Editor’s note: This is the first part of a three-part essay on the government’s use of force. The subsequent parts will be published over the next two Sundays.

Two of our most contentious national debates have more in common than is generally recognized. Both the angry controversy over the CIA’s interrogation methods and the bitter dispute over the deaths of African-American men resulting from confrontations with police officers stem from one of the most difficult issues that a democracy faces: how to reconcile the need to protect society against threats to our safety – foreign and domestic – with our commitment to the fundamental respect for human rights of which we are justifiably proud.

How much physical force should we employ against those who threaten our collective right to live in peace and security, and what rules do we establish to govern the behavior of those whom we charge with employing it?

For some on both extremes the answers are easy – and wrong. On the political right, former Vice President Dick Cheney and New York police union President Patrick Lynch essentially insist that the enforcers must be free to use whatever methods they deem appropriate and vehemently reject the notion that anyone else – including such legally constituted elected governing authorities as the mayor of New York City or the members of Congress – have any right to criticize their choices.

On the left, there are those who extend the accurate recognition that racism, while diminished, remains a blemish on our democracy into a reflexive condemnation of law enforcement in almost all cases. While others – an overlapping group – are so critical of America’s role in the world that they are strongly inclined to believe the worst about our efforts to combat those who attack us or are planning to do so.

While each view is a distortion, they are not equal in their harmful impact on our ability to achieve the proper balance. Three factors combine to give the right-wing version greater force. One applies to both cases: the understandable preference for the good guys over the bad guys. This does not mean that those grappling with police officers or being subject to “enhanced interrogation” by anti-terrorism agents are always guilty. The toughest part of this problem is that innocent people are sometimes caught up in the law enforcement net.

But in the great majority of cases, society’s protectors are on one side and those causing at least some degree of social harm are on the other. Arguing for fair treatment for people who deserve some punishment is usually controversial and – in cases where the bad behavior is egregious – highly unpopular. “How kind do you want to be to those who have murdered thousands of Americans?” is Cheney’s dismissal of concern, not only over inflicting brutal treatment on the guilty, but also over any worry about those inaccurately accused.

The former vice president’s demagogy draws its power from the second factor, obviously relevant only to the CIA case. The combination of fear and deep revulsion instilled in Americans by murderous fanatics remains potent 13 years after 9/11, recently reinforced by the viciousness of those who defame their religion by calling themselves the Islamic State.

Third, in the case of the physical struggles between the police and those they are arresting, racial feelings are an effective substitute for anti-terrorist concerns in winning support for the official version of events. As I will argue later, the justification for the police response in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, is much stronger than in the strangulation of Eric Garner in New York, but the breakdown of public opinion is very similar.

Whites are largely supportive of law enforcement, while African-Americans are overwhelmingly critical. On this count in particular, but on the other two as well, those in our society who put a high priority on leaving the security forces unhindered have the political advantage. True, a Senate committee did condemn the CIA’s excesses, but along party lines, which means that the CIA’s defenders now have the votes after the 2014 election to prevent any legislative activity to implement this conclusion.

The result of this is that while there has been a great deal of protest against the practices of both the police and the CIA, the effect has, sadly, been more to exacerbate social tension than to cause a rethinking of how best to resolve our dilemma.

To this point, I have been stressing mostly the similarities between these two phenomena. But as my argument on the factors hindering our ability to make appropriate improvements indicates, they represent somewhat distinct challenges for those who, like me, believe change is necessary.

Briefly put, diminishing the abuses that the CIA has engaged in is an easier task than that of the use of force by the police, both intellectually and politically. Because I try hard to avoid the worst habit of pundits – calmly pointing out problems without any effort to propose solutions – I will attempt both the easy job and the harder one in my next two columns.

Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.

Twitter: BarneyFrank

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