A Roundup of the events and comments of the week

27 September 1996

by Dan Murphy

Good evening.

This isn't TV news, so I wouldn't normally lead off with a story about a house fire, but a fire of suspicious origin in Roxbury last week once again has the city of Boston looking at its racial attitudes. Racial insensitivity doesn't seem to be the problem here; rather it's an oversensitivity to racial overtones and a rush to blame racism in any situation where it might -- or might not -- be a factor.

Arson it was, and of that there is little doubt, that caused the fire that broke out in the wee hours of last Sunday morning at a home in West Roxbury. By next morning, the plot thickened as it was revealed that the house, in a mostly white neighborhood, was under agreement to be sold to a black family. And by that afternoon, Boston's mayor and police commissioner were calling it a racial crime, promising federal investigation, and righteously proclaiming zero tolerance for such offenses.

Only problem, race may well have had nothing to do with this particular crime. Despite the mayor's hasty assertions, there was actually no evidence at all that race animosity had anything to do with the crime, and none has been found in the days since then. Other possible motives have been advanced, including the possibility of involvement by the current owners of the house or their relatives, a random burglary gone wrong, or a random act of violence. We also learned over the next few days that there were already black residents of the same neighborhood who had lived there without incident for several years.

So were we too quick to believe a racial issue where there wasn't one?

Our haste to believe racial motives and stereotypes was forcefully demonstrated a few years ago in the Charles Stewart affair. As you probably recall, the city was turned upside down after Stewart said a black man had attacked him and his pregnant wife in their car, shooting her to death and wounding him in an apparent robbery attempt. The outrage over this crime caused a great many people to condone the zealousness with which the police combed the black community in search of this offender -- zealousness which stretched constitutional guarantees well beyond the breaking point in many cases.

The only problem was, there was no black assailant. Charles Stewart concocted that story as a cover for murdering his own wife for insurance money. There was no black assailant, even though the police arrested someone and paraded him before the cameras with firm assurances that the culprit had been caught. There was no black assailant, but even if there had been, the unconstitutional searches in the black community would still have been illegal and improper, and this is the lesson that is still often lost from this experience.

We may or may not ever find out for sure why and by whom this week's Roxbury fire was caused, and we can't be absolutely sure at this point that there were no racial factors involved. Given what we do know, it is important not to give that angle unwarranted mindshare. Perhaps, the race of the prospective owners was just what it should be -- irrelevant. And perhaps we don't help the cause of eliminating racism when we are too quick to see it in any unfortunate event which happens to involve persons of different races.


And speaking of haste, the Republican-controlled congress continues to fall all over itself in its haste to protect the republic from growing moral evils. More likely, it's haste to stoke the rhetorical flames of indignation for the benefit of the folks in the grandstand back home. The haste at this point also stands in marked contrast to the lack of urgency that prevailed a few months ago when the election was still much further off.

I refer, of course, to the attempted override of the President's veto of the late-term abortion bill which failed in the Senate yesterday. I refer also to the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act", banning recognition of same-sex marriage, which Clinton has indicated he will sign. From the rush and rhetoric surrounding these bills, you would think that the republic stood at the brink of disaster -- that the Huns were landing on both coasts as we speak -- and that only strong and immediate action would save us all from extinction.

Never mind that the late-term abortion procedure is very rare and is about as voluntary and welcome as brain surgery. Never mind that gay marriage is not exactly overrunning the country just yet, and never mind that supporting a more stable, longer-term union between two people is probably good for society and the very family values which the right so piously proclaims. Never mind, either, that both of these bills put the federal government square in the middle of what are very important personal decisions, and which ought to be very private decisions made without the coercive interference of big brother government.

All of the right's anti-government, anti-tax rhetoric seems to be conveniently forgotten when it comes to their agenda to run your personal life and send you to jail if you don't conform. The Gingrich crowd want to let the states do whatever they want to do, or not do, when it comes to education, welfare, school lunches and the like, but when it comes to letting individuals do what they like, it's No Way, Jose! That's an evil idea left over from the sixties, and clearly the cause of moral decay in society today.

Should you want to hear that thesis expounded in daunting length and exhausting detail, you need only read the new book by Judge Robert Bork. Yes, the Robert Bork who fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox at the order of Richard Nixon and who today would be sitting on the supreme court had not the Senate led by Ted Kennedy, thought better of it. What was evident in his Senate confirmation hearings and is affirmed in this book, is that Bork is not a conservative so much as an authoritarian. As a legal principle, he believes that the people have only those rights which the constitution explicitly gives them and not a whit more, the ninth and fourteenth amendments notwithstanding. He finds society rife with moral decay these days, and believes the solution to it is more authority, more laws, and consequently, less personal freedom.

Hopefully, this brief summary gives you the substance of the book and allays any impulse to rush out and actually buy it. Nonetheless, the book does provide a good understanding of where some people on both the right and the left are coming from. These are the people who can say American Freedom as proudly and loudly as anyone, yet who have a laundry list of new laws they want to make to abridge those freedoms. And should the constitution stand in the way of these laws, then it's the constitution that's wrong and must be changed. Think for a moment of the list of constitutional amendments favored by most of the religious right and, regrettably, supported by various others across the political spectrum: Ban abortion; ban flag burning; put official prayer back in public schools; ban various other forms of speech and communication that are deemed offensive. Every one of these is a restriction on individual rights, not an expansion of them. Each of these limits freedom rather than strengthening it.

There are numerous legislative initiatives getting the fire drill treatment these days in addition to the ones I've already mentioned. In each case, the recipe is a mix of election year grandstanding and authoritarian control of individual freedom, coupled with an aggressive refusal to examine what effect such laws actually have on our society as it is. I'll talk about some of these other initiatives in the weeks to come, but for now, that's the view from the Outpost. For WMBR and No Censorship Radio, this is Dan Murphy.