It was a common sight in New York City: soldiers, paramilitary or regular in origin, wearing battle fatigues and carrying assault rifles and machine guns, standing guard in various bustling points of urban interaction–train stations and bus terminals most commonly. Typically, these were deployed after some mysterious, unspecified warning would be made public by the Department of Homeland Security: threat levels had escalated to red or yellow or blue or orange (the precise spectral arrangement of this rainbow of danger always remained a little intractable to me.) As I would walk by these armed gentlemen, their guns locked and loaded–ok, perhaps not locked–looking suitably menacing to all and any evildoers, I would often wonder about the nature of the threat they were supposed to be guarding us from.
Did the Homeland Security folks imagine that an armed commando raid was going to be carried out in the heart of New York City, that a platoon of miscreants would alight from the 10:17 coming in from Hempstead, and open fire indiscriminately, scattering hand grenades as they went, and that our brave machine gun toting protectors would respond, responding with a spray of bullets their own, in these enclosed, hermetic spaces? That seemed unlikely, given the inevitable collateral damage that would result, and the known methodology of those who had thus far committed acts of terror in and against the US. (Unless, of course, you are counting the various gun-toting serial killers who go on periodic rampages in the US. But those folks aren’t terrorists, surely? Just misguided patriots.)
What did seem more likely, as I speculated about random searches in the New York subways, was that this kind of policing, complete with machine-guns and the soldiers was designed to accustom us to the presence of a militarized force as peacekeeper, protector and enforcer in our daily lives. It can search, and it can intimidate. You might engage in conversation with a beat cop, and you might even enter into a verbal dispute; you almost certainly will not do so with a black-clad figure with one hand perennially on the trigger of a high-powered munition.
We should keep these considerations in mind when we look at photographs of machine gun toting police in Ferguson, brought out to maintain ‘order’ in the wake of protests and unrest following the shooting of the unarmed Michael Brown. Under what circumstances are these guns to be deployed? Bear in mind machine-guns are classic anti-personnel weaponry, intended to set up killing fields of fire to stop an armed assault by heavily armed soldiers in its tracks. They are intended to pump hundreds and thousands of bullets quickly into a space of combat, rendering it deadly to those caught in its crossfire. Did the police envisage a situation in which a group of protesters ransacking and damaging a store, or throwing rocks at the police, would need to be treated thus? If such a situation was not envisaged, then presumably, the machine-guns were there for show: to let us know the police have them, to intimidate and suppress, and to condition us to the increasing militarization of our law and order enforcement mechanisms.
But it won’t end there, of course. Just like shootings of unarmed men by the police are now passé so too can become the use of machine guns by the police. If they are always available, always at hand, it will not take too long before some policeman, used to the idea that he is this society’s bulwark against the forces of darkness–literally-will open fire, comfortable in the knowledge that only administrative leave awaits him.
When those killings will be protested, an even greater number of machine guns will be used to police them. And so it will go.
One can only speculate about the future contours of such a charged relationship. Perhaps the citizenry will be stunned and beaten down into cowering submission, or perhaps, someday, realizing the forces arrayed against them are only bored and amused by the conventional street protest and the filed judicial complaint, those famed gigantic arsenals of privately owned weaponry in America will be deployed to refuse and resist.
PS: At various points in writing this post, I committed a Freudian typing slip, one made easier by the location of letters on my keyboard: I persistently typed in ‘machine funs’ instead of ‘machine guns.’