A gun-savvy friend once gave me the following advice: "Do not own a gun you are not willing to pick up. Do not pick up a gun you are not willing to load. Do not load a gun you are not willing to carry. Do not carry a gun you are not willing to draw. Do not draw a gun you are not willing to point at a living being. Do not point a gun at a living being unless you are willing to pull the trigger. Do not pull the trigger unless you are willing to kill. In short, when you purchase a gun, accept the possibility that you will kill a living thing with it. Do not draw a line and tell yourself you will go so far and no farther, because the moment's choice to move from one step to the next can happen so quickly there is no time for reflection."
His point wasn't that guns kill people. His point was that when you sit back, and think about how you will handle a situation, you envision yourself being calm, rational, making measured decisions. But when you are frightened, or worried, or your adrenaline is high, your decision-making process is substantially changed, and escalation becomes reflex.
I'm reminded of this by the week's events in Ferguson, MO. I can genuinely believe that the cops currently lobbing tear gas and rubber bullets at unarmed protesters never intended it to be like this, that when they decided to join the police force, they intended to help people and not shoot them in the face with chemical weapons. But there has been a long relentless escalation of police force in this country, and we're seeing it today.
Especially since 9/11, there has been increased funding for police departments to buy "anti-terrorism gear." For many of them, this has translated to tanks and other 'breaching vehicles', riot gear, tear gas, and high-tech equipment, with the training to use it. Even small-town and suburban police forces have been handed ridiculous funds for tools in the fight against terrorism, and they're consistently told "If you don't spend it all, you're off the list for next year." So, they buy fancy new toys, because who doesn't like fancy new toys?
The danger of that is twofold. The first is that many of those toys are *dangerous* to the citizens they're supposed to be protecting. They introduce injury, and they escalate situations. Those escalated situations create greater fear and outrage, which makes the cops more afraid they are losing control, which means they use more force to try and regain control, which means more adrenaline and more injuries and more fear, in a rising cycle until we find ourselves at today, with state Senators being tear-gassed, peaceful demonstrators being shot with rubber bullets, and news crews being arrested, threatened, and harassed.
The other danger is slightly more subtle: it convinces local cops that they have the ability to handle situations that are far outside their capabilities, because they have the tools and the training...but no experience. Tools put the weapons in your hands, training teaches you how to use them, but *wisdom and experience* tell you when, and why, and to what extent. This week's events are a profound failure of wisdom at pretty much all levels of the Ferguson and St. Louis County law enforcement structure. There were so many chances to step off the escalation ride, and police have stepped it *up* instead.
They've gone so far that there's no way they can reasonably dial it back, so state and federal cops are being brought in, and I hope cooler heads eventually prevail.
Too often, cops are recruited and trained on the basis of being willing and able to use force to subdue. I'm not naive enough to think that the use of force is never part of a cop's job, but it is long past time to stop, and examine why the pace of escalation is so often accelerated.
It's also long past the time to ask:
Why on earth does the fifty-three person police force of a suburban town of twenty thousand people need multiple armored vehicles? What threat, exactly, did they reasonably anticipate, and why?
Because I think the reality of it is this: they didn't anticipate anything. Most of them, if asked "Who did you expect to use this on?" would probably have looked blankly at you and mumbled something about terrorists because they simply never thought that far ahead, never even considered the possibility that having those weapons would mean they'd end up where they are today.
My biggest worry with the militarization of the American police force isn't that it's a deliberate plot to suppress the population and its rights. My biggest worry is the fact that it's a reflexive escalation based in unconsidered actions, that our armaments have long since exceeded our wisdom.