A lot has now been written about the militarization of police in this country, with debates about pros and cons of that, but the real significance of Ferguson is that it lays bare the cultural and psychological backdrop for the "new normal" around weaponry and violence in the United States. Like all wars, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have leached into our national consciousness. A policeman in full combat regalia sitting on top of an armored vehicle pointing a long-range rifle. Police in black-clad special- ops gear telling people to stay calm. Snipers. Explosive resistant Humvees.
One vet tweeted two paired photographs: one of a Ferguson policeman and one of himself during the 2003 Iraq invasion. “The gentleman on the left,” he wrote, “has more personal body armor and weaponry than I did while invading Iraq.”[i] Another vet, viewing the Ferguson police officers dressed in U.S. Marine Corps MARPAT camouflage pants clustered around a massive mine-resistant, ambush- protected vehicle, tweeted: ““We rolled lighter than that in an actual warzone.”[ii] And indeed, watching the pictures from Ferguson, it’s hard not to think of a military “shock and awe” maneuver in the heart of Bagdad, at the height of the Iraq War.
The Background Noise of War
When we go to war, the war does not just stay exported to the country we are fighting. The war comes home through the potent pictures and images that accompany our media coverage of what is happening “over there.” War creates an ambient background as we go about our daily lives: a set of images and attitudes that can be pervasive and ubiquitous, like the air we breath-- images that can create a psychological environment that feeds our tendency to armor ourselves and see others as potential enemies. American soldiers in body armor in Falluja. Brave men in Humvees in Helmond province. These images can become the unbidden stuff of our imagination.
War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning
That’s the title of a book by war correspondent Chris Hedges, in which he writes about the appeal of war to everyday citizens, and the ultimately corrosive effect that war has on a society. He observes: “The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life….purpose, meaning, a reason for living.”[iii] Hedges offers us an existential basis for the attraction to war. Biologist E.O. Wilson gives us the evolutionary rationale, showing how our species’ capacity for violence and aggression has provided us an evolutionary advantage even as it leaves us now susceptible to destroying ourselves. No wonder he refers to war as “humanity’s hereditary curse.”[iv]
Part of the curse is that war inevitably results in the creation of powerful new means of killing other people. It’s true that war brings out our patriotism, our creativity, and our willingness to sacrifice ourselves, but war also brings never-before-seen weapons of killing and destruction. World War 1 brought us tanks, aerial warfare, and gas masks. World War 2 brought us carpet bombing of cities and nuclear warfare. Iraq and Afghanistan brought us drones, improved body armor, explosive- resistant Humvees, and other weaponry for dealing with close-quarter explosive weaponry.
Which brings us to Ferguson and the oft-noted militarization of America’s police. What happens to all that weaponry when a war winds down? Well, the Department of Defense has made an enormous amount of it available to police departments across the nation, often with little training or supervision. [v] The force we unleashed on the Iraqis and Afghanis returns and, like a caged beast, lies in wait in police parking lots, and elsewhere.
Boys With Toys
Reflecting on the pictures of the Ferguson police force decked out in its combat gear, confronting an imaginary enemy of protesting citizens, I think back to my own growing up. As a young boy, I’d spend hours building forts and creating and re-creating elaborate battles, primarily the US cavalry against the Indians (as we called Native Americans back then). I mimicked the inspiring John Wayne westerns I was watching on TV. I’d fantasize about being part of the cavalry riding to the rescue, bugles calling. The appeal of this sort of heroism is intoxicating, as anyone who watches weekend football can tell you. We love to battle and triumph, and we have little patience for losers.
We see the pictures of our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and it can be a short step to want to imitate them, to be those heroes. As young boys dunk a basketball and dream of being LeBron James, so grown men can strap on body armor and pretend they are heroic soldiers doing their duty, quelling the “bad guys.” Alas, fantasy can too easily become reality, particularly when you are being provided the fantasy toys as part of your job. Next thing you know you are no longer just a cop on the beat, you are an armored warrior who, best of all, is just doing his duty. Over thirty years ago, sociologist James William Gibson traced the way a paramilitary culture had begun to take root in post- Vietnam America. He wrote about the “New War mentality,” in which an enhanced killing capacity via new technology melded with fantasies of “action and adventure” to titillate the macho in the male psyche. The result was increased levels of violence in American society. [vi] More recently, Lt. Col. David Grossman in his book “On Killing,” has identified the sophisticated psychological conditioning techniques that the armed services use to overcome the reluctance of soldiers to kill other human beings. The army has become very effective in helping people learn to kill. Grossman then goes on to show how American media use similar conditioning techniques in civilian society, a phenomenon he links to the uptick in crime, suicide bombings, and school shootings. [vii]
Listening to Veterans
Coal miners used to place canaries deep in their mines: when the build-up of toxic gases became too great, the little canary would be the first to die and the miners knew it was time to evacuate. Is Ferguson our canary, a symptom of the toxic influences from too much war? War and violence and firearms surround us—it’s the new normal. The problem of the glorification and normalization of violence, use of force, fascination with ever-bigger guns in America is a cultural issue and problem, not just a police problem.
If so, that makes the reaction of so many veterans to the situation in Ferguson so important. Some of the most vocal critics of the Ferguson Police Department’s tactics have been former army officers.[viii] One of their messages is that the more weaponry and force you inject into a tense situation, the more you escalate the chances for violence. The well- researched “weapons effect” supports this: the mere presence of weapons can increase aggressive behavior. As psychologist Leonard Berkowitz has commented, “The finger pulls the trigger, but the trigger may also be pulling the finger.”[ix]More force does not necessarily indicate more safety. Sometimes when we armor up, we decrease the chances for a peaceful resolution of a conflict. After all, armor can become a prison for those who wear it. This is often the message, too, of such groups as the Veteran’s Education Project, in which local veterans share their personal stories of war and homecoming in order to “illustrate the realities of violence and deglorify war…to promote critical thinking, dialogue and healing in our schools and communities.”[x] As we confront the ambient background of over a decade of America at war, these are worthy goals for us all to reflect on.
Sam Osherson is the author of The Stethoscope Cure, a novel about psychotherapy and the Vietnam war. He is a Professor of Psychology at the Fielding Graduate University.
[i] “War Vets Criticize Ferguson Police Tactics,” http://mashable.com/2014/08/14/war-veterans-ferguson-police/
[ii] “The Little-Covered Aspect of the Unrest in Ferguson: The Alarming Militarization of Local Police ,” http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2014/08/12/the-little-covered-aspect-of-the-unrest-in-ferguson-the-alarming-militarization-of-local-police-photos/
[iii] Hedges, C. War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, NY:Anchor, 2003, p. 3
[iv] Wilson, E.O. The Social Conquest of Earth, NY: Liveright, 2013, chapter 3
[v] “A Nation of Ferguson’s: Why America’s Police Forces Look Like Invading Armies,” Vox, Aug, 14, 2014, http://www.vox.com/2014/8/14/6003239/police-militarization-in-fer...
[vi] James William Gibson, Warrior Dreams: Paramilitary Culture in Post-Vietnam America, NY: Hill and Wang, 1994
[vii] Grossman, D. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning To Kill In War and In Society, Boston: Back Bay Books, 2009; see also, Bacevich, A., The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War, NY: Oxford, 2005.
[viii] See Mashable.com, op. cit.
[ix] Berkowitz, L., & LePage, A. (1967). Weapons as Aggression-Eliciting Stimuli. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
[x] From the mission statement of the Veterans Education Project, http://vetsed.org/