perhaps if the community wants friendlier cops, the community should stop throwing bricks at them? A discussion for another day.

Maybe, however, it is time your wish was granted; maybe police officers should withdraw entirely from your town. It seems to be what your placards reading “Cops Kill Kids” demand. In that case, you will be free to continue looting whatever the best looters have not already gotten. And when those folks, turning away from empty storefronts, start walking toward your house, you can call… somebody.

Right Rite, Right or Wrong.

August 18, 2014

Had I not been born a Jew, I would have made a good Roman Catholic. Dwight Eisenhower said of Dartmouth College “this is what a college should look like.” This is true of the Vatican’s rite: it’s what a religion should look like.

Granted, a millennium and more of entrenched dogma that seemed like a good idea when first promulgated but subsequently staggered under its own contradictory weight is heavy baggage – but baggage common to most faiths. The Holy See has an excess of it because it has been more aggressive in recording the strictures of its faith than others: no fewer than 37 universities, including the Pontifical colleges in Vatican City, offer degrees in canon law, that body of doctrine in comparison to which the Internal Revenue Code looks like See Spot Run. The Hindu faith is older than the Roman one, but the Indian swamis never bureaucratized their beliefs and so, thousands of years later, are not caught in their contradictions.

Still, the ins and outs of any particular faith are irrelevant for our purposes, assuming they all allow for belief in a higher power and propound the idea of treating others as we would ourselves. With those basics in place, the details are unimportant because it is highly unlikely that any specific religion knows much of anything about God. This strips importance from the details of belief; what harm or benefit is there in preferring one myth to another? A man once asked Rabbi Hillel to teach him the Torah while standing on one foot. The Rabbi stood on one foot and told him: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The rest is just details.”

Absent the details (like whether God really spoke to Moses from a burning bush, or guided the magi via galactic GPS), and assuming the fungibility of a belief in God and a moral commandment to treat others as we would ourselves, the difference in religions boils down to the appearance of ritual. So what value is there in organized religion, Catholic or otherwise (on a personal level – setting aside charitable works)? This: comfort and guidance. It gives voice to faith, and provides for the expression in ancient, beautiful forms of thoughts and hopes which would otherwise be private. In public acts of faith there is comfort: comfort in tradition, comfort in community, comfort in ritual, comfort in a public affirmation of personal belief. This is worthwhile, and the Roman religion excels at these: it has beautiful, elegant trappings. Its rituals are nearly unequalled for splendor and ceremony, which elevate their moral content.

Perhaps the Jews understand this appeal especially well. In 1994, the Dalai Lama visited Israel and asked a rabbi: “What it is that unites Jewish people the world over — what the kernel of the doctrine is that unites all Jews?” The rabbi told him: “When it comes to doctrine, there is hardly any uniformity. What unites all faithful Jews are the rituals. Come Friday, all Jewish homes, from Siberia to Ethiopia, hold Sabbath in the same manner. We have been doing this for thousands of years, since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.”