It is not every day that a government official quotes a Broadway show tune in a public address. Make that the nation’s top law enforcement official and a song called “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” and it’s safe to say the speech given by James B. Comey, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, on Feb. 12 was unprecedented. Speaking in Georgetown University’s Healy Hall—named for Patrick Francis Healy, a man born into slavery who became the 29th president of the Jesuit institution—Mr. Comey gave a frank and nuanced assessment of today’s strained relations between law enforcement and the minority communities they serve.
With the legitimacy that only an insider can bring to bear, Mr. Comey said that he and many of his fellow officers “develop different flavors of cynicism that we work hard to resist because they can be lazy mental shortcuts.” The antidote to such prejudice in police work, he suggests, is empathy: “We must better understand the people we serve and protect—by trying to know, deep in our gut, what it feels like to be a law-abiding young black man walking on the street and encountering law enforcement.”
Mr. Comey did not, however, let the rest of society off the hook. Police officers work courageously in challenging communities “that most citizens are able to drive around” literally and figuratively by ignoring social ills that incentivize criminal behavior. In the national conversation on race, sparked by the events in Ferguson last summer, people have too often spoken past each other. We must all take up Mr. Comey’s challenge to confront our own latent biases and see the humanity of police and civilians alike.
Death by Indifference
Pope Francis met with a delegation from the Italian coast guard on Feb. 17, two days after a massive rescue operation pulled more than 2,000 people from the Mediterranean Sea. That effort followed another tragic loss of life earlier in the month, as more than 300 migrants trying to reach Europe from North Africa were lost in rough winter seas. The pope has consistently brought international attention to the plight of migrants seeking to escape conflict and poverty, and he has appealed for a more merciful response from European states rushing to close their borders to these desperate men, women and children.
Remarkably, some European leaders believe that maintaining a state of readiness to rescue migrants only encourages more escape attempts from North Africa on unseaworthy vessels. The migrants who died in early February, for instance, tried to make their crossing on overloaded rubber dinghies that were soon awash and sinking. This “policy” of indifference only piles cruelty upon cruelty. The Mediterranean’s migrants will not be deterred by the threat of a watery demise, since it is the near certainty of death they are already fleeing in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.
Last November, a cash-strapped Italian government terminated Mare Nostrum, a joint military and humanitarian operation that had saved thousands of lives. It was replaced by the coast-hugging Operation Triton, a European Union effort that has proved fatally inadequate. Border control officials and advocates for migrants warn that 2015 will see a record number of attempts to cross the Mediterranean. The European Union must build up operational capacity to respond and re-evaluate its current policies on migration and asylum so that this perilous crossing no longer appears as the only rational option for people simply seeking to save their lives.
Mass Rape in Darfur
On Feb. 11, the international organization Human Rights Watch released a 48-page report documenting rape committed systematically by the Sudanese army. The attacks, which began on the night of Oct. 30 and lasted over 30 hours, occurred in the town of Tabit in North Darfur. According to witnesses, soldiers went from house to house looking for rebel soldiers; many of the rapes were ordered because the women were believed to be supporters of these soldiers. While the Sudanese government has denied these allegations, H.R.W. has stated that it has “27 first-hand accounts of rape…and credible information about an additional 194 incidents of rape.”
In addition to denying these allegations, the Sudanese government has prevented the African Union–United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur, a peacekeeping mission established in 2007 to help combat the crisis in the region, from investigating these attacks. H.R.W. has now called upon the United Nations to get involved. The report emphasizes the need for “concrete steps to protect civilians in Darfur from further abuse” and to “ensure access to medical care for victims.” It also demands that “those responsible for crimes in violation of international law [be] brought to justice.” Western nations, including the United States, should take heed and encourage U.N. involvement. While our media attention is focused on today’s atrocities, we must not forget about these victims.