In Defense of Privilege: Those Who Have It Need Not Suffer in The Name of 'Fairness'

Sending two credentialed lawyers to prison for firebombing a cop car would make a mockery of American meritocracy

August 6, 2020

New York magazine published on Tuesday an impassioned defense of Urooj Rahman and Colinford Mattis, the New York City "public interest" lawyers awaiting trial on charges of firebombing an empty police car, among other felonies.

"There is a version of the Rahman and Mattis story in which they are civil-rights heroes, even martyrs, instead of professionals who crossed a line," writes New York contributing editor Lisa Miller, who spoke to friends of the accused who argued that the prosecution "is far more extreme than the crime itself" and "reflects a broader right-wing crusade against people of color and the progressive left."

The author empathizes with the accused, who each face possible sentences of 45 years to life if convicted, noting that in the age of Trump, it's understandable if "some lawyers may want to embrace a more flexible definition of 'lawless.'" As Rahman said on camera before the incident, "This is the way that people show their anger and frustration. Because nothing else works."

Miller also attempts to humanize the alleged arsonists by sharing some personal details. Mattis was "a social guy, a positive force, always available to give friends a ride, always reading a book on the bus, a fashion agnostic who carried the same gray backpack he used in middle school." Rahman was "unfailingly kind, gentle, and decent" and once "gave a piece of her apartment floor in Athens, Greece ... to a queer Syrian refugee in an abusive relationship." Friends recalled a time when the environmentally obsessed Rahman "was about to come over but first sat alone in a restaurant eating sushi, rather than contribute to the convenient waste created by takeout containers."

That's all well and good, but at the end of the day, who cares? Miller is making the right argument—in favor of leniency for the accused attorneys—for all the wrong reasons. In an egregious example of lede-burying, the reader is forced to wade deep into the text before learning that Colinford Mattis "played football at boarding school, joined two eating clubs and a jockish fraternity at Princeton, and, after NYU Law, worked at Holland & Knight and Pryor Cashman, firms where first-year associates earn upwards of $150,000 a year." In case that wasn't enough, he also has a goldendoodle named "Lorde Hampton."

Rahman, meanwhile, is a lawyer who graduated from Fordham. More importantly, she has friends in high places. Salmah Rizvi, a D.C. lawyer and former intelligence officer in the Obama administration, helped secure Rahman's release by telling a U.S. district judge the accused arsonist was her "best friend" and agreed to act as a suretor for Rahman's $250,000 bail, meaning that she would be personally liable for the cost if Rahman fails to abide by the court's orders.

With great privilege comes great responsibility, but also enormous flexibility when it comes to suffering consequences for one's actions. America was founded as a capitalist meritocracy to ensure that capable, well-educated individuals could pursue greatness unrestrained by the moral and legal framework that governs the inferior masses. Great leaders such as John F. Kennedy and William J. Clinton, for example, would not have thrived as they did had they been forced to follow the "rules" of "society" in the name of "fairness."

Sending these two highly credentialed lawyers to prison for the mere act of firebombing a police car would make a mockery of American meritocracy. It would imperil the system that has allowed so many flawed individuals to succeed—in spite of their so-called "mistakes"—simply because they had privilege, fancy degrees, six-figure incomes, and high-placed connections. Do we really want to live in a society that treats people like Rahman and Mattis as ordinary criminal defendants? Pish-tosh!