It’s been a rough month.
Partially, this is my own doing, because I’m kind of a sucker for unpleasant knowledge. It used to be harmless fun. What happens if I drink this? Why is this substance illegal? Surely, a drop like this won’t kill me. Let’s try!
Now, I’ve transitioned into reading the news. All of it. From everywhere. What happens if I search for this? Who are these people? What does this really look like? Is it really as bad as they say?
Call it stubborn curiosity, morbid fascination, or intellectual imperative. I’m not naive, just apparently a glutton for punishment. Saying that used to be a flippant little remark. Yes, I have some deep-seated inability to enjoy happy things, and look how I surround myself with small miseries! Isn’t it adorable?
But I got burned.
In a misguided, go-straight-to-the-source attempt to learn who these ISIS/ISIL fellows are, I watched one of their recruiting/propaganda videos (no, not the one you’re thinking of–I still have some self respect) that’s been floating around on the web and, well… I know now. And no, I’m not telling you where to find it. I’m sitting here in my room, telling you what this disease feels like. If you want to know as badly as I did, go catch it. Just not from me, ok?
To say that it is violent is to call the ocean wet. And “savage” doesn’t seem to fit with the emotional calculus and professional video editing evident in its creation. It’s the kind of cold, smiling brutality that reminds the viewer (or at least the viewer who isn’t sympathetic to the cause) that the human body is just meat. It makes one’s joints ache and stomach churn. And yet, the video has a twisted kind of appeal. No matter how badly you want to look away, there’s something in it that’s carefully designed to tap into that most base of animal instincts inside each and every one of us. Militant or not, sympathetic to the cause or not, we all get a mainline boot of fight-or-flight.
But this video wasn’t designed to scare me or recruit me. This was directed toward potential allies and enemies in the Middle East. As a terror tool, the effect is obvious. Carnage–real carnage–is a terrifying thing. But as a recruitment tool, it almost seems counterintuitive. In America, our military recruitment propaganda is a lot of big ships, fast jets, and sneaky commandos sneaking places. Maybe this is because we haven’t really fought a war we needed to fight in a very long time. But we’re also a democracy, more or less, and rely on our freedom of choice: do we fight, or do we not.
In the places where ISIS is getting a foothold, however, there is often no longer a choice, but a dilemma. If you fight against ISIS, implies the video, well, see this building where guys are fighting against us, and see how we’re giving them no quarter and transforming them into these macabre piles of corpses and heads here? Yeah, they’re you and everyone you know. But if you fight for ISIS, you get to not be in that pile of corpses. See? Everyone’s happy. Well, except for those other guys, but they’re dead now, so they don’t have an opinion anymore. It’s a hell of a way to create a utopia.
This makes American dude-bro hawkishness seem downright civilized. We glorify armed men as heroes, forgetting that “greatness is based primarily on values that we abhor.” Okay, maybe a quote from a confessed spy and traitor wasn’t the best choice there, but the man had a point. If we consider ourselves to be a great nation, we need to be sure that the greatness is coming from values that we admire and would want to foster in others.
With recent, high-profile incidences of police militarization in the US, and with increased reportage of excessive force and unnecessary police violence toward unarmed citizens in places like Ferguson, MO, there is a temptation to draw connections toward the brutality seen in other places around the world. Obviously, the ISIS fanatics and our own police forces have very little in common, other than being armed and primarily male. But they also share an increasingly us-versus-them attitude.
To protect Americans from terrorism, the federal government donated surplus military equipment to local police departments across the country. How grenade launchers, automatic rifles and APCs would stop something as carefully planned and under-the-radar as the 9/11 attacks is a mystery, but it made people feel safer, so that’s good, right? Maybe not. Here’s a favorite quote of mine from HBO’s The Wire:
This drug thing, this ain’t police work. No, it ain’t. I mean, I can send any fool with a badge and a gun up on them corners and jack a crew and grab vials. But policing? I mean, you call something a war and pretty soon everybody gonna be running around acting like warriors. They gonna be running around on a damn crusade, storming corners, slapping on cuffs, racking up body counts. And when you at war, you need a fucking enemy. And pretty soon, damn near everybody on every corner is your fucking enemy. And soon the neighborhood that you’re supposed to be policing, that’s just occupied territory.
–Maj. Howard “Bunny” Colvin, Season 3, Episode 10 “Reformation”
The point of this, if not obvious, is that when you give police departments military hardware, and every small town has a tactical unit, don’t be surprised when they get tempted to use it. It also draws the line between soldiering and policing. In fact, the Posse Comitatus Act expressly forbids “military involvement in civilian affairs” unless called upon by Congress to do so, which is why military bomb disposal units, but not drone operators, can work with local law enforcement. This is largely due to the skill set that separates the military from the police. The goal of a police department is to hold a community together, whereas the goal of the military is generally to take communities apart. The militarization of police forces, and the warrior mentality that accompanies it, negates that separation and creates the situation Bunny describes, in which ordinary citizens are treated like “a fucking enemy.” It’s hard to call someone a peace officer when they’re loaded to bear with weapons of war.
We’ve had a pax per bellum mentality about a lot of things: terrorism, drugs, disease, hunger, poverty, and cancer. We do this with the erroneous confidence that through war on these things–meaning their eventual elimination–we can achieve peace. ISIS, too, wants to achieve peace through war, but what they’re searching for is ideological uniformity. Given the complexity of human nature, uniformity is a pipe dream. Even if they succeed in setting up whatever kind of society they’re trying to build, the kind of brutal intolerance for differences of opinion will eventually cause them to implode.
Of course, Ferguson isn’t Syria, and the police aren’t ISIS, but war is war: divisive and singleminded.
Peace is balance. These things are going to be with us for a very long time, and in many arenas it may serve us better to police when we can and war when we have to.