It is painful — and dangerous — how little we learn from history, even when it is recent history.
Just a year ago, "rape" charges spread lynch-mob hysteria on the campus of Duke University and in much of the liberal media, while professional race hustlers descended on the town of Durham, North Carolina, and mindless tribalism was stirred up by extremists in the local black community.
This year, we have all learned what a total fraud that case was, from beginning to end. Yet now we see a similar outburst of mindless tribalism and another attempt at mob rule, promoted by such veterans of last year's hysteria as Jesse Jackson.
This time the scene is in Jena, Louisiana. The issue is the prosecution of a black high school student accused of stomping on an unconscious white student — and the lack of criminal prosecution of white students who hung a noose on a tree, who were disciplined by the school.
Liberals' skills at moral equivalence have been so finely honed during the long years of the Cold War that they have turned this into a case of "unequal treatment," based on race — as if putting a noose on a tree is equivalent to stomping somebody who is unconscious.
The black student was found guilty but the verdict was overturned on appeal — not on grounds that he was not guilty, but on grounds that the appellate court did not think he should have been tried as an adult.
The usual legal procedure would be to try the student again, but this time not as an adult. However, the usual legal procedures are not good enough for those who have once again seized the opportunity to hype race — and to hell with questions of guilt or innocence or legal procedures.
The immediate demand of the mobs that have been mobilized around the country to descend on the small town of Jena is that the young man found guilty of a serious crime of violence should be free on bail pending a second trial.
The legal question is whether letting someone accused of such a crime go free on bail is likely to mean that he will not be around long enough for a second trial. But no one is seriously debating that.
Racial hype has replaced all rational discussion. Moreover, the Jena episode has shown that two can play the racial hype game. Neo-Nazis have published the names and home addresses of all the young blacks involved in the school incident.
The slogan "No justice, no peace" has been used to justify settling legal issues in the streets, instead of in courts of law.
Neo-Nazis have now helped demonstrate what a dangerous slogan that is, since different people have opposite ideas of what "justice" is in a given situation.
Long after the imported demonstrators have left, and the national media have lost interest, the families of the black youngsters involved in the school altercation will have to live with the knowledge that their privacy and security have both been lost in a racially polarized community, with vengeful elements.
The last thing the South needs is a return to lynch-mob justice, whatever the color of whoever is promoting it.
Back in the 1950s, when the federal courts began striking down the Jim Crow laws in the South, one of the rising demands across the country was that the discriminators and segregationists obey "the law of the land."
But, somewhere along the way, the idea also arose and spread that not everybody was supposed to obey "the law of the land."
Violations of law by people with approved victim status like minorities, or self-righteous crusaders like environmentalists, were to be met with minimal resistance — if any resistance at all — and any punishment of them beyond a wrist-slap was "over-reacting."
College campuses became bastions of the new and sanctified mob rule, provided that the mobs are from the list of groups approved as politically correct. Otherwise, even an injudicious remark could bring swift and certain punishment under "speech codes."
The politics of condoned law-breaking is part of the moral dry rot of our times. So is settling issues in the streets on the basis of race, instead of in courts on the basis of law.
To find out more about Thomas Sowell and read features by other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com. Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305. His Web site is www.tsowell.com.