Shots are fired. Screams, groans, obscenities and car horns. And then a voice cuts through the din. "Acknowledgement nine months ago would've kept that from happenin'!"
What? I restart the raw video somebody posted online and watch last night's shooting of two police officers in Ferguson, for a third and fourth time. At the 30-second mark, a clear, strong voice startles me again. "Acknowledgement nine months ago would've kept that from happenin'!"
What does that mean? Why did he say it? The person (it sounds like a man, but I can't be sure) says nothing more, but I can't shake the questions. What possesses a person in the instant after a gun's discharge to justify the violence? With two officers bleeding a few feet away and nobody in the crowd guaranteed a next breath, this idiot is making excuses for the shooter.
It's not known whether the voice belonged to one of about 70 protesters gathered outside the police headquarters after the resignation of Chief Thomas Jackson. "Black lives matter," they chanted. Jackson oversaw a department that systematically violated the constitutional rights of its black residents, according to a scathing Justice Department report.
The Justice Department also concluded that there was no reliable evidence to counter Officer Darren Wilson's claim that he feared for his life when he shot unarmed Michael Brown, sparking waves of protests and riots in the St. Louis suburb. The report discredits the protest's founding narrative, finding no credible evidence that Brown was shot as he raised his hands in surrender ("Hands up, don't shoot").
I feel for Brown's family and friends, who can't get Michael back. I feel for Wilson, who can't get his job or reputation back. I feel for the people of Ferguson who are treated like dirt by officers they pay to protect them. But I don't get this guy: "Acknowledgement nine months ago would've kept that from happenin'!"
Does he think the shooting could have been prevented had Wilson's right to protect himself been acknowledged nine months ago? Probably not. Does he think the shooting could have been avoided had decades of police abuse been acknowledged nine months ago? Does he see the shooting as a fair response to police racism and injustice?
I suspect he was making the second point, and it troubles me because of what lies behind it: A primal quid pro quo in which we convince ourselves that this bad action justifies or excuses that bad action. From childhood, we're taught by our parents, teachers and preachers to rise above this ugly impulse.
They tell us: "Two wrongs don't make a right."
I have a theory: Among the many ways our culture is coarsening is the erosion of our parents' principle. From Wall Street to Main Street and in Hollywood and Washington, our role models and leaders are dodging accountability with an amoral defense: "Yes, I made a mistake, but somebody else did, too!"
"I'm bad, but he's worse!"
"She did it first!"
In other words, two wrongs make it feel right.
Steroid abusers in baseball say, "Everybody does it."
Bankers peddle bad mortgages "to keep up with competition."
A writer plagiarizes a story, a singer steals a song. They say, "My stuff gets pilfered all the time."
We're enablers. When somebody we know or support gets in trouble, we rush to their defense. "He's not the only one who does it!"
We condone behavior in our leaders and role models that we don't accept from our kids. You might defend a drug-flaunting musician by arguing that "other rock stars do it" and then go home to your pot-smoking kid and say, "I don't care if everybody does it. You don't."
"Two wrongs make it feel right" ought to be the motto of Washington, where I work. Not a news cycle goes by without one group of partisans justifying abhorrent behavior by pointing to the bad deeds of another group of partisans.
Hillary Clinton seizes control of her government-related emails by storing them on a secret, rule-breaking server. Does she accept responsibility and make amends? No. Her supporters say: Jeb Bush did it too!
Forty-seven Republican senators seek to undercut delicate negotiations between the White House and Iran, an extraordinary insult to the office of the presidency. Do they acknowledge that their political stunt could backfire on the United States and set a precedent that future GOP presidents might regret? Some do, cautiously, but most don't. Nancy Pelosi did it first!
Spoiled brats. President Obama and GOP leaders each blame the other for gridlock. "He started it!" Obama says Republicans pledged to block his agenda in 2009 (as if this isn't a perennial empty threat) and Republicans say Obama never bothered to work with them (as if that's completely true).
Each set of leaders is enabled by professional partisans who don't demand better of "our side."
Most members of the general public go along with the farce, supporting one of two parties that compete to be the least worst. We choose one that isn't quite as bad as the other. We settle.
That never works. Two wrongs hasn't made anything right in Ferguson. It's not the answer in pop culture, sports or business. And certainly not in Washington, where the race to the bottom continues.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.