It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly is responsible for the growing spate of police shootings, brutality and overreach that have come to dominate the news lately, whether it’s due to militarized police; the growing presence of military veterans in law enforcement; the fact that we are a society predisposed to warfare, indoctrinated through video games, reality TV shows, violent action movies and a series of endless wars that have, for younger generations, become life as they know it — or all of the above.
Whatever the reason, not a week goes by without more reports of hair-raising incidents by militarized police imbued with a take-no-prisoners attitude and a battlefield approach to the communities in which they serve.
One of the latest comes out of New Mexico, where cops pulled David Eckert over for allegedly failing to yield to a stop sign at a Wal-Mart. Suspecting that Eckert was carrying drugs because his “posture [was] erect” and “he kept his legs together,” the officers forced Eckert to undergo an anal cavity search, three enemas and a colonoscopy. No drugs were found.
And then there was the incident involving 13-year-old Andy Lopez, who was shot dead after two sheriff’s deputies saw him carrying a toy BB gun in public. Lopez was about 20 feet away from the deputies, his back turned to them, when the officers took cover behind their car and ordered him to drop the “weapon.” When Lopez turned around, toy gun in his hand, one of the officers shot him seven times.
While some critics are keen to paint these officers as bad cops hyped up on the power of their badge, I don’t subscribe to the bad cop theory.
The problem is far more pervasive, arising as it does out of America’s obsession with war and all things war-related, which is reflected in the fact that we spend more than 20 percent of the nation’s budget on the military, not including what we spend on our endless wars abroad. The U.S. also makes up nearly 80 percent of the global arms exports market, rendering us both the world’s largest manufacturer and consumer of war.
Then there’s the nation’s commitment to recycling America’s instruments of war and putting them to work here at home, thanks largely to a U.S. Department of Defense program that provides billions of dollars worth of free weapons, armored vehicles, protective clothing and other military items to law enforcement agencies.
Ohio State University’s police department recently acquired a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, a hyped up armored vehicle used on the battlefield to withstand explosive devices, land mines and other sneak attacks. The university plans to use its MRAP for crowd control at football games.
In addition to staffing police departments with ex-military personnel and equipping them with military gear, the government is also going to great lengths to train local police in military tactics. For example, civilian police train alongside military forces at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif., making full use of their weapons and equipment. The collaborated training exercises help police incorporate military techniques into their skill set, including exercises in how to clear and move up a stairway, position themselves as snipers and take aim at opposing snipers, and clear a room.
Last, but not least, there’s the overall glorification of war and violence that permeates every aspect of American society, from our foreign policy and news programs to our various modes of entertainment, including blockbuster Hollywood action movies and video games. Indeed, thanks to a collaboration between the Department of Defense and the entertainment industry, the American taxpayer is paying for what amounts to a propaganda campaign aimed at entrenching the power of the military in American society.
As Nick Turse, author of “The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives,” points out: “Today, almost everywhere you look, whether at the latest blockbuster on the big screen or what’s on much smaller screens in your own home — likely made by a defense contractor like Sony, Samsung, Panasonic or Toshiba — you’ll find the Pentagon or its corporate partners.”
Consider the recent release of “Battlefield 4,” a first-person-shooter video game that allows users to wage war against the enemy using a phalanx of military weaponry and gear, and you have the military’s core strategy for recruiting and training future soldiers, who will in turn eventually become civilian warriors — a.k.a., police officers, in the government’s war on crime.
Incredibly, the relationship between the military and the video game industry (one aspect of the military-entertainment complex) goes back decades. “America’s Army,” the first military-developed video game, was released to the public for free in 2002. It has called “a more effective recruiting tool than all other Army advertising combined” (Jeremy Hsu, author of “For the U.S. Military, Video Games Get Serious,” LiveScience, Aug. 19, 2010).
Who’s to blame for Battlefield America, as we are coming to know it — militarized police or a militarized culture? It’s a little like the chicken and the egg debate. Whichever way you look at it, whichever one came first, the end product remains the same.
Clearly, the American homeland is now ruled by a military empire. Everything our founding fathers warned against — a standing army that would see American citizens as combatants — is now the new norm. In other words, it looks like the police state is here to stay.
John Whitehead is president and founder of the Albemarle County-based Rutherford Institute, a civil-liberties organization. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. A longer version of this commentary is available at www.Rutherford.org.