The Political Utility Of Force

The Political Utility Of Force

by digby

It looks as though the mainstream media have finally decided to take a look at tasers. CNNs report yesterday focused on the possibility of heart attack from tasering, which is obviously a problem --- since people are having heart attacks when they are tasered.

It's likely that it will be the civil courts that end up restricting the use of these weapons if it ever happens --- we're way too far down the torture road already to confront the constitutional and moral reasons why they are antithetical to a free society. But nonetheless, I do see this as a civil liberties question. I just don't believe that police should be allowed to inflict pain on citizens unless they are physically threatened themselves, period. And the evidence is overwhelming that these weapons are used far more often to force compliance in non-violent situations.

This issue may become even more controversial quite soon. This article in Harper's by Ando Arike called "The Soft-Kill Solution --- New Frontiers In Pain Compliance" (subscription only) will send a chill down your spine:

Not long ago, viewers of CBS’s 60 Minutes were treated to an intriguing bit of political theater when, in a story called “The Pentagon’s Ray Gun,” a crowd of what seemed to be angry protesters confronted a Humvee with a sinister-looking dish antenna on its roof. Waving placards that read world peace, love for all, peace not war, and, oddly, hug me, the crowd, in reality, was made up of U.S. soldiers playacting for the camera at a military base in Georgia. Shouting “Go home!” they threw what looked like tennis balls at uniformed comrades, “creating a scenario soldiers might encounter in Iraq,” explained correspondent David Martin: “angry protesters advancing on American troops, who have to choose between backing down or opening fire.” Fortunately—and this was the point of the story—there is now another option, demonstrated when the camera cut to the Humvee, where the “ray gun” operator was lining up the “protesters” in his crosshairs. Martin narrated: “He squeezes off a blast. The first shot hits them like an invisible punch. The protesters regroup, and he fires again, and again. Finally they’ve had enough. The ray gun drives them away with no harm done.” World peace would have to wait.

The article goes on to discuss the impending use of a variety of "non-lethal" pain inducing weapons by government authorities. I knew about these weapons and have written about them quite a bit. But this article gets to the rationale behind using them:

As communications advances in the years since have increasingly exposed such violence, governments have realized that the public’s perception of injury and bloodshed must be carefully managed. “Even the lawful application of force can be misrepresented to or misunderstood by the public,” warns a 1997 joint report from the Pentagon and the Justice Department.

“More than ever, the police and the military must be highly discreet when applying force.” It is a need for discretion rooted in one of the oldest fears of the ruling class—the volatility of the mob—and speaks to rising anxieties about crowd control at a time when global capitalism begins to run up against long-predicted limits to growth. Each year, some 76 million people join our current 6.7 billion in a world of looming resource scarcities, ecological collapse, and glaring inequalities of wealth; and elites are preparing to defend their power and profits. In this new era of triage, as democratic institutions and social safety nets are increasingly considered dispensable luxuries, the task of governance will be to lower the political and economic expectations of the masses without inciting fullfledged revolt. Non-lethal weapons promise to enhance what military theorists call “the political utility of force,” allowing dissent to be suppressed inconspicuously.

And here's where the taser comes in:

The next hurdle for non-lethality, as Colonel Hymes’s comments suggest,will be the introduction of socalled second-generation non-lethal weapons into everyday policing and crowd control. Although “first-generation” weapons like rubber bullets and pepper spray have gained a certain acceptance, despite their many drawbacks, exotic technologies like the Active Denial System invariably cause public alarm. Nevertheless, the trend is now away from chemical and “kinetic” weapons that rely on physical trauma and toward post-kinetic weapons that, as researchers put it, “induce behavioral modification” more discreetly. One indication that the public may come to accept these new weapons has been the successful introduction of the Taser—apparently, even the taboo on electroshock can be overcome given the proper political climate...

Originally sold as an alternative to firearms, the Taser today has become an all-purpose tool for what police call “pain compliance.” 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; schoolchildren, pregnant women, the mentally disturbed, the elderly; irate shoppers, obnoxious lawyers, argumentative drivers, nonviolent protesters—in fact, YouTube now has an entire category of videos in which people are Tasered for dubious reasons. In late 2007, public outrage flared briefly over the two most famous such videos—those of college
student Andrew Meyer “drivestunned” at a John Kerry speech, and of a distraught Polish immigrant, Robert Dziekanski, dying after repeated Taser jolts at Vancouver airport—but police and weapon were found blameless in both incidents. Strangely, YouTube’s videos may be promoting wider acceptance of the Taser; it appears that many viewers watch them for entertainment.

I have sometimes wondered if the Taser people didn't put those out themselves, just so people would become desensitized to seeing it. Certainly the news reporters who "bravely" submit themselves to it (without any threat of arrest, of course, or other violence at the hands of authorities)go a long way toward making these things seem benign.

It's all part of the great normalizing of torture in our country, a slow but steady erosion of the moral consensus that people in authority cannot force others to submit to their will using physical pain. Police brutality wasn't fought only because it caused lasting injury. Many people, after all, survived the beatings they took by police. It was determined that it was illegal for police to use pain ("excessive force") to get people to comply. Shooting people with electricity is inflicting excruciating pain and should, therefore, by definition be called excessive force. Instead, in true Orwellian fashion it's touted as a alternative to excessive force and praised for the fact that it can be used on anyone with few ill effects. Huzzah, a torture instrument that everyone loves.

What the Harper's article suggests is that this is an ongoing effort on the part of the ruling elites to normalize the use of these new weapons using a sophisticated propaganda campaign to both downplay the ugly effects of government oppression in the age of Youtube and TV, while at the same time desensitizing people to the use of these weapons by using them constantly. I have joked before that perhaps they should just implant all of us at birth with a device that could shock us from a remote location, thereby saving the authorities from even having to be in the same space. It sounds ridiculous. But when you read things like this, you have to wonder:
Taser’s distributor has announced plans for a flying drone that fires stun darts at criminal suspects or rioters.

I urge you to buy the magazine and read the whole article if you have an interest in this subject. I'm becoming more hopeful that people may wake up to what this really means to an ostensibly free people. This article is a good start.