Column: Slip-sliding into chaos

December 13, 2018 GMT

Maybe it’s time to start paying attention to the riots in France – not because of the issues that supposedly triggered them, but because they are yet another indication of rapidly disintegrating order in society, everywhere.

The Paris riots have been going on for four weeks now. They’re generally being described as protests, but these days there is little distinction between rioting and protesting. Watch the videos: they’re riots.

The French yellow-vest movement was prompted by new taxes imposed by the Macron administration to finance France’s commitment to combating climate change. Paris is the birthplace of the climate change accords, and Macron wants to lead by example – and maybe shame Trump and the US while he’s at it.

Evidently the folks who actually have to pay for Macron’s climate leadership don’t like it very much. And I for one agree that using an economic cudgel to force compliance with a politically driven environmental policy is likely to run aground at some point.

But not so fast. Suggesting that folks who are torching cars are doing so with some higher principle in mind gives them far more credence than they deserve.

Early on, President Macron showed his naiveté about the opposition he’s facing. He caved quickly to the protesters, announcing a deferral of the tax that started the uproar. He tried to meet with the movement’s leaders but found that the rioters have no leaders and they don’t know what they want. Macron’s reward for attempting to accommodate them? The rioting spread and intensified.

What is happening in France is not protesting, it’s anarchy. And it’s not just France. We’re seeing the same frightening images, more and more, everywhere.

There are far too many examples right here at home. During the Trump inauguration and only a few blocks away – the day our nation demonstrates to the world our tradition of peaceful transfer of power – we saw masked marauders smashing storefronts, burning cars and breaking windows. University campuses routinely erupt into violence whenever an undesirable (i.e., conservative) speaker dares to visit.

Protest has been a mainstay of U.S. democracy since – and even before – the nation was founded. Martin Luther King Jr. demonstrated by his own actions how meaningful protest can inspire fundamental change. His recipe was simple: confront obvious injustice with dignity and without violence.

That’s the distant past, replaced today by unrestrained mob fury with no objective other than doing maximum damage. These are grown-up children acting out the way 2-year-olds do: irrational tantrum. They’re angry and they want everyone to know it, and they’re capable of inflicting far more harm than a toddler in a playpen.

They do so with impunity. Rioters expect at worst a slap on the wrist, and on the upside they collect accolades and street cred. In Portland, police stood back (at the Mayor’s orders) and watched as marauders threatened, harassed, and pummeled bystanders and wantonly destroyed property. At universities, rioting students are back in class the next day.

We can’t dismiss such behavior as an aberration. Is it not of a kind very much akin to the pervasive violence – including gun violence – that horrifies us all? And is it not rooted, in part at least, with the identity politics embedded in public communication, entertainment and education? Are not our colleges, in a misguided quest for diversity, in effect grooming our kids to resent those of other colors and backgrounds?

We’ve been down this road before. Recall the turbulent ’60s. Seemingly out of nowhere, the 1965 Watts riots erupted with stunning ferocity, and then spread to cities across the country. Eventually the rioting burned itself out, but for many years cities and their inhabitants bore its scars. Those same years were punctuated by the murders of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.

That was an ugly, ugly period in American life. We learned from it, and we need to take steps to ensure that we don’t slip back.

Last week there was a national mourning over the passing of former President George H.W. Bush. Momentarily all sides looked past their differences, acknowledging the power of Mr. Bush’s innate kindness and gentleness. We pined for a return to the days of more respectful tone in our national discourse.

Some took that as just another opportunity to blast President Trump for his routinely nasty rhetoric. Fair enough, but he’s hardly alone – it was sadly ironic to listen to pundits deriding the president with language every bit as derisive as his.

Paris is right around the corner. Be careful, America.