Monday, February 15, 2010

The State of the Bully State

The Soft-Kill Solution: New frontiers in pain compliance by Ando Arike in the March issue of Harper's neatly summarizes the history, recent developments, and trends in crowd control. It’s a fascinating story, and one that touches on many important facets of modern society. The essential problem is this, Arike states: a time when global capitalism begins to run up against long-predicted limits to growth… 6.7 billion [people currently live] in a world of looming resource scarcities, ecological collapse, and glaring inequalities of wealth; and elites are preparing to defend their power and profits.

Stated like this, the premise may sound cynically crackpot – the author would (and most likely will) be glibly dismissed on Fox News and spin as someone that “hates America” – but the many, many facts and events referenced in the article are proof enough that the problem is a real one. Real enough, in fact, to sprout a whole industry devoted to research and development of “less-than-lethal” weapons, the description of which takes up most of the article, touching upon some of my favorite modern-era US absurdities: the enclosed and barricaded “free-speech zones” and the use of Taser-enduced electroshocks as “pain compliance”. It’s an enlightening article and one that, like the best of Harpers articles, takes an unpleasant subject or truth and provides the necessary yet disturbing big picture.

The closing paragraph of the article is telling, and provides excellent context for the subject of non-lethal crowd control, so I hope he won’t mind if I quote it in full here. He closes by pointing out that no less than four former US secretaries of defense testified before Congress against the ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention which would make the research of and use of things like “non-lethal calmative techniques” (read: spraying entire crowds with Prozac to calm them down) illegal. After noting that James Schlesinger said “The failure to use tear gas meant that the government only had recourse to the massive use of firepower to disperse the crowd,” Arike concludes:
It is striking, of course, that a former American defense official would so publicly identify with the leaders of an authoritarian Communist regime. Perhaps even more striking, though, is that the formulators of our policy of pain compliance feel so limited in their options—confronted by citizens calling for change, their only response is to seek control or death. There are many other possible responses, most of them far better attuned to the democratic ideals they espouse in other contexts. That pain compliance seems to them the best alternative to justice is an indictment not of the dreams of the protesters but of the nightmares of those who would control them.
A few follow up points: For more on the surprising acceptance of Tasers in American society despite their obvious dangers and misuses (Arike notes that “mounting evidence shows that the weapon is routinely used on people who pose little threat: those in handcuffs, in jail cells, in wheelchairs and hospital beds…”) Digby’s writing is an invaluable resource.

I should also note that I would love to link to Ando Arike's article, but Harper's only provides online copies of its magazine to its subscribers. And you really should be subcribing. It's the best magazine being published today. Top-notch investivative reporting, hysterical "state of the nation" exerpts, the infamous index, new short fiction, and an in-depth literary review section. What are you waiting for?


Anonymous said...

After I read Arike's article, I sat wondering what would be the response of demonstrators to this escalation of violence? I feared the old adage of "violence begets violence" will prove itself true.

But I started to realize the issue isn't the "less-than-lethal" but still violent weapons aren't the problem; protestors have always faced some sort of violence and responded peacefully becasue they were still allowed to be seen protesting.

No, the true issue that will increase violence is found in Arike's paragraph on page 45:

"Now new tactics were at the ready, and the antiwar movement stalled as protestors found themselves faced with fenced-off "free speech zones"; stockyard-gated "containment pens"; the denial of march permits; mass detentions; media disinformation operations; harassment and detention of legal observers and independent media; police and FBI surveilance; pre-emptive raids on lodgings and meeting places; and growing deployment of non-lethal weapons."

Notice that everything listed, except the non-lethal weapons, is the denial of protest. People will, if not allowed to gather legally and (mostly) peacefully, will gather illegally, and faced with being called a terrorist and treated as such, violently.


gibsonmeigs said...

You make an excellent point. Between the tactics and weapons Arike details, and the threat of being branded a terrorist (backed by the knowledge that being labeled as such now opens you to governmental torture), it’s a wonder that people still have the desire to protest in person.

In 2004, I was working in downtown Boston as they were getting ready for the Democratic National Convention, and saw with horror the construction of the “free speech zone” that was surrounded by 10’ tall fences and barbed wire, well out of the path that any conventioneers would actually take. I thought then that protesting under such conditions would be futile, and since then the situation’s only gotten worse.

Having said that, I wouldn’t discount human ingenuity; I suspect that protesters will continue to make themselves be heard without resorting to violence as a tool. As Stereolab sings: “If there’s been a way to build it/There will be a way to destroy it,” although I have to say that I’m not smart enough to figure out how.