Violent action by a mob is in itself a terrifying thing
The destruction of Edward Colston’s statue in the English city of Bristol is perfectly understandable in one sense: slavery is a disgusting institution and the involvement and enrichment of Englishmen in that vile trade was utterly reprehensible.
To their credit the British later led the world in the virtual eradication of slavery, at least in the Western Hemisphere. It was the great Dr. Johnson who asked, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”
Yet slavery is by no means a thing of the past: estimates vary, but the number of people currently held as forced laborers throughout the world numbers perhaps as many as forty million. Against that terrible backdrop why worry about the part played by the miserable Colston?
What is appalling about the destruction of his Bristol statue is the way it was done. Violent action by a mob, particularly when the police stand by and watch, is in itself a terrifying thing. Within living memory we (or at least our parents and grandparents) have seen lynchings, rallies led by fanatical and ruthless dictators (think Hitler, Stalin, or Kim Jong-un), and demonstrations that effectively silence any kind of rational debate, while the forces of government stood by and did nothing.
Sometimes popular uprisings have seemed justified and even admirable: the pulling down of the Berlin Wall and the ructions that brought an end to the ‘Iron Curtain’ fall into that category, for most of us.
But the mayor of Bristol now claims that he had always hated the Colston statue. Why didn’t he do something about it? Why was due process not followed? Why do police stand by and watch a mob at its mindless work, yet actively intervene to stop an individual visiting a dying parent, or a few people going to a church, or a beach? Where is the science, when we enforce petty rules but allow larger groups to do what they please?
The problem goes well beyond Bristol. In Melbourne a few days ago, a Black Lives Matter demonstration was allowed to proceed in absolute breech of social distancing rules because, frankly, it was just too big to handle. It’s this hypocrisy, this double standard, this cowardice on the part of those who should show leadership, that must cause us to question whether civilization can survive.
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