Posts Tagged ‘Boston Marathon explosion’

If you dress police officers up as soldiers and you put them in military vehicles and you give them military weapons, they adopt a warrior mentality. We fight wars against enemies, and the enemies are the people who live in our cities—particularly in communities of color.—Thomas Nolan, criminology professor and former police officer

Should police officer Darren Wilson be held accountable for the shooting death of unarmed citizen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014?

That the police officer was white and his victim black should make no difference. In a perfect world, it would not matter. In an imperfect world such as ours, however, racism is an effective propaganda tool used by the government and the media to distract us from the real issues.

As a result, the national dialogue about the dangers of militarized, weaponized police officers being trained to act like soldiers on the battlefield, shooting first and asking questions later, has shifted into a largely unspoken debate over race wars, class perceptions and longstanding, deep-seated notions of who deserves our unquestioning loyalty and who does not.

Putting aside our prejudices, however, let’s not overlook the importance of Ferguson and this grand jury verdict. Tasked with determining whether Wilson should stand trial for Brown’s shooting, the grand jury ruled that the police officer will not face charges for the fatal shooting.

However, the greater question—whether anything will really change to rein in militarized police, police shootings, lack of accountability and oversight, and a military industrial complex with a vested interest in turning America into a war zone—remains unanswered.

Ferguson matters because it provides us with a foretaste of what is to come. It is the shot across the bow, so to speak, a warning that this is how we will all be treated if we do not tread cautiously in challenging the police state, and it won’t matter whether we’re black or white, rich or poor, Republican or Democrat. In the eyes of the corporate state, we are all the enemy.

This is the lesson of Ferguson.

Remember that in the wake of the shooting, Ferguson police officers clad in body armor, their faces covered with masks, equipped with assault rifles and snipers and riding armored vehicles, showed up in force to deal with protesters. Describing that show of force by police in Ferguson, Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, stated, “This was a military force, and they were facing down an enemy.”

A Government of Wolves book coverYes, we are the enemy. As I point out in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, since those first towers fell on 9/11, the American people have been treated like enemy combatants, to be spied on, tracked, scanned, frisked, searched, subjected to all manner of intrusions, intimidated, invaded, raided, manhandled, censored, silenced, shot at, locked up, and denied due process.

There was a moment of hope after Ferguson that perhaps things might change. Perhaps the balance would be restored between the citizenry and their supposed guardians, the police. Perhaps our elected officials would take our side for a change and oppose the militarization of the police. Perhaps warfare would take a backseat to more pressing national concerns.

That hope was short-lived.

It wasn’t long before the media moved on to other, more titillating stories. The disappearance of a University of Virginia college student and the search for her alleged abductor, the weeks-long man-hunt for an accused cop killer, the Republican electoral upset, a Rolling Stone expose on gang rapes at fraternity parties, Obama’s immigration amnesty plan, and the rape charges against Bill Cosby are just a few of the stories that have dominated the news cycle since the Ferguson standoff between police and protesters.

It wasn’t long before the American public, easily acclimated to news of government wrongdoing (case in point: the national yawn over the NSA’s ongoing domestic surveillance), ceased to be shocked, outraged or alarmed by reports of police shootings. In fact, the issue was nowhere to be found in this year’s run-up to Election Day, which was largely devoid of any pressing matters of national concern.

And with nary a hiccup, the police state marched steadily forth. In fact, aided and abetted by the citizenry’s short attention span, its easily distracted nature, and its desensitization to anything that occupies the news cycle for too long, it has been business as usual in terms of police shootings, the amassing of military weapons, and the government’s sanctioning of police misconduct. Most recently, Ohio police shot and killed a 12-year-old boy who was seen waving a toy gun at a playground.

Rubbing salt in our wounds, in the wake of Ferguson, police agencies not only continued to ramp up their military arsenals but have used them whenever possible. In fact, in anticipation of the grand jury’s ruling, St. Louis police actually purchased more equipment for its officers, including “civil disobedience equipment.”

Just a few weeks after the Ferguson showdown, law enforcement agencies took part in an $11 million manhunt in Pennsylvania for alleged cop killer Eric Frein. Without batting an eye, the news media switched from outraged “shock” over the military arsenal employed by police in Ferguson to respectful “awe” of the 48-day operation that cost taxpayers $1.4 million per week in order to carry out a round-the-clock dragnet search of an area with a 5-mile-radius.

The Frein operation brought together 1,000 officers from local, state and federal law enforcement, as well as SWAT teams and cutting edge military equipment (high-powered rifles, body armor, infrared sensors, armored trucks, helicopters and unmanned, silent surveillance blimps)—some of the very same weapons and tactics employed in Ferguson and, a year earlier, in Boston in the wake of the marathon bombing.

The manhunt was a well-timed, perfectly choreographed exercise in why Americans should welcome the police state: for our safety, of course, and to save the lives of police officers.

Opposed to any attempt to demilitarize America’s police forces, the Dept. of Homeland Security has been chanting this safety mantra in testimony before Congress: Remember 9/11. Remember Boston. Remember how unsafe the world was before police were equipped with automatic weapons, heavily armored trucks, night-vision goggles, and aircraft donated by the DHS.

Contrary to DHS rhetoric, however, militarized police—twitchy over perceived dangers, hyped up on their authority, and protected by their agencies, the legislatures and the courts—have actually made communities less safe at a time when violent crime is at an all-time low and lumberjacks, fishermen, airline pilots, roofers, construction workers, trash collectors, electricians and truck drivers all have a higher risk of on-the-job fatalities than police officers.

Moreover, as Senator Tom Coburn points out, the militarization of America’s police forces has actually “created some problems that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.” Among those problems: a rise in the use of SWAT team raids for routine law enforcement activities (averaging 80,000 a year), a rise in the use and abuse of asset forfeiture laws by police agencies, a profit-driven incentive to criminalize lawful activities and treat Americans as suspects, and a transformation of the nation’s citizenry into suspects.

Ferguson provided us with an opportunity to engage in a much-needed national dialogue over how police are trained, what authority they are given, what weaponry they are provided, and how they treat those whom they are entrusted with protecting.

Caught up in our personal politics, prejudices and class warfare, we have failed to answer that call. In so doing, we have played right into the hands of all those corporations who profit from turning America into a battlefield by selling the government mine-resistant vehicles, assault rifles, grenade launchers, and drones.

As long as we remain steeped in ignorance, there will be no reform.

As long as we remain divided by our irrational fear of each other, there will be no overhaul in the nation’s law enforcement system or institution of an oversight process whereby communities can ensure that local police departments are acting in accordance with their wishes and values.

And as long as we remain distracted by misguided loyalties to military operatives who are paid to play the part of the government’s henchmen, there will be no saving us when the events of Ferguson unfold in our own backyards.

When all is said and done, it doesn’t matter whose “side” you’re on as far as what transpired in Ferguson, whether you believe that Michael Brown was a victim or that Darren Wilson was justified in shooting first and asking questions later.

What matters is that we not allow politics and deep-rooted prejudices of any sort to divert our efforts to restore some level of safety, sanity and constitutional balance to the role that police officers play in our communities. If we fail to do so, we will have done a disservice to ourselves and every man, woman and child in this country who have become casualties of the American police state.

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“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.”—Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

Bookended by the Newtown school shootings late last year to the most recent Boston explosions, city-wide imposition of martial law and man hunt, we’ve gone from a winter of discontent, turmoil and strife to a spring of more discontent, turmoil and strife.

No one is happy—not the politicians, who want more power, more control and less oversight; not the citizenry, who want fewer taxes, fewer regulations and greater freedom; and not small business owners, who are being strangled to death by the glut of bureaucratic red-tape being directed their way. Indeed, the only two sectors that might be reasonably content with the status quo, profiting as they do from our misery, are the corporations (especially the security and military industrial complexes) and, by extension, the corporate media.

The times are definitely calling for a change, and a significant change at that, not the cosmetic pandering that passes for political and social rhetoric today. What we are grappling with is how that change will be brought about. Clearly, the political process hasn’t worked, as evidenced by the failure in recent years by both political parties and independent movements to achieve any meaningful change. Clearly, violence is also not the answer, neither on the government’s part nor on the part of disgruntled citizens. Violence only leads to more violence.

So where does this leave us?

It was exactly fifty years ago this year that Martin Luther King Jr. found himself faced with a similar dilemma. His answer to a white populace largely satisfied with the status quo and critical of his call to activism and a black citizenry hungry for equality and immediate change was what he would later refer to as “military nonviolent resistance.”

The seething stew that was racial conflict finally boiled over in 1963, with King at the helm, leading demonstrations and marches in one segregated city after another. Jailed for participating in civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama—one of the most racially segregated cities in the country at the time, King found himself on the defensive after eight prominent “liberal” Alabama clergypersons, all white, published an open letter castigating King for inciting civil disturbances through nonviolent resistance and calling on him to let the local and federal courts deal with the question of integration.

Although King rarely bothered to defend himself against his critics, he used his time behind bars to put pen to paper and refute those who not only opted to stand silently on the sidelines and do nothing in the face of injustice and oppression but found fault with any who took a more activist stance in the face of an urgent need. The result was King’s stirring “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” written on April 16, 1963.

King understood that if justice and freedom were to prevail, African-Americans could not afford to be long-suffering. Quoting U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, King wrote, “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

Action was needed immediately. In his letter, King declared:

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives in the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere in this country…. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored…. We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed…. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern…. One may well ask, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just and there are unjust laws. I would agree with Saint Augustine that “An unjust law is no law at all.”… Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust…. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law…. We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. But I am sure that if I had lived in Germany during that time I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers even though it was illegal…. It is the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively. I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will…. But as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love—“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.”… Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist—“This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist—“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love?

The word “extremist” has taken on negative connotations over the years, but it is appropriate here. When talking about the urgent need for transformative change, there can be no room for timidity or lukewarm emotions. What we need is passion and dedication and courage.

Fifty years after Martin Luther King Jr. urged Americans to stop standing on the sidelines and become extremists for love and gadflies for change, relying on militant nonviolent resistance as the means for that change, we’re in dire need of that pep talk once again, because injustice is still here. — John W. Whitehead

“Of all the tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.”—C.S. Lewis

Caught up in the televised drama of a military-style manhunt for the suspects in the Boston Marathon explosion, most Americans fail to realize that the world around them has been suddenly and jarringly shifted off its axis, that axis being the U.S. Constitution.

For those like myself who have studied emerging police states, the sight of a city placed under martial law—its citizens under house arrest (officials used the Orwellian phrase “shelter in place” to describe the mandatory lockdown), military-style helicopters equipped with thermal imaging devices buzzing the skies, tanks and armored vehicles on the streets, and snipers perched on rooftops, while thousands of black-garbed police swarmed the streets and SWAT teams carried out house-to-house searches in search of two young and seemingly unlikely bombing suspects—leaves us in a growing state of unease.

Mind you, these are no longer warning signs of a steadily encroaching police state. The police state has arrived.

Equally unnerving is the ease with which Americans welcomed the city-wide lockdown, the routine invasion of their privacy, and the dismantling of every constitutional right intended to serve as a bulwark against government abuses. Watching it unfold, I couldn’t help but think of Nazi Field Marshal Hermann Goering’s remarks during the Nuremberg trials. As Goering noted:

It is always a simple matter to drag people along whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.

As the events in Boston have made clear, it does indeed work the same in every country. The same propaganda and police state tactics that worked for Adolf Hitler 80 years ago continue to be employed with great success in a post-9/11 America.

Whatever the threat to so-called security—whether it’s rumored weapons of mass destruction, school shootings, or alleged acts of terrorism—it doesn’t take much for the American people to march in lockstep with the government’s dictates, even if it means submitting to martial law, having their homes searched, and being stripped of one’s constitutional rights at a moment’s notice.

As journalist Andrew O’Hehir observes in Salon:

In America after 9/11, we made a deal with the devil, or with Dick Cheney, which is much the same thing. We agreed to give up most of our enumerated rights and civil liberties (except for the sacrosanct Second Amendment, of course) in exchange for a lot of hyper-patriotic tough talk, the promise of “security” and the freedom to go on sitting on our asses and consuming whatever the hell we wanted to. Don’t look the other way and tell me that you signed a petition or voted for John Kerry or whatever. The fact is that whatever dignified private opinions you and I may hold, we did not do enough to stop it, and our constitutional rights are now deemed to be partial or provisional rather than absolute, do not necessarily apply to everyone, and can be revoked by the government at any time.

Particularly disheartening is the fact that Americans, consumed with the need for vengeance, seem even less concerned about protecting the rights of others, especially if those “others” happen to be of a different skin color or nationality. The public response to the manhunt, capture and subsequent treatment of brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is merely the latest example of America’s xenophobic mindset, which was also a driving force behind the roundup and detention of hundreds of Arab, South Asian and Muslim men following 9/11, internment camps that housed more than 18,000 people of Japanese ancestry during World War II, and the arrest and deportation of thousands of “radical” noncitizens during America’s first Red Scare.

Boston Marathon bomber suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Moreover, there has been little outcry over the Obama administration’s decision to deny 19-year-old U.S. citizen Dzhokhar Tsarnaev his due process rights and treat him as an enemy combatant, first off by interrogating him without reading him his Miranda rights (“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law…”).

Presently, under the public safety exception to the Miranda rule, if law enforcement agents believe a suspect has information that might reduce a substantial threat, they can wait to give the Miranda warning. For years now, however, the Obama administration has been lobbying to see this exception extended to all cases involving so-called terror suspects, including American citizens. Tsarnaev’s case may prove to be the game-changer. Yet as journalist Emily Bazelon points out for Slate: “Why should I care that no one’s reading Dzhokhar Tsarnaev his Miranda rights? When the law gets bent out of shape for him, it’s easier to bend out of shape for the rest of us.”

The U.S. Supreme Court rightly recognized in its 1966 ruling in Miranda v. Arizona that police officers must advise a suspect of his/her civil rights once the suspect has been taken into custody, because the police can and often do take advantage of the fact that most Americans don’t know their rights. There have been few exceptions to the Miranda rule over the last 40 years or so, and with good reason. However, if the Obama administration is allowed to scale back the Miranda rule, especially as it applies to U.S. citizens, it would be yet another dangerous expansion of government power at the expense of citizens’ civil rights.

This continual undermining of the rules that protect civil liberties, not to mention the incessant rush to judgment by politicians, members of the media and the public, will inevitably have far-reaching consequences on a populace that not only remains ignorant about their rights but is inclined to sacrifice their liberties for phantom promises of safety.

Moments after taking Tsarnaev into custody, the Boston Police Dept. tweeted “CAPTURED!!! The hunt is over. The search is done. The terror is over. And justice has won.” Yet with Tsarnaev and his brother having been charged, tried and convicted by the government, the media and the police—all without ever having stepped foot inside a courtroom—it remains to be seen whether justice has indeed won.

The lesson for the rest of us is this: once a free people allows the government to make inroads into their freedoms or uses those same freedoms as bargaining chips for security, it quickly becomes a slippery slope to outright tyranny. And it doesn’t really matter whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican at the helm, because the bureaucratic mindset on both sides of the aisle now seems to embody the same philosophy of authoritarian government. Increasingly, those on the left who once hailed Barack Obama as the antidote for restoring the numerous civil liberties that were lost or undermined as a result of Bush-era policies are finding themselves forced to acknowledge that threats to civil liberties are worse under Obama.

Clearly, the outlook for civil liberties under Obama grows bleaker by the day, from his embrace of indefinite detention for U.S. citizens and drone kill lists to warrantless surveillance of phone, email and internet communications, and prosecutions of government whistleblowers. Most recently, capitalizing on the nation’s heightened emotions, confusion and fear, government officials used the Boston Marathon tragedy as a means of extending the reach of the police state, starting with the House of Representatives’ overwhelming passage of the controversial Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), which opens the door to greater internet surveillance by the government. 

House of Representatives passes CISPA in the wake of Boston Marathon explosions.

These troubling developments are the outward manifestations of an inner, philosophical shift underway in how the government views not only the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, but “we the people,” as well. What this reflects is a move away from a government bound by the rule of law to one that seeks total control through the imposition of its own self-serving laws on the populace.

All the while, the American people remain largely oblivious to the looming threats to their freedoms, eager to be persuaded that the government can solve the problems that plague us—whether it be terrorism, an economic depression, an environmental disaster or even a flu epidemic. Yet having bought into the false notion that the government can ensure not only our safety but our happiness and will take care of us from cradle to grave—that is, from daycare centers to nursing homes, we have in actuality allowed ourselves to be bridled and turned into slaves at the bidding of a government that cares little for our freedoms or our happiness. — John W. Whitehead

“The success of a terrorist operation depends almost entirely on the amount of publicity it receives.”—Walter Laqueur, Terrorism (1977)

Just imagine that you’re a terrorist with limited funds and you want to wreak havoc. You only have a few bombs, but you want your message broadcast to the world. How do you get the best bang for your buck? The answer is simple: turn the media into broadcasters for your acts of terrorism. (Rest assured, the politicians will also do their part to make the most of the moment and escalate a legitimate crisis into a full-blown political drama.)

As the recent terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon shows, the way for terrorists to broadcast their message to the world is to get the attention of the world media. Today’s terrorists know that they have the media at their disposal—CNN, FOX and the rest, including their online counterparts, are all at their beck and call—because today’s media outlets have 24 hours of airtime to fill, and what’s more salacious than the murder and mayhem of terrorism?

There is a symbiotic relationship between terrorism and the media—especially television media. Not long after Americans were alerted to the news of the Boston bombings, the coverage quickly escalated to a frenzied level, with every possible angle being covered, whether inane or newsworthy. From minute-by-minute updates on the bombings to reports on what the average American thinks about the bombings, there is little ground that has not already been covered mere days after the tragic event.

Take a look at CNN’s website coverage of the Boston bombings, and the stories range from a moment by moment photo sequence of moments right after the blast, to photo and video reports from eyewitnesses on the scene, as well as an interactive map and timeline tracking the explosions and their aftermath. It’s almost as if they were creating an interactive video game.

Yet does all this coverage really help us understand the tragedy any more or navigate terrorists and reduce a genuine tragedy to an entertainment spectacle?

While journalists have a responsibility to report the news accurately and honestly, they play right into the hands of the terrorists when they cross over into entertainment reporting with the kind of continuous coverage we have been experiencing with the Boston bombings.

As renowned terrorism expert Walter Laqueur writes in his book The New Terrorism (1999):

It has been said that journalists are terrorists’ best friends, because they are willing to give terrorist operations maximum exposure. This is not to say that journalists as a group are sympathetic to terrorists, although it may appear so. It simply means that violence is news, whereas peace and harmony are not. The terrorists need the media, and the media find in terrorism all the ingredients of an exciting story.

One reason terrorists use the tactics they do is to get publicity and thereby get their message across. However, in addition to providing them with a megaphone to the world, the publicity actually encourages further terrorist acts and also serves as a recruiting tool for more terrorists—whether foreign or homegrown. In other words, by shining a constant spotlight on these acts of terror, the media actually serve to spawn the system of terror. As Laqueur points out, “Terrorists have always recognized the importance of manipulating the media.” Indeed, terrorists the world over have mastered the art of marketing themselves to a sensationalism-driven media, and the media lap it up.

Ask yourselves: why do terrorists fly planes into buildings and blow up buildings at the finish line of the Boston Marathon? Do they do it to be mean? Or because they like to destroy things? Perhaps in part. But the real motivation behind these acts of urban terrorism is the attention the terrorists receive from the world media. Laqueur quotes one terrorist leader as saying, “If we put even a small bomb in a house in town, we could be certain of making the headlines in the press. But if the rural guerrilleros liquidated thirty soldiers in some village, there was just a small news item on the last page.”

As consumers of this constant barrage, we are just as guilty of fueling the feeding frenzy. With advances in technology, we now have easy and immediate access to news and entertainment wherever we are—whether at home, on our cell phones, at work on our computers or in our cars. Thus, it becomes a vicious cycle. The more we watch, the harder the media must work to keep us entertained, and the harder they must compete for our viewership. And with all those advertising dollars at stake, the television networks must compete against one another.

So what’s the solution? A large part of the responsibility rests with the news media. The answer is to report news as any other tragedy, but don’t dwell on it. Don’t turn it into an interactive video game on your website. And by all means, don’t turn it into an entertainment spectacle.

As with so many problems, if we are to have any hope of a solution, we must begin with ourselves, at home. Maybe it’s time to turn the television sets off, stop buying the political spin being sold to us through the media, and start focusing on not only who is behind these terrorist attacks, but equally important, who stands to gain from them. — John W. Whitehead