Creating Enemies, Defining Terror, and Justifying Anything

We are known by the enemies we keep creating. Of course, one can point almost anywhere and find barbarism, now and in the past, there and also here. The dictionary definition of “Terrorism” is “government by intimidation.” It most recently devolved in the U.S. lexicon of endless war “on terror” – since 9/11– as any violence by those the ‘patriotic’ U.S. speaker perceives as a threat to U.S. “interests” anywhere in the world. Anyone who may object to U.S. military incursions into his/her country is not a “patriot” or “freedom fighter,” but a “terrorist.” In its recent usage, the term “terrorist” has become loaded with emotional content.

The term has pretty much lost its traditional meaning. It is now so widely used to refer to anyone the speaker hates or opposes that it means little more than to designate an evil other. Someone who protests the clear cutting of old growth timber in the Northwest is now called an “eco-terrorist.” The term has simply devolved into a symbol of hatred — regardless of whether the hatred is ‘justified’ by specific behavior — especially when the speaker, as is typical, represents the interests of the global business elite. The terrorism meme has become an effective tool in maintaining endless wars by fanning the fires of hatred of the evil other. Hence, the growing number of hate crimes directed at anyone who appears to the ignorant observer to look ‘Islamic.’

Empires of Terror

So-called “non-Western cultures” have experienced localized terror for centuries. Afghans suffered British attempts to colonize and later Soviet attempts to install puppet governments. The Mujahideen fought off the Russians, ran drugs, took millions of dollars in cash delivered by CIA operatives, killed villagers and became the Taliban. The U.S. has also attempted to govern the Afghans by intimidation (and bribes) ever since its first bungled attempt to kill Osama bin Laden, and has continued to do so since killing him.

Governments everywhere are corrupt, but some have more technical ‘fire power’ while others have an unfamiliar fanaticism. Taliban brutality is more than matched by the techno-terror reigned down upon wedding parties, villages, and even “insurgents,” via CIA drones. Indiscriminant murder-at-a-distance can easily be just as brutal as by those ISIS fighters who would more directly behead innocents. But one can maintain a psychological distance from one’s own brutal acts by the lexicon of “targeting” in the detached mode of video games. A person’s willingness to invoke the term “terrorist” seems mostly based on whose side executes the terrifying acts of ruthless violence. It is also an easy means of dehumanizing the ‘object’ targeted by the killing machine’s operator. Beheading is barbaric and maybe even insane, but it is as brutally honest as it is physically direct.

What, exactly, is so special about Western culture that it’s violence escapes the label of terror? Is it merely that it perfected more powerful technologies of violence and deployed them on other cultures before anyone else? That resulted in colonialism, imperialism, and now economic ‘globalization’ – global financial domination supported by military intervention wherever thought useful to retain economic control. Is that more rational or less brutal than tribal fighters resisting U.S. invasions?

Cultural one-upmanship is pointless. Those with more power can invent and deploy more clever technologies. But remember: technology is simply a material way to do something. But, what is to be done? Well, since most money for “innovation” in technological development is spent for military purposes, death and destruction are its primary purpose. In any case, the globalized war machine continues to inflict more damage on the planet as well as its people, than any other institution – even Wall Street. But of course, Wall Street is one of the prime movers of the military-industrial-political complex and its drive for endless billions in contracts for esoteric often unworkable technologies of warfare, which cost billions to operate, and are inappropriate for the military operations they are supposed to enhance.

Justifying Terror by Creating Enemies

Does the U.S. incarcerate more people than any other nation because over the last few decades we have produced more and more evil people who must be arrested and imprisoned? The so called drug war has criminalized a huge segment of society by targeting vulnerable Black and Brown youth in neighborhoods, ignoring the white college and working classes that uses drugs at about the same rates. Is that not a form of governing by intimidation? The growing chorus of reports of police killings of Black and Brown young men on America’s streets reflects the governing of those neighborhoods by intimidation. Yet the “terrorist” meme is reserved for those others who are on the other side of the authoritarian mission of the corporate state.

The Kill Team,” a recent production of PBS’s Independent Lens, documents a platoon of U.S. soldiers some of whom participated in gratuitous killings of Afghan civilians. In their naïve boot-camp brainwashed minds, they felt the need to do what they had been trained to do: kill people. It is hard to not be stunned by the mindless dehumanization of The Other by these barely past teenage boys. Officially sanctioned night raids of civilian homes, excused by the flimsiest ‘intelligence’ are not really that different.

We know of many incidents and patterns of practice in the military from Abu Graeb to Guantanamo that are at least as irrational and brutal. Jeremy Scahill’s book, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, chronicles the covert wars of intimidation waged around the world in the name of “the War on Terror.” These wars on diverse peoples only breed resentment and hatred for those who have invaded their countries. The terrorism meme has worked as domestic propaganda, even though the intimidation of the peoples of Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and beyond, cannot salvage the empire.

Mohamedou Slahi has been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay since 2002, despite being cleared by multiple courts of any wrong doing. Even with heavy blacking out of major portions, his Guantanamo Diary reveals much more than what is widely known about the torture that goes on there. It also expresses the power of the human spirit in the face of incalculable suffering, torture, and intimidation. His enduring humanity cannot be destroyed by the terrorist meme. Can our humanity survive it too?

Death Dance: The Downward Spiral of Police-Citizen Conflict

Maybe New York Mayor De Blasio’s public statement acknowledging the problem almost everyone is aware of was the tipping point. He described having cautioned his “bi-racial” son about the dangers of interacting with a police officer in New York City. The NYPD reaction was immediate outrage and public expression of disrespect for the man with civilian authority over law enforcement. Mayors are always supposed to publicly support their police, “right or wrong.”

Well, the public light recently shined too brightly on multiple police killings of unarmed Black men and boys. The bright light of media coverage also shined on the failures of the criminal justice system to take such crimes seriously. The relationship of civilian authority over, and oversight of, police in this nation is coming under serious scrutiny. And it doesn’t look good.

Police as Political Interest Group

The role of police in society has not always been clear. Bias in favor of the powerful and persecution of the vulnerable are not new. But things are different now. The failed drug war has not failed to incarcerate large numbers of young men of color and establish a New Jim Crow.[1]  The drug war has produced a new class of economic and social outcasts. Now, most civilian police all across the nation have been ‘militarized.’ They conduct ‘drug raids’ on the homes of American “suspects,” or serve simple warrants, on the model of a military assault on a terrorist cell. Poorly trained and educated young men are enticed with powerful weaponry and other technology of war. Too many of them have had too much experience with the brutality of soldier-civilian contacts in America’s “wars of choice.” Too many are drawn to the powerful imagery of the “Warrior cop.”[2]  They see themselves as a force apart from society and its problems and they feel unfairly expected to fix things.

But more disturbing is the growing strength of the police as a political interest group. Americans too easily want to turn over civic responsibility to “the authorities.” But it gets us all in trouble. Any group or organization given too much authority will inevitably misuse it. Police are supposed to be the agent of the civilian authority of law in society, not an independent political group. That is why their militarization is a threat to the already tenuous threads of democracy we yet retain. But when an enforcement agency of civil authority becomes an interest group in itself, it becomes a direct threat to a wide range of human rights in civil society.

Disrespect for Human Life

Under conditions such as I have just described, the perceptions of persons exercising authority as law enforcement officers tend to put down the populations they are sworn to “protect and serve.” Militarization alone has that effect, easing the burden of committing violence on, or killing, other humans. The drug war and the perception of all members of vulnerable populations as the other – seen as less human, even innately ‘criminal’ – leads to a lack of human empathy.

With the exception of the elites, urban populations are generally suspected of being guilty of something. Their collective character is commonly denigrated. “Excessive force” becomes normative behavior. Until recent media coverage, it went largely unreported and unnoticed by suburban, mostly white, America. “Racial profiling,” “stop and frisk,” and high rates of police killings of unarmed young men of color, all reflect the growing disrespect for human life among some police. We do live in a society whose international policies allow extrajudicial official killings of the other around the world. The soldier’s seemingly simple freedom to kill ‘the enemy’ comes to be admired and even emulated in a culture – supported by corporate media – where violence is portrayed as the standard solution.

The Behavioral Sink

Chronic stress and unstable conditions lead to anti-social behavior, whether in rats or in humans. When highly stressful conditions produce bad behavior, the bad behavior of some stimulates bad behavior by others – it is a behavioral sink. But it’s not just overcrowding or deprived conditions that produce social pathology. Institutional corruption plays a big part, as does cultural conflict.

Today, a familiar pattern of escalating conflict expresses converging patterns of disrespect for human life that encourage violence, in both police and some citizens. Many police have little respect for the lives of young men of color – and others too. Some who protest that lack of respect show a similar disrespect for life by refusing to honor the lives of two New York City police officers and suspend their protests until after the funerals of the assassinated officers. Many officers conflate the protestors with the insane assassin. It is a behavioral sink.

Immense Need for Institutional and Cultural Reform

Primary responsibility for breaking the cycle rests with those who have the most power to do something about it. That would be “the authorities.” It won’t happen by looking to the head of a police benevolent society, who reacted to Mayor de Blasio’s unvarnished statement in the manner of a spoiled teenager. Many humane law enforcement officers are embarrassed at the kind of cold indifference to the real problem of police anti-social behavior and unjustified violence, sometimes reaching the level of lawlessness, of some fellow officers. But only when the civilian authorities in charge of the police are pressured by the public to transform police practices from the manner of gangsters to the ethical practices of true peace officers, will civil society and democracy return.

_________

1.  Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2010.
2.  Radley Balko, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces. New York: Public Affairs, Perseus Books, 2013.
3.  John B. Calhoun, “Population density and social pathology”. Scientific American (1962). 206 (3): 139–148.

The Incredible Darkness of Being…a Cop: Warrior or Peacemaker in a Dangerous World. Part III

Note: A condensed version of Part III of this series was published
in the Santa Fe New Mexican, Sunday, April 13, 2014.

It is hard to imagine, after watching the police video footage of the shooting to death of a mentally ill homeless man, James Boyd, by Albuquerque police on March 16, 2014, how that group of officers might have been trained, if at all. It seems that threatening and using violence were the only two skills they possessed. The growing paramilitary police culture would appear to dominate Albuquerque police training, behavior and leadership.

The fear among those officers was palpable – but fear of what? At least a half-dozen heavily armed, equipment laden officers confronted a disoriented man with a knife. Aggression is often a product of fear. Mr. Boyd clearly was mentally disturbed and irrational. Both he and the officers appeared confused and fearful. The officers seemed to act out some ritual of domination rather than seeking a peaceful solution to an at most marginally threatening situation. Their video reminded me of the ‘wilding’ children in Golding’s iconic novel, Lord of the Flies, pursuing “Piggy,” the victim of their bullying, who feared the “liberation into savagery” that the concealing paint on the faces of the brutal ‘tribe’ had created. I suspect that the concealing garb of today’s “warrior cops” performs a similar function. It is no secret that the gangs of Los Angeles consider the LAPD as just another rival gang. The parable of violence against civilized intentions applies equally to the conundrum of law enforcement in the U.S. today.

Increasingly externalized technological surveillance-control over civil society pervades the paramilitary trend in law enforcement that pits the “warrior cop” against an imagined enemy population. This is disturbingly analogous to the situation that U.S. armed forces have faced in Iraq and Afghanistan, where “the enemy” and civilians are indistinguishable. That always results from invading a country where ‘insurgents’ then resist occupation. Many police departments in the U.S. already frame the police-citizenry relationship as warrior-cop versus the citizen-as-enemy. The Santa Fe New Mexican editorial on March 26, 2014, got it exactly right. There should be no place for paramilitary police forces in our cities. How many of today’s police recruits are battle-scarred veterans of the traumatizing ambiguities fighting among occupied populations?  Why should failed wars of choice be a model for domestic police?

A peace officer is not a war fighter. Yet SWAT teams flourish in cities, towns, and even college campuses. They are excessively and inappropriately deployed. Over the past several decades, especially since Nixon initiated the “drug war,” the role of peace officer and its inherent civil function – keeping the peace – have steadily declined as the fantasy role of the “warrior cop” has replaced them in “law enforcement.” The infusion of funds and military equipment as rewards for petty drug arrests has crippled the peace-keeping function by corrupting police culture with militaristic ideas of combat mission and entrepreneurial drug-war profiteering – not coincidentally swelling the profits of the privatized prison industry. We have become Incarceration Nation at war with ourselves for corporate profit.

Any sane solution to institutionalized rogue police violence needs to be grounded in a serious reflection on what we can reasonably expect and ought to demand from our police officers and institutions. Clearly, we must raise our standards for both professional preparation and professional performance way above their present low levels. The APD leadership is in major denial in this regard. I have long believed that the only viable approach to the difficult position of police in society is to select candidates with extremely careful vetting, select only those with the highest personal ethics and history, require very high educational standards and provide extremely rigorous training, and once accepted offer high pay commensurate with the nature of the work and its requirements, then demand the highest standards of performance. In such a system, I suspect that many current officers would not come close to cutting it.

Effectively keeping the peace requires far more training than is provided the indiscriminately accepted recruits in New Mexico – and elsewhere. The absurdly blatant ‘citizen-as-enemy’ slant of the recently revised State Academy curriculum – shaped by one man’s twisted vision of “evil out there” – only exacerbates the problem by instilling more fear of the citizenry in unprepared officers sworn to “protect and defend” the people. Education is absent, training wholly inadequate. Peace officers should have college degrees in the social sciences, criminology, and law, and be paid accordingly. They should have years of training in a martial art such as Aikido, the Japanese martial art devoted to redirecting an assailant’s aggressive action, subduing, and disarming him/her without injury. Any officer with such skills could have subdued and disarmed James Boyd without causing anyone’s injury or death. But that would require very high standards of discipline, education, training, and compassion as strict qualifications for admission to a peace-officer profession. Such is not the case in a state and nation obsessed with violent “solutions” to all problems and with little sense of the central place of compassion in a civilized nation.

The Death of Andy Lopez and so Much More

When I arrived in Santa Rosa, an hour’s drive north of San Francisco, I wasn’t thinking about the news reports I’d read about the police killing of the thirteen year old with the toy replica of an assault rifle in that town of 160,000 a few weeks before. It had been an uneventful trip and now we were driving around the area on a balmy December day.

We stopped at the Bohemian Market in Occidental, a small nearby town in Sonoma County. There I spotted a Sonoma County Gazette, “written by readers.”  Wherever I visit, I grab a copy of the local free paper to check out the culture and economy. Lots of ads for local stores, civic announcements, festivals of all sorts, and the occasional news story in such papers give a pretty good sense of life in the area.

In the December issue of the Sonoma County Gazette, I found no less than three articles and several letters to the editor, expressing views on the police shooting of Andy Lopez — some in response to a set of articles on the event in the November issue. Some actions had already been taken in response to citizens’ concern with probable over-reaction on the officer’s part on seeing a thirteen year old with a toy gun.  One proposal was for a stonger policy on police use of deadly force.

One writer argued that the City of Santa Rosa had a use of deadly force policy that unreasonably favored the officer.  When I read the part of the policy that was quoted, it reminded me of the “stand your ground” laws recently promoted by the infamous Koch brothers and their political action  arm, ALEC, and enacted into law in about 26 states.  As is well known now, these laws have the effect of excusing the use of the deadly force of a firearm when a person ‘feels potentially threatened’ by another in a public setting.

Neither citizen nor police officer should be allowed to kill anyone on the chance that they may be “dangerous.”  A steady stream of news stories about unarmed citizens shot by uniformed officers suggests a serious defect in the credibility of law enforcement in the nation as genuine keepers of the peace.  Among the articles and letters in the Gazette, blame was found in every party, from toy manufacturer to parent, child, officers, and department policies.  Yet something remained missing.

Guns are dangerous.  Guns in the hands of some persons are far more dangerous than guns in the hands of others.  The American culture of violence further muddies the waters when guns are involved in an issue.  We confuse “training” with wisdom.  When police academy cadets are self-selected by their propensity for violence, training will not fix the problem.  Most law enforcement institutions today still do not seriously screen applicants for appropriate psychological character.  One of my university students several years ago reported that most of the cadets he knew from high school were the guys who liked to beat people up.  These are the folks who are now Los Angeles Count Sheriffs — that’s the outfit the FBI investigated over this past year documenting massive violence against inmates and visitors to the LA County Jail, before indictments were handed down by federal prosecutors; some of those charged were high ranking, suggesting the very endemic culture of violence for which the LA County Sheriffs are so famous in minority and youth communities.

Stronger use of deadly force policies, more rigorous training, civilian review boards, and full transparency in police shooting investigations are all important.  But they are not enough if you want a compassionate thoroughly disciplined police force dedicated to the safety of all people.  Unfortunately, one commentator in the Gazette is right: combat veterans are trained to kill and to dehumanize those they see as the enemy — that is their experience, their outlook, and what they do.  Their high suicide rate  results from the irreconcilability between their life actions and the human values they once held.  They should have no place in any civilian police force.  A serious psychological screening would eliminate almost all of those who have killed professionally.

I learned to shoot guns as a boy — younger than Andy Lopez when he  was  killed — but that was decades ago when the NRA was all about safety and therefore self-discipline, not about promoting the economic interests of weapons manufacturers by pushing the sale of every kind of gun to everyone.  Twenty years later I learned, through the practice of Aikido, that centered calm compassion and clarity of purpose can diffuse many situations that might otherwise explode in violence.  That is not typical of police culture.  One important way for American culture to get over its obsession with violence and with guns is to establish genuinely compassionate and highly disciplined civilian police forces.  Unfortunately, the militarization of police in America — largely through the economy of the drug war — is taking us in exactly the opposite direction.