In a clip that has now gone viral, Nikole Hannah-Jones (architect of the New York Times’s 1619 Project) told CBS that although rioters are destroying private property across the country, their actions are not violent. “Violence is when an agent of the state kneels on a man’s neck until all of the life is leached out of his body,” said Hannah-Jones. “Destroying property, which can be replaced, is not violence.”
One has to hand it to Hannah-Jones: she is a master rhetorician. Her graphic description of George Floyd’s wrongful death in police custody evokes an agonizing truth that every one of us recognized when we watched it on video: nothing can come close to making up for the loss of human life. Nothing. No fancy argument, no high moral principle, no false equivalence, can fill the infinitely yawning void that opens in the universe when a man dies. It is not a question of how “good” the man was. It is the fact that he is gone without cause, and nothing can bring him back.
It feels hopelessly callous to compare such a loss, which is of cosmic proportions, to the loss of physical property. That is what Hannah-Jones is counting on. She wants us to feel ashamed of weighing a man’s life against the worth of an ice cream parlor or a pair of Air Jordans, so that in our shame we will retreat from defending the value of “property” at all.
This, much like the 1619 Project itself, is an expertly calculated attempt to make Americans retreat in disgust from the founding principles of their own nation. By sleight of hand, Hannah-Jones—and all who argue with her that looting is fair retaliation for police violence—is trying to make us forget that a man’s right to life and a man’s right to property are one and the same.
According to our founding tradition, there is not one thing called “property”—i.e., physical stuff—which is to be set against another thing called “life”—i.e., immaterial possessions such as existence, liberty, and conscience. There is instead just one foundational right guaranteed to us by our regime and our God: the right to have and to keep what is ours.
James Madison, in his essay on the topic, put it this way:
This term [“property”] in its particular application means “that dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in exclusion of every other individual.”
In its larger and juster meaning, it embraces every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right; and which leaves to every one else the like advantage….
Where an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected. No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties, or his possessions.
The logic which declares that no one may take from us those items and that land which we own by the sweat of our brow, is the very same logic which insists that no one may take from us that life and that liberty which is ours by the gift of our Creator. This is the logic of America and of justice.
By contrast, the logic of our ruling classes dictates that violent mobs may tear apart storefronts and steal private goods in the name of a foul and recriminatory racialism. The small business owners who have been caught on camera weeping over the destruction of their livelihoods are victims of that logic. It is the same logic that was driven to its grisly conclusion when the retired police captain David Dorn was shot and killed as he tried to protect his friend’s pawn shop from robbery.
There is only one answer to such brutality, only one founding premise on this wide earth which can protect the innocent from violence of every kind: “that all men are created equal, [and] that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Either we believe that everyone, of every color, must be guaranteed the right to his own property both physical and spiritual, or we do not.
Those are the only two “sides” in this fight. If we allow ourselves to be gulled by ideologues who despise us into qualifying our national creed, or apologizing for it, or declaring it with anything other than pride, then we will have abandoned our fellow man and forsaken the only remedy for tribalism and injustice known to us this side of heaven. It’s America or bust.