Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Difference Between a Gun and a Tank

No, that's not the beginning of a joke.  There are differences between guns and tanks, and there are similarities.  And they are on a continuum that costs not just millions of taxpayer dollars, but trust between citizens and government, and in far too many cases, lives.

I remember when the nation first heard about S.W.A.T.  Presumable, these dudes were well trained, cool-headed (and good-looking) heroes that assessed the need for force after all other options had been considered, then proceeded to save the lives of innocent people being held hostage by the truly bad bad guys.  I recall a gripping book by Ed McBain and a TV series.  And the glamour of it all continued to evolve over the years.  While violence across the country has diminished, the fear of violence has grown, feeding the desire for bigger and tougher police forces, bigger and better armed S.W.A.T. teams.

And the problem becomes, "If all you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail."  Police are all armed with high powered weapons, and come to expect that any encounter with a civilian could be a deadly one.  Not too many years ago, tasers became the new toy on the block, and before that, pepper spray.  Because they are considered the "safe" alternative, what we found was that they were used not just more indiscriminately, but with abandon.  Peaceful demonstrators, the mentally ill, and just about anyone an officer (or other official, or even non-officials) thought to be a threat, came away hurt, and sometimes lethally.  No, it doesn't take a gun, but you might ask George Zimmerman:  it's always easier with a gun.

Here in South Carolina, we celebrated Columbia's acquisition of the military grade armored vehicle -- the tank -- that cost taxpayers $658,000.  Other than showing it off in parades, only the police chief that requisitioned that and other military grade equipment could imagine a practical use.  In fact, Sheriff Leon Lott foresees such equipment being used in shoot-outs with the bad guys.  Just like on TV.

He calls it "The Peacemaker."

Radley Balko in The Rise of the Warrior Cop, writes about how insidious these weapons of war have become since 9/11.  Every home town thinks they need tactical weapons and Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles, happily called MRAPS, for that distant possibility of the terrorist invasion.  Down here in the South, some of our more wild-eyed legislators like to think we citizens might could use them when the feds try to take over.

Back in Richland County, Sheriff Lot paints his tank "U.N. Blue" and sets it in parking lots, at fairs and parades, just to let us all know that it is citizen friendly.  Get us used to seeing it around.  Let the kids climb up in it like they do on the firetrucks.  But in fact, more and more, those big weapons are being used on citizens for suspected crimes like possession of marijuana and illegal poker games.  Homes smashed into, pets shot, neighborhoods traumatized, because those hammers just need to find some nails.  Or, as Mark Frauenfelder of BoingBoing says:

Don't even think about running an illegal bingo game in Richland County, South Carolina. 

After the August, 2014, Ferguson shooting and the military response to protests, Richland County, South Carolina's Sheriff Lott pointed out on the one hand that "his department aims to maintain trust and transparency with the community;" on the other hand,
While Lott said the militarized response of the police in Ferguson was not the thing to do, he said the Richland County Sheriff’s Department owns every piece of equipment – for land, sea and air – that has been seen in response to the protests and looting in Ferguson.
So in other words, as long as he displays his officers in their tactical body armor and his MRAP and assault weapons at churches and fairs, we should feel confident that all this military equipment is going to be used to protect us.  And I am afraid that in America in the 21st century, that deluded attitude has been accepted.  We've become extras in a Die Hard movie, sans Bruce Willis and wisecracks, waving flags as we wait for the parade, excited by the big blue tank, just before the violence begins.

And some of us are fighting this treacherous wave, because we know if an officer of the peace can shoot an unarmed man reaching for his driver's license for a seat belt violation, an undertrained and unnecessary S.W.A.T. team will someday be more than willing to assume the need to use those big old expensive weapons in a neighborhood like yours.

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