In Whose America?

by Tom Engelhardt, Tom Dispatch

I never fail to be amazed — and that’s undoubtedly my failing.  I mean, if you retain a capacity for wonder you can still be awed by a sunset, but should you really be shocked that the sun is once again sinking in the West? Maybe not.

The occasion for such reflections: machine guns in my hometown. To be specific, several weeks ago, New York Police Commissioner William J. Bratton announced the formation of a new 350-officer Special Response Group (SRG). Keep in mind that New York City already has a police force of more than 34,000 — bigger, that is, than the active militaries of Austria, Bulgaria, Chad, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Kenya, Laos, Switzerland, or Zimbabwe — as well as its own “navy,” including six submersible drones.  Just another drop in an ocean of blue, the SRG will nonetheless be a squad for our times, trained in what Bratton referred to as “advanced disorder control and counterterror.”  It will also, he announced, be equipped with “extra heavy protective gear, with the long rifles and machine guns — unfortunately sometimes necessary in these instances.” And here’s where he created a little controversy in my hometown.  The squad would, Bratton added, be “designed for dealing with events like our recent protests or incidents like Mumbai or what just happened in Paris.”

Now, that was an embarrassment in liberal New York.  By mixing the recent demonstrations over the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others into the same sentence with the assault on Mumbai and the Charlie Hebdo affair in France, he seemed to be equating civil protest in the Big Apple with acts of terrorism.  Perhaps you won’t be surprised then that the very next day the police department started walking back the idea that the unit would be toting its machine guns not just to possible terror incidents but to local protests.  A day later, Bratton himself walked his comments back even further. (“I may have in my remarks or in your interpretation of my remarks confused you or confused the issue.”)  Now, it seems there will be two separate units, the SRG for counterterror patrols and a different, assumedly machine-gun-less crew for protests.

Here was what, like the sun going down in the West, shouldn’t have shocked me but did: no one thought there was any need to walk back the arming of the New York Police Department with machine guns for whatever reasons.  The retention of such weaponry should, of course, have been the last thing to shock any American in 2015.  After all, the up-armoring and militarization of the police has been an ongoing phenomenon since 9/11, even if it only received real media attention after the police, looking like an army of occupation, rolled onto the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, in response to protests over the killing of Michael Brown.

In fact, the Pentagon (and the Department of Homeland Security) had already shunted $5.1 billion worth of military equipment, much of it directly from the country’s distant battlefields — assault rifles, land-mine detectors, grenade launchers, and 94,000 of those machine guns — to local police departments around the country.  Take, for example, the various tank-like, heavily armored vehicles that have now become commonplace for police departments to possess.  (Ferguson, for instance, had a “Bearcat,” widely featured in coverage of protests there.)

Since 2013, the Pentagon has transferred for free more than 600 mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, or MRAPs, worth at least half a million dollars each and previously used in U.S. war zones, to various “qualified law enforcement agencies.” Police departments in rural areas like Walsh County, North Dakota (pop. 11,000) now have their own MRAPs, as does the campus police department at Ohio State University.  It hardly matters that these monster vehicles have few uses in a country where neither ambushes nor roadside bombs are a part of everyday life.

Post-Ferguson, a few scattered departments have actually moved to turn these useless vehicles back in.  It’s clear, however, that police forces “kitted out with Marine-issue camouflage and military-grade body armor, toting short-barreled assault rifles, and rolling around in armored vehicles” — that is, almost indistinguishable from soldiers — are now the future of American policing and there’s no walking that back.  Since Ferguson, President Obama has essentially refused to do so and Congress certainly won’t.  Despite a small uproar over the pile of military equipment being transferred to the police, there is no indication that the flow will be staunched.

When it comes to all this militarized equipment, as the president has emphasized (and the task force he appointed to look into these matters will undoubtedly reemphasize), “reform” is mainly going to be focused on “better training” in how to use it.  In other words, reform will prove to be a code word for further militarization.  And don’t count on anyone returning those 94,000 machine guns either in a country that seems to be in some kind of domestic arms race and in which toddlers now regularly find their parents’ loaded guns and wound or kill them.

How the National Security State Outlasted Its Critics

Not so long ago, that 9/11 “changed everything” seemed like the hyperbolic cliché of a past era.  From the present moment, however, it looks ever more like a sober description of what actually happened. Congratulations, that is, are due to Osama bin Laden.  Even dead and buried at sea, he deserves some credit.  He proved to be midwife to the exceedingly violent birth of a new American world.  Today, 13 years after the attacks he launched, an exceptionally healthy, well-armed teenage America is growing fast.  Under the banner of Fear and Terror that bin Laden inspired, this country has been transformed in myriad ways, even if we only half notice because we’re part of it.  And it isn’t a world much interested in walking anything back. 

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