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US president praises an extrajudicial killing
– by Hans Dembowski
© Warren / picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS
Officer of the Washington State Patrol inspecting the place where Reinoehl was shot on 3 September.
The background story is that Michael Reinoehl was shot dead by federal marshals in Washington state on 3 September. He was suspected of having killed a right-wing activist in Portland, Oregon, a few days earlier. At first, the security forces stated that Reinoehl had produced a gun when they wanted to arrest him. As the Washington Post reported in great detail last week, however, eyewitnesses tell a different story (paywall). They say that the police officers did not identify themselves and started shooting immediately. Reinoehl’s gun was found in his pocket, which means he was not pointing it at anyone when he was killed.
The Trump administration wants people to believe that Reinoehl was a left-wing terrorist. Trump’s Attorney General William Burr declared that streets in the USA are safer without "this violent agitator". Trump hopes that spreading fear of leftists will help him win the election in November, tough so far. Most US citizens do not seem to fall for that kind of propaganda. They have good reasons not to. Indeed, the Black Live Matter (BLM) protests have been "overwhelmingly peaceful", according Erica Chenoweth, a Harvard professor who has researched the movement, though police and counterprotesters sometimes started violence. She spelled out her findings in the Washington Post.
We know that the fatal incident in Protland happened when counter-protesters tried to disrupt BLM protests. We also know that Reinoehl owned firearms, which is permitted in the USA, that he declared himself to be an anti-fascist, and that he provided security-services for BLM protests. What we do not know is what exactly happened in Portland the night the right-wing activist was shot. Even if Reinoehl was guilty of murder - which is possible, but unproven - he would certainly have deserved a fair trial. Instead, the security forces apparently killed him immediately.
The next twist in the story is particularly bizarre. Trump proudly told his supporters in Greenville about Reinoehl's death. He said that the marshals "knew who he was, did not want to arrest him and in 15 minutes that ended”. He also said: “We sent in the US marshals.” That, of course, is does not amount to an admission of ordering them to kill the suspect rather than to arrest him. But it does show that Trump endorses extrajudicial killings in principle, which in turn means that he is not at all interested in the rule of law.
This story deserves more attention. Yes, I know, it is probably not overly cynical to presume that many governments breach laws when they assume that is the raison d’état. The fact that such things happen, however, does not make them acceptable. In today’s world, even dictators prefert to pretend they are playing by the rules. They hardly admit extrajudicial killings, though they may well want opponents to believe them capable of such action.
A president who proudly boasts that security forces killed someone they did not want to arrest, basically proves himself unfit for office. US media are currently overburdened. They struggle to cover the endless stream of Trump scandals. To many journalists, Portland’s nights of unrest may seem like the story of many weeks ago. Some media organisations (for example salon.org) are still paying attention to Reinoehl’s death, but the majority of media professionals don’t seem to believe that every outrageous remark by Trump deserves attention. They have a point, but in this case, I think they are wrong. When the president of the United States endorses an extrajudicial killing, that should be a top story.
Update 18 October 2020, 9:40 am Frankfurt time: I added the info about Chenoweth and her research results after publishing the original version of this blog. I only found her Wapo contribution today. I am a bit overwhelmed myself, and I feel tempted to add ever more aspects to this blogpost, concerning, for instance, Trumps' responses to the deadly shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where a teenage Trump supporter killed protestors in August. His reaction to the recently revealed plan of white supremacists to kidnap the governor of Michigan is telling too. I won't delve into these things and limit this blogpost to one message: a president who endorses extrajudicial killings undermines the rule of law. Yes, Trump is doing that in other ways too, but that is not what this blogpost is about.