Scott Walker has blamed President Obama for an uptick in violence against police officers that isn’t actually happening, but in this post, we won’t even get to the implicit lie about unassailable statistics, because there’s too much to unpack from the barrel-full of intellectual bile Walker piled into this argument, even were it true.
We can probably all agree that Obama is to blame for any given police shooting only if he caused it. And since he’s president, it’s probably fair to blame him for causing it either by doing something or by failing to do something – sort of like one might blame George W. Bush for all the terrorist plots and attacks that hatched after 9/11/2001 because he did not catch Osama bin Laden.
In the case of Walker’s accusation, then, Walker would have to show that President Obama either did or failed to do something that caused the shooting of one or more police officers. Here is a story from HuffPo today:
Republican presidential candidate and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on Sunday blamed President Barack Obama for the killings of police officers.
“I think his absence of leadership, of speaking out on this issue” has contributed to police being killed, Walker said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“We need a president who first and foremost says that law enforcement professionals across this country are doing the job,” he said. “We need them to keep us safe, we need to have their back, and he has been silent on this and that’s an outrage.”
Walker wrote an op-ed last week arguing that anti-police rhetoric has gotten worse under Obama. He cited recent cases of a Texas sheriff’s deputy being killed while pumping gas, and of a police lieutenant being “assassinated” in Illinois.
Police shooting deaths are actually down 26 percent this year, though, compared to the same period last year, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
During Sunday’s interview, host Jake Tapper said he’s heard Obama praise police officers. Walker said that’s not enough.
“He’s praised them, but he’s not speaking out about the fact that this rhetoric out there — and when … we have people say ‘pigs in a blanket’ at a rally, ‘fry ’em up like bacon.’ That’s the kind of thing you need to speak out about,” he said.
So, in the world according to Walker, criminals who’ve shot police officers would not have shot police officers had Obama held a press conference to repeat slogans like “pigs in a blanket” and “fry ’em up like bacon” and then, in addition to saying that police officers are mostly honorable and sometimes even heroic, specifically condemned those two allusions. The President should have said, “Hey you! Stop using the terms pigs in a blanket and fried bacon! Stop that right now or somebody is gonna get hurt!” (Had Obama said that, Walker would now be blaming police deaths on the President’s failure to stomp his feet while saying it.)
In the law business, we have rules about how to establish causation, and the general rule is that a person is not blameworthy unless, by action or inaction, he caused a harmful result. If some other rule should apply to the president, it will be up to the proponent of the new rule to explain why — and to explain how his own approach would accord with a system of morals-based rule choices.
As to establishing causation, a good tort lawyer will tell you there are two steps. First, the accuser (in our case, Walker) must established what’s called cause-in-fact. A more helpful term for this concept is “but-for causation.” The accuser must show that, but for the action or inaction of the accused, the injury would not have happened. If you set a house on fire by holding a lit match to its eaves, it’s safe to say that, but for your holding the match to the eaves, the house would not have caught fire. It’s also safe to say that the house wouldn’t have caught fire but for your having lit the match, or but for your having obtained the match, or but for the availability of the match. And here is the problem with assigning blame based only on but-for causation: it’s also safe to say that, but for your parents’ coital shenanigans nine months before your mucousy arrival on this planet, the house wouldn’t have caught fire. As much as that sounds ridiculous, it is nonetheless true and correct.
That is why, before liability can be imposed, the accuser must also take the second step of establishing proximate cause. For the accused to be legally blameworthy, his conduct must not just have been somewhere in the causal chain; it must be the most significant link — and often the closest in time to the injury — in the causal chain. In our arson hypo, although your being born might have been a but-for cause of the fire, it certainly wasn’t the proximate cause. The proximate cause — the most important step, and the one that came right before the harm — was your holding a lit match to the eaves of the house.
Here’s an interesting thing about proximate cause: it is almost always cut off (defeated) by a showing of some intervening cause that could not have been foreseen. The leading example of this kind of intervening cause that cuts off proximate cause is the criminal conduct of a third party. If you hand a book of matches to somebody (or even fail to take one away from somebody) who then, without your agreement, assent, or even knowledge, uses those matches to set a house on fire, you are not liable for the results. The proximate cause of the harm was the intervening criminal conduct of somebody else.
Let’s apply these principles to Walker’s argument. To be morally blameworthy, the President would have to have proximately caused the shootings of police officers. This would be impossible to establish. Even were his inaction — his failure to opine on the horrors of pork metaphors — somewhere in the causal chain, Obama’s moral responsibility (blameworthiness) would be cut off by the intervening criminal acts of third parties.
And what about but-for cause? Are we really to believe that, had psychopathic killers only had a stern talking to from the president about party snacks and breakfast meats, they would have demurred to his wagging finger? This is horseshit piled high. Were Walker’s argument a legal one, no judge would let him leave a courtroom with his pride intact. The media, of course, is no judge.
These notions of causation are likely the reason why most people don’t even blame Bush for all the al-qaeda attacks that happened while Bush was busy not chasing after bin Laden: as much of an idiot as Bush might have been (and, unlike Obama’s non-admonition to avoid greasy allusions, Bush’s misallocation of resources after 9/11 really was the but-for cause of much human misery), it’s not exactly fair to blame Bush for the criminal acts of violent killers (the intervening causes).
But in an age where some blame everything on Obama, principles about causation and blameworthiness don’t apply.
As to Walker’s argument, we respectfully DISSENT.
Please file your concurring or dissenting opinion in the Comments section below.
by Brendan Beery