Washington Week

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My Kingdom for a Magic Wand

I sympathize with your confusion.

If cameras pinned to officers’ lapels are the solution, then why didn’t a video of a man being choked to death sway a New York grand jury?

If a government shutdown was such a costly maneuver for congressional Republicans last time, why are they debating it again?

If the Pentagon pledged to turn their full attention to tackling incidents of sexual assault in the military, why does a new report show reported cases are up?

The answers to these unanswerable questions are elusive because they are complicated by statistics, emotion and politics. Often it’s all three.

In Washington this week, the Department of Defense released its latest depressing survey showing reports of rape and sexual assault had jumped by 8 percent.

Bad news, right? But the key word is reports. Pentagon estimates say the number of actual incidents is down -- they are just being reported more often. If that’s true, it’s good news, especially if you think it’s better to know what’s happening than not.

The government shutdown scenario is even more perplexing, if only because it appears to be driven solely by intraparty politics. The deadline to pass a bill to pay for government operations has rolled around again. And some Republicans -- outraged by what they consider to be President Obama’s high-handedness on executive action -- are agitating to play the shutdown card once again.

House leadership does not want this. Senate leadership does not want this. Theoretically, the White House does not want this. But in the end, the politics of an unruly House Republican caucus could drive the outcome.

Finally, to the thorny criminal justice debate that has sent protestors to the streets in dozens of cities and college campuses this week. Perhaps no two men are in a tighter corner on this than the nation’s first black president and its first black attorney general.

Eric Holder has responded by launching a series of federal investigations. For the president, it’s more difficult, distracting and defining.

He has launched task forces to delve into the problem of what appears to many to be the unequal application of justice. But even his supporters have chafed in recent weeks about his relatively muted response to issues they say he should be screaming about.

“Right now, unfortunately, we are seeing too many instances where people just do not have confidence that folks are being treated fairly,” he said in the hours after the Eric Garner non-indictment. “And in some cases, those may be misperceptions; but in some cases, that’s a reality.  And it is incumbent upon all of us, as Americans, regardless of race, region, faith, that we recognize this is an American problem, and not just a black problem or a brown problem or a Native American problem.  This is an American problem.”

It’s important to listen to the president’s words at moments like this. He draws the biggest circle possible at a time when ideology seems to be shrinking debate. He alludes to “misperceptions,” mentions that “in some cases,” not all, there is something to them. And he makes this an “American problem,” not a racial one.

Some civil rights activists say the president does not talk often enough about race. In reality, he talks about it quite a bit -- just more mildly than many want.

My friend Cathleen Decker, a reporter at the Los Angeles Times, does a public service in this piece, detailing how many times the president has tackled the issue – beginning with his 2004 “red states/blue states” speech at the Democratic National Convention, and extending to Wednesday’s post-Garner remarks. That’s six times, formally, from behind a podium. There are many more instances to be found in interviews and off the cuff exchanges.

Is it enough? Perhaps not, especially if you think a president can heal festering national wounds by rhetorical fiat.

But it does make for confusion and frustration. It is a cold-eyed reminder that nothing that matters -- whether at the Pentagon or on Capitol Hill or at the White House or on the streets of Ferguson and New York City -- can be painted only in black and white.

[Top photo: Flickr ; Middle photo: Republican congressional leadership plan to plow ahead with a spending bill that averts a government shutdown, CNN; Bottom Photo: Following the decision by a New York grand jury not to indict the officer involved in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, President Obama emphasized the need to strengthen the accountability between communities and police, CNN].