John Whitehead's Commentary
Who’s to Blame for Battlefield America? Is It Militarized Police or the Militarized Culture?
“It felt like I was in a big video game. It didn’t even faze me, shooting back. It was just natural instinct. Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!”— Sgt. Sinque Swales, reflecting on a firefight in Iraq
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.
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 parking lot. 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.
In Iowa, police shot a teenager who had stolen his father’s work truck in a fit of anger and led cops on a wild car chase that ended on a college campus. When 19-year-old Tyler Comstock refused orders to turn off the car despite having stopped, revving the engine instead, police officer Adam McPherson fired six shots into the truck, two of which hit Comstock. Members of the community are demanding to know why less lethal force was not used, especially after a police dispatcher suggested the officers call off the chase.
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—Erick Gelhaus, a 24-year veteran of the force—shot him seven times. A field training officer for new recruits and a firing range instructor, Gelhaus seems to subscribe to the philosophy that an officer should ensure their own safety at all costs. As Gelhaus wrote in a 2008 article for S.W.A.T. magazine:
Today is the day you may need to kill someone in order to go home. If you cannot turn on the “mean gene” for yourself, who will? If you find yourself in an ambush, in the kill zone, you need to turn on that mean gene. Taking some kind of action - any kind of action - is critical. If you shut down (physically, psychologically, or both) and stay in the kill zone, bad things will happen to you. You must take some kind of action.
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, as I explain in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, 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% 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% 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 (MRAP), 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. Indiana University is also in line for an MRAP, as well as dozens of police departments across the country.
Keep in mind, once acquired, this military equipment which is beyond the budget and scope of most communities finds itself put to all manner of uses by local law enforcement agencies under the rationale that “if we have it, we might as well use it”—the same rationale, by the way, used with deadly results to justify assigning SWAT teams to carry out routine law enforcement work such as delivering a warrant.
In much the same way that community police departments have been finding homes for retired military equipment, they’re also providing jobs for returning military personnel. As PoliceLink reports: “As the competition for coveted law enforcement positions increases throughout the country, police and federal recruiters have the luxury of picking and choosing the absolute best and brightest individuals. More often than not, police chiefs, sheriffs, and recruiters are turning to military veterans to fill these positions as they staff the next wave of warriors in the war on crime.”
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, California, making full use of their weapons and equipment. The collaborated training exercises help police incorporate military techniques into their skillset, 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. With such military training a.k.a. indoctrination in the works, it’s little wonder that police officers increasingly look upon American citizens as enemy combatants.
Even those police officers who are not formally trained in military tactics are at a minimum being given greater access to more powerful firepower. In Boston, for example, the police department is preparing to train 99 of its patrol officers in how to use semiautomatic rifles, which would become standard fare in police cruisers. “It’s almost like we’re moving away from being community policing officers to being Navy SEALs,” stated Jack Kervin, president of the Boston Police Superior Officers Federation. Indeed, as the Boston Globe reports, the Boston police have long been angling for more powerful weapons, dating back to 2009, when they “were slated to receive 200 M-16s from the US military and had planned to train dozens of patrol officers and members of specialized units such as the bomb squad and the harbor patrol to use the weapons.”
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.”
Nowhere is this indoctrination more evident than in the recent sci fi/action movie blockbuster hit Ender’s Game, in which a 10-year-old boy, seemingly training for war with battlefield simulations, is in fact waging war against enemy forces. Couple that with 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 since “become a more effective recruiting tool than all other Army advertising combined.” A main focus of the game’s producers is to get it into the hands of young, impressionable people. As Marsha Berry, executive producer of the third game in the series put it, “We wanted kids to be able to start playing at 13. If they haven't thought about the Army by the time they get to 17, it’s probably not something they’ll do.”
Taking recruitment one step further, Col. Casey Wardynski, the creator of America’s Army, now serves as superintendent for an Alabama school district with its own cyberwar curriculum, operated in partnership with the U.S. Army Cyber Command, which provides high school students with a fast-track to the army, complete with full-time mentoring by West Point. Indeed, the military’s targeting of youth, down and out due to financial crisis and dwindling education budgets, has gotten more aggressive, with military personnel establishing curriculums in high schools in order to recruit students straight out of high school and into the army.
Getting back to the question of who’s to blame for Battlefield America, as we are coming to know it, whether it’s 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.