The most terrible thing is that they were black. It is the most terrible because if it is black police officers who could beat a young black motorist so coldly, so violently and without the slightest reason that he died, the explanation for this murder is not racism. What killed in Memphis was not the ordinary racism that still leads so many American police officers to make such a danger out of every black person that they must hit or shoot first, even to death, and only then think.
No, it’s even worse than that because, far beyond racism, Memphis has tragically confirmed the prevalence of arbitrary and systemic violence in the American police. This is not surprising, since American society is itself abnormally violent, but it is clear that the most powerful democracy in the world is powerless to ensure that its own police officers respect the most elementary principles of law.
Yet this is not only appalling, odious and intolerable. At a time when the Russian and Chinese regimes and so many others of lesser importance are openly contesting the moral superiority of democracies over dictatorships, at a time of aggression against Ukraine and threats against Taiwan, it is formidably dangerous that America can be accused of ignoring the values that this indispensable shield of democracy claims to uphold.
The problem, one might say, is not new. Indeed, it is a persistent one, since segregation was still seen as acceptable and natural by the United States in the 1950s, when the Cold War showed no sign of abatement. “But they are hanging the negros”, said then the Soviet propagandists to oppose the United States, but the sixties would soon be the years of advance of civil rights, of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, of a formidable breath of youth and freedom which, by comparison, made the USSR a grey and liberticidal power, from Budapest to Prague.
Hope was unquestionably American at the time, because the free world, as it was called, was all the more seductive since the fear of communism had led “the money” to accept a spectacular progression of the welfare state and its social protections. Nothing was perfect in the West, but everything was infinitely better than in the East, whereas today the reference points have become blurred.
Money has once again become king everywhere. Social inequalities have deepened and become universal. The retreat of the “arbitrator state” and the decline of social protections has caused many of those left behind to turn to the extreme right, for whom the superiority of democracy is no longer indisputable.
Nothing is taken for granted anymore. Nothing is as obvious as it was before the fall of the Wall and the triumph of Thatcherism. In a word, faced with Mr Putin and Mr Xi, democracies need to rearm themselves morally, they need to regain a social base as broad as in the post-war years and to restore to democracy a political prestige that they have allowed to erode.
Beyond the horror of this murder scene, this is the message of Memphis. Everything commands to hear it out.