Our country is ailing. First came coronavirus, and then a different kind of dis-ease: the unspeakably callous killing of George Floyd, the demonstrations and riots that followed, and the protests that began peacefully but did not stay that way. Unrest, rancor, violence, the descent into chaos. Like an infection, it swept across the country.
We have never needed healing more than now. Where to seek it? How to achieve it?
I found myself thinking of words attributed to the Greek physician Hippocrates, renowned for the high ethics he brought to his profession: “First, do no harm.”
The traditional Hippocratic oath does not contain those exact words, but it does contain the same promise, sometimes rendered as “to abstain from doing harm.” The translation is not what matters. What matters is the meaning.
We need to re-learn that principle and hold ourselves and each other to it. Do no harm. Cause no injury. Whatever the situation, whatever the trouble, we need to refrain from compounding it by hurting others as we express our feelings, or our anger.
No sane person would deny that the killing of George Floyd was wanton and cruel, truly an outrage. Those responsible must be held accountable. No sane person would deny, either, that the destruction of property and businesses, and the theft of goods by looting, was evil. Anger can indeed be righteous, and if righteous, it can be expressed. Taking one’s anger out on the innocent is not the way to express it; that just compounds the wrong that has already been done.
We have seen that happen repeatedly in the weeks following the death of George Floyd. The protests that descended into vandalism and theft not only did not honor his memory; they insulted it. The tragedy of his death will forever be connected with the wave of wrongdoing and outright crime that spread like an infection from one city to another.
It is tragic that when George Floyd’s grieving brother, Terrence Floyd, made a plea on behalf of his family for peace among protesters and peace in the streets, it was ignored.
One television commentator remarked that many of the small businesses destroyed by rampaging mobs likely belonged to immigrants who arrived here with “pennies in their pockets” and who worked hard to achieve success. Now their dreams are in ashes.
A black woman sobbed to a television reporter that she had nowhere to go to buy what she needed because local stores had been trashed and there was no bus service to take her to stores elsewhere.
Genuine protesters who congregated peacefully and stayed peaceful sent an essential message to our society: This act of killing is a moral outrage that dishonors our American traditions, and it must be atoned for. False protesters whose purpose was to commit crimes, destroy civil order and spread fear have no place in American life.
Peaceful protest is more than acceptable; it is essential to the American way of life, a part of our tradition that must be preserved and protected. Fortunately, despite the disorder that seemed to predominate, peaceful gatherings also were taking place. When police and protesters can stand shoulder-to-shoulder, can pray together—and even, in one city, do a traditional dance side-by-side, there is reason to hope that we can return to order—and achieve mutual respect and compassion—without compromising our tradition of peaceful expression of our views.
For many weeks, we have been wearing masks and practicing social distancing to avoid spreading coronavirus. We hope and pray that soon we will be able to leave off the masks and come closer together. We need to do that—come out from hiding and stand together—spiritually as well as physically. We have to heal our society.
“First, do no harm.” Hippocrates set a standard that raised the practice of medicine to a new height. Jesus Christ, the Divine Physician, set the bar higher: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Let’s make those the messages that we take into the streets.