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Marcus and Gerson on lessons from Ferguson, Islamic State threat

August 22, 2014 at 6:34 PM EDT
Washington Post columnists Ruth Marcus and Michael Gerson join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s top news, including the legacy of mistrust that laid the groundwork for unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, as well as the shifting U.S. stance on pursuing the Islamic State group after the murder of American journalist James Foley.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to the analysis of Marcus and Gerson. That’s Washington Post columnists Ruth Marcus and Michael Gerson. Both Mark Shields and David Brooks are away.

And we welcome you both.

MICHAEL GERSON: Good to be here.

RUTH MARCUS: Hi.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So this has been a tough week for news, both in this country and overseas.

But let’s start, Michael, with Ferguson, Missouri, the aftermath of the shooting of this young teenage — teenage black young man. It’s only — we’re not even two weeks since it happened. Are there already lessons that come to us from this?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, we’re two weeks out, but we still actually don’t know some of the basic facts. And we need to take that seriously.

It’s hard to interpret events when you don’t know all the facts. And so put that aside. But there are some context issues that surround this that we do need to take seriously. One of them is really, this was a police force that was in over its head, five different agencies trying to cooperate, not cooperating very well.

We have got serious questions about the militarization of policing. That a serious set of issues. I think it also makes the point that that trust between a community and a police department, which is so essential, can’t be summoned in an emergency if it hasn’t been built up over years.

And that contrast between the composition of the community and the composition of the police force added to the tensions when the strains came. And that’s something you have to deal with over a long time. I have got one more thing. It also points out that there are some communities that really have been isolated from American prosperity, some communities like African-American males that feel disconnected from the promise of the country.

Right now, we deal with a lot of that through criminal justice, but we need other ways to deal with that and do outreach to communities in America, rather than just through police action.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, in a way, they’re right before our eyes, but we don’t see them.

RUTH MARCUS: Agreed.

And I would just take two additional — I agree with everything Michael said. I take two additional lessons here. And they’re really lessons in what not to do in situations like that.

Number one, you have got to — you make an important point. We still don’t have really basic facts about what happened. This — one of the reasons for the ferocious, angry response of the community was the lack of information, the failure to get out really basic information, what happened, how many shots were fired, why was his body allowed to stay there for so long, get out some information quickly to tamp down some of the anger, even if the anger is justified.

And number two, which is related, it’s a lot harder to contain a wildfire once it erupts. If you have people speaking to the community in a way that can calm them down early on, it’s a lot easier to contain that anger than when it starts to mushroom and spread.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Should people in the community, should people nationally, Michael, expect justice to be done in this situation? What should the expectation be, and especially now that you have got the federal government? You had the attorney general, Eric Holder, there a day this week.

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, they should expect justice to be done.

The problem in these cases is that justice is not always done quickly. Sometimes, it takes a long time. The primary actors in this as far as justice are concerned are an elected local prosecutor and a grand jury that’s begun to receive information. That’s where the criminal case is taking place.

The Justice Department — I think Eric Holder played a good role in coming in and being reassuring in the community that the federal government was focused, in sending FBI agents. There were dozens on the ground to try to make sure that the information, the witnesses were all surveyed. All that was good.

He can’t be seen, though, in my view, as trying to elbow out the local authorities. There may be a civil rights case here eventually, but the primary action right now is really the local.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see the justice question?

RUTH MARCUS: Well, in terms of the Justice Department question, the Justice Department really traditionally has come in when local processes have failed.

We don’t want local processes to fail. The case that people will most remember is, after the Rodney King beating, a state jury acquitted the officers. Then the Justice Department, many years later, after the rioting that ensued, came in.

That was an example of the state system failing. We would all be much better off if the state system worked here.

MICHAEL GERSON: And that took five years, five years to work itself through the system.

RUTH MARCUS: Many — yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But that was only after there was failure at the local…

RUTH MARCUS: But the question of whether justice is done will really depend on what facts are brought forward.

It is hard to imagine a situation in which an unarmed young man is shot justifiably by an officer six or more times. However, we don’t know exactly what happened there. And there are cases where officers are in reasonable fear for their safety. There have been allegations that he was charged at.

Justice may be bringing the case. Justice may potentially be not bringing a case. And that’s where you really have questions about the trust of this community in its prosecution. We need to know more facts.

But it’s obviously — thank goodness this week was a quieter week, but it’s obviously still a very volatile situation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The community has quieted down, but you’re right, so many questions still out there.

But let’s turn overseas to, I guess, the story that dismayed everybody this week, and, Michael, the terrible, horrible murder of the American journalist James Foley by the Islamic State group, a man standing there with a black costume, uniform on, British accent.

What more do we now know about this group, ISIS, ISIL, the Islamic State, based on this?

MICHAEL GERSON: I think we feel it more directly because of the images, but we knew it, for months, that ISIL has been murdering people broadly wherever they gain control, and sometimes even reportedly putting their heads on pikes.

And this is the most brutal and evil type of group that you could imagine. And the British accent here, by the way, points to a reality. There are hundreds of Western recruits to ISIL that have gone to Syria and perhaps to Iraq in this. And there are people that have Western passports.

Because of our visa system, they can get back in the United States. And American intelligence is very, very concerned about this prospect.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s right. I mean, Ruth, everyone knew this was a serious threat, but now it’s even more serious? I mean, how many more levels of serious is it?

RUTH MARCUS: It’s not a more serious threat, but in a sad, horrific way, perhaps it’s a threat that we as a country and as an administration, as the Obama administration, will now be taking more seriously, be empowered to take more seriously, because this group is not going away.

It is only getting bigger, getting stronger, getting fiercer. There is this strange competition among terrorists to show who’s got the most street cred — I’m actually stealing a line of Mike’s — to show their bona fides in terms of terrorism, which incentivizes them, in fact, to be thinking about and plotting to send people to — look at all the attention that they have gotten with this beheading.

Imagine how much attention they would get with a terrorist incident in Europe or, God forbid, in the United States. And we need to bring some good out of this horrible, savage act, which is to take it seriously and respond with appropriate seriousness.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the administration is talking tougher, the president certainly talking tougher. But what does that mean? Are we hearing that the administration, that the president, that they now know how far they want to take the fight?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, no. They have made serious tactical shifts. We have had over 90 air attacks since the beginning of this campaign. They’re defending Irbil. They’re defending Baghdad.

But we don’t know if they have made a strategic shift. The strategic shift would be that we’re going to end the ISIS safe haven, which is now as large as New England across two countries, and we’re going to build a regional coalition over many years in order to end this safe haven. We really haven’t heard that.

The administration — high-level administration people talked about containing the threat. They talk about defeating the threat. They talk about destroying the threat. These are all different things. They’re not the same thing. There could be a serious internal argument being — happening right now in the administration about what the strategy should be.

RUTH MARCUS: But you do see the shift from talking — the president just a few months ago was talking about this group as a kind of J.V. team. No one’s talking about them as a J.V. team anymore.

The president just this week talked about extricating the cancer, as if you can just pluck it out. I don’t think it’s going to be that easy. But I thought the most interesting commentary this week came from General Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was very clear that if you want to get rid of this group, it is going to require being in Syria, a place that the president has not wanted to be.

But you could see with both General Dempsey’s comments and the comments of the policy-makers and the political appointees about the dangers that this group poses that they’re getting ready, I think, to prepare the American public and the American Congress for the need to do way more than what we have been doing previously.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, are you saying — are you saying that the president himself has shifted on this as a result of this one terrible murder of this journalist?

RUTH MARCUS: No, I think that the shift from J.V. to, oh, my goodness, we’re in the big leagues now, happened before this murder.

It happened as the…

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Iraq…

RUTH MARCUS: … State just metastasized, to continue with that metaphor, and they were able to have such victories on the ground that it was clear this was going to be a big problem, and then came this horrible act.

MICHAEL GERSON: Right.

Well, I think we right now — we will see where the policy goes, but right now, there’s a serious gap between the scale of the diagnosis of the problem, which Chuck Hagel, for example, called a problem like one we have never seen, where Eric Holder says it’s the most frightening he’s seen as attorney general, the terrorist threat, and the scale of the response, which right now is not equal to that threat, but seems to be moving in that direction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you still have an American public that is war-weary, by all accounts. And so how do you bring them along if you’re going to do something more? Or do you? Or do you?

RUTH MARCUS: Well, I want to say this in a way that reflects the horror that the Foley family has had inflicted on them, but, in an odd way, having this quasi-public beheading actually helps move the American people, because we’re not going to tolerate that. And it really does underscore the seriousness of the threat.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you see the public moving?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think the president, for example, didn’t act in Syria because he said the public would oppose this.

We have now had a bombing campaign in Iraq against a very serious threat, and the public has not risen up in public opinion against this. In fact, the political class, Republicans and Democrats have been very supportive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we — it’s been a terrible week. And let’s hope there aren’t many more like this.

Ruth Marcus, Michael Gerson, we thank you.

RUTH MARCUS: Thank you.

MICHAEL GERSON: Thank you.