These days it feels like we’re seeing political theology, good and bad, play out in front of our eyes: if we thought history was over and ideas didn’t have consequences, if we thought that all of this was abstract, we’re sure disabused of that notion now.
Last Friday we launched a new symposium on political authority and the nature of public justice with a piece by Oliver O’Donovan. This week, Brad Littlejohn and Anthony Barr brought those ideas into direct dialogue with . . . well, with What Just Happened, and with current debates over policing.
What was the wrong that happened on January 6? What exactly? Littlejohn examines the nature of vigilantism and the way that it cannot produce the public justice that we look for. “Vigilantism,” he writes,
(and revolution, which is after all only vigilantism writ large) is always waiting in the wings of every political system, waiting for the moment when the fragile truce that society makes with the imperfectability of human judgment breaks down. Trapped within his own private reality, the vigilante can no longer be sure whether he is acting to vindicate the corrupted order of public justice or merely to achieve some private catharsis.
Anthony Barr, meanwhile, writes in his debut for Breaking Ground of what might be called the O’Donovanian grounds for police reform, which he connects with the original principles on which British municipal policing was established in 1829. “What were the police?” he asks.
It is crucial to understand what they were not: they were not the military. [Robert] Peel emphasized the civilian nature of the police force, often observing that the “police” are just members of the public “who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”
His concrete policy suggestions flow from a rich understanding of the nature of community order and of political society; if there is to be a rebuilding of trust in police and in the political process, if there is to be a rebuilding of the American public realm, it will come from the ideas articulated in these two pieces.