The Real Nightmare of Ferguson

Racial strife, paramilitary commandos, rampant injustice: What happened in Ferguson truly scared us because we see the chaos there as a preview of what could soon come to the rest of America.

Scott Olson/Getty

It only took three days. On Day One, my Twitter feed—carefully curated since 2008 to deliver an all-encompassing stream of news and views—was acting as normal. Par for the course on Twitter, the early riots in Ferguson, Missouri, popped up in my feed shortly before the national news media picked up on the story.

On Day Two, the chatter surrounding the riots started to show up in the way that tends to signal to me that a Big Story is happening: it had started to consume the attention of both the professional media people and the professional music people who I follow.

Somewhere in the middle of Day Three, however, the story went viral. I don’t exactly mean that it “blew up on social media,” as we say, although that’s true too. My measure of virality on Twitter is simple: suddenly, almost everything else is crowded out and very nearly literally everyone is talking about the news event. Reporting it; linking to it; commenting on it; marveling at it; expressing shock and disgust about it.

Ferguson went viral in the way that’s familiar from our pop-culture nightmares about epidemics and disease—from the zombies of Night of the Living Dead to the Rage of 28 Days Later to the contagious outbreaks of, well, Contagion and Outbreak.

The Scourge of Ferguson was upon us.

Then some really remarkable things began to happen. On Day Four, Ferguson went even more viral. I was able to scroll through my feed and read nothing but tweets about Ferguson. But now, the idea of Ferguson had metastasized and spread, too. It wasn’t just about the shooting of Michael Brown. It wasn’t just about the additional crimes and looting that had sprouted up. It wasn’t even just about the sickening interplay between race and injustice.

It was also about Gaza. It was about the militarization of America’s police forces—a subject writers like Radley Balko had been pounding on for years, and which I had written about, to positive but unemotional reaction, in June. Most of all, it was about a concept you don’t hear “normal people” use very lightly: something un-American.

The spectacle of Ferguson’s combat-equipped SWAT police force had struck a nerve. Moreover, the nerve it struck couldn’t be explained by the lame realities that can often abstract and generalize a story away from its moral and factual core. This wasn’t a case of ethical bandwagoning. “Caring about Ferguson” hadn’t turned into a First World problem or fashionable cultural checkbox.

People were really shaken. I realized that they were afraid.

Oftentimes public fear like this can be a self-indulgent kind of collective astral projection. As traumatic as it can be to watch localized tragedies and turmoil play out through the media, the kind of emotional communion made possible by instantaneous communication isn’t always good, and it isn’t always true. (The nightmare of Sandy Hook, for instance, summoned forth well-meaning but misbegotten initiatives that use fear to push bad policy, as Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown program did.)

With Ferguson, however, the fear had arisen from something even more primal and politically relevant than the murder of innocent children by militarized loners.

Everyone had started reaching for cultural references to contextualize what was going on. Some mentioned Red Dawn. Others brought up The Purge. What instantly sprang to my mind was The Stand.

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“Randall Flagg definitely in Ferguson rn,” I tweeted, flashing back on the terrifyingly human devil figure that drove the narrative of Stephen King’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece. First introduced by King, Flagg sports, among other things, an anti-law enforcement button that read HOW’S YOUR BACON?

Much like the Man of Wealth and Taste who narrates the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” Flagg, King explains, has the habit of popping up whenever and wherever society is ready to come apart. He is, as the sociologist Philip Rieff put it, a “scourge.”

Scourges, says Rieff, “are what they represent: wounds to the social organs which are themselves deeply disordered.” Scourges, he says, “are killers who act, momentarily, as agents freed from sacred order and its commanding truths.” Many, he says, are killer loners. “But they can be cultivated, grown, mass-produced; like dragon’s teeth.”

If that all sounds a bit abstract to you, consider Rieff’s next line—written, in all likelihood, at some point in the 1980s. “It is entirely possible that some young blacks are now being prepared to act as scourges of the unjust American social order.”

Americans—in and out of my Twitter feed—have begun to grasp that hideous possibility: that America has manufactured a violent and predominantly black permanent underclass, subjected to our malignant paranoia about crime, living slow-motion death sentences in ghettos from which no amount of presidential hope, change, or lecturing can release them.

Even more important, Americans have begun to understand that the scourge-ification of this underclass is inseparable from the realization of our worst collective nightmare—the scourging of America itself, the ruin of the promise of America that still strikes us in our gut as providential. The widespread belief, still largely subconscious or at least unspoken, that America is breaking, and that we deserve the suffering ahead.

This isn’t an abstract problem either. We know that America is exceptional in one key respect—we came to democracy without much bloodshed. Around the world, from Hungary and Russia to Iraq and Nigeria, we see the dream of peaceful democratization dragged again and again to what the philosopher Hegel called the slaughter-bench of history. Racial strife and murderous governments, not liberty and democracy, are the rule in history, the established pattern. We know that, mercifully, democratization scourged us only once in ferociously modern style: during the Civil War.

“Fondly do we hope,” Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural, “fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

We do not want this to be true. This is what we fear: that America, despite its brilliance and its progress, is inescapably complicit in the sin of slavery and racism, bearing a moral debt that cannot be repaid but in suffering and blood—as such debts are paid so routinely around the world which we pride ourselves, however rationally, on standing so far above.

No amount of militarization can save us from such terrifying justice—the justice of what King has one unhinged survivor in The Stand call a “Killer God.”

“Does it have to go on and on until the earth belongs to the roaches? He’s no God,” the survivor screams. Discussing the passage, Ross Douthat has observed that King terrifies us with a God “who is prepared to let his people perish for purposes beyond their understanding.”

But we understand. Dig down, and we know why our dark and twisted fantasies of a suffering, angry American underclass have finally come true. We know why our obsession with health and safety has manifested in a monstrous paramilitary that can swarm our streets in a heartbeat. If we are to be scourged, we know we are to blame.

Perhaps the shock of unity brought on by Ferguson will occasion our turn away from this path—if, we must add, there is still time.