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Sunday, July 10, 2016

Dystopia now

By Dennis Hartley

In Paul Verhoven's 1987 sci-fi crime thriller, Robocop, the director and his screenwriters Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner envision a "near-future" Detroit that has become a dystopian nightmare. Vicious gangs of criminals with high-powered weapons plunder and terrorize the city with impunity.  Local law enforcement has been farmed out to a corporatized paramilitary outfit (a la Blackwater). Under-manned and out-gunned, the beat cops have become increasingly ineffectual at keeping up with the crime wave.  A gravely wounded cop becomes a guinea pig for the corporation's R & D division, which has been experimenting with robotic enhancements.
The meme reappeared in Neill Blomkamp's 2015 film Chappie. The backdrop is South Africa, but the tableau is similar. From my review:
In this outing, Blomkamp returns to his native Johannesburg (which provided the backdrop for his 2009 debut, District 9). And for the third time in a row, his story takes place in a dystopian near-future (call me Sherlock, but I’m sensing a theme). Johannesburg has become a crime-riddled hellhole, ruled by ultra-violent drug lords and roving gangs of thugs. In fact, the streets are so dangerous that the police department is reticent to put its officers on the front lines. So they do what any self-respecting police department of the dystopian near-future does…they send droids out to apprehend bad guys.
Imagine that.

Hang on, this just in...the future is now. It started Thursday, in Dallas:

Now, I'm sure we can all agree that the use of deadly force was appropriate to neutralize the Dallas shooter; as Chief Brown outlined in his CNN interview this morning, the perpetrator was barricaded in such a manner as to render direct assault too dangerous for officers, and despite 2 hours of attempted negotiation, the gunman continued to taunt and threaten the police. With five dead, seven wounded, and all practical possibilities exhausted, the standoff simply had to end.
That said, now that the smoke has cleared, this troubling precedent begs some ethical (and legal) questions. While robotic technology has been an accepted law enforcement tool for some time now, it's chiefly purposed for reconnaissance and surveillance, so officers needn't take unnecessary personal risks in precarious situations.
The robots have also proven an invaluable tool for bomb squad units as well; they are used to seek out and/or safely detonate otherwise unreachable explosive devices. Naturally, it was only a matter of time (and circumstance) where the light bulb would go off over someone's head, somewhere: "It can retrieve a bomb. It can detonate a bomb. Doesn't it stand to reason that it can deliver, then detonate a bomb?"
I'll be Captain Obvious and mention the use of drones, which have become de rigeur for facilitating this type of "special delivery" to bad guys in exotic lands. Then again, that is one of the primary missions of our military (to take out bad guys in exotic lands).  Last I checked, the primary mission of domestic law enforcement is to protect and serve.
I am aware that it's easy for me to Monday morning quarterback Chief Brown's decision. I wasn't there, and he was, amid the horror and the carnage. The buck stopped with him. He didn't have time to stand around pondering the history of social unrest in America, and/or the possible ripple effects of setting such a precedent.  I'm sure that he felt that his priority, his mission, if you will, was to do everything in his power to avoid further horror and carnage. And he did. He brought the standoff to an end, and likely saved many lives.
So why does this still trouble me? The "precedent" is the delivery system only; the bomb (C4) is eerily familiar. From my 2013 review of Let the Fire Burn, a documentary about the 1985 MOVE incident:
[MOVE leader] John Africa (an adapted surname that all followers used) was a charismatic person. He founded the group in 1972, based on an odd hodgepodge of tenets borrowed from Rastafarianism, Black Nationalism and green politics; with a Luddite view of technology (think ELF meets the Panthers...by way of the Amish). Toss in some vaguely egalitarian philosophies about communal living, and I think you're there. 
The group, which shared a town house, largely kept itself to itself (at least at first) but started to draw the attention of Philadelphia law enforcement when a number of their neighbors began expressing concern to the authorities about sanitation issues (the group built compost piles around their building using refuse and human excrement) and the distressing appearance of possible malnutrition among the children of the commune (some of the footage in the film would seem to bear out the latter claim). The city engaged in a year-long bureaucratic standoff with MOVE over their refusal to vacate, culminating in an attempted forced removal turned-gun battle with police in 1978 that left one officer dead. Nine MOVE members were convicted of 3rd-degree murder and jailed. 
The remaining members of MOVE relocated their HQ, but it didn’t take long to wear out their welcome with the new neighbors (John Africa’s strange, rambling political harangues, delivered via loudspeakers mounted outside the MOVE house certainly didn’t help). Africa and his followers began to develop a siege mentality, shuttering up all the windows and constructing a makeshift pillbox style bunker on the roof. Naturally, these actions only served to ratchet up the tension and goad local law enforcement. On May 13, 1985 it all came to a head when a heavily armed contingent of cops moved in, ostensibly to arrest MOVE members on a number of indictments. Anyone who remembers the shocking news footage knows that the day did not end well. Gunfire was exchanged after tear gas and high-pressure water hoses failed to end the standoff, so authorities decided to take a little shortcut and drop a satchel of C-4 onto the roof of the building. 11 MOVE members (including 5 children) died in the resulting inferno, which consumed 61 homes.
Apples and oranges? Yes; that was then, this is now, I totally get that. But here is the heart of the matter (and the relevancy)-as I continued:
Putting aside any debate or speculation for a moment over whether or not John Africa and his disciples were deranged criminals, or whether or not the group’s actions were self-consciously provocative or politically convoluted, one simple fact remains and bears repeating: “Someone” decided that it was a perfectly acceptable action plan, in the middle of a dense residential neighborhood (located in the City of Brotherly Love, no less) to drop a bomb on a building with children inside it. Even more appalling is the callous indifference and casual racism displayed by some of the officials and police who are seen in the film testifying before the Mayor’s investigative commission (the sole ray of light, one compassionate officer who braved crossfire to help a young boy escape the burning building, was chastised by fellow officers afterward as a “nigger lover” for his trouble).
Again, what happened in Philadelphia in 1985 and what happened in Dallas last Thursday may be dissimilar in crucial ways, yet certain elements within our sociopolitical climate that contributed greatly to both incidents remain stubbornly constant. I hate to put sci-fi writers out of work, but if we don't engage in some semblance of a civil and constructive discourse to address these core issues, all I can say is: Welcome to The Near Future.

More reviews at Den of Cinema.  This is cross-posted there is you want to comment. 

--Dennis Hartley