There’s a joke circulating on the Internet: A grandmother overhears her 5-year-old granddaughter playing “wedding.” The wedding vows go like this: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say may be held against you. You have the right to have an attorney present. You may kiss the bride.”
One can scarcely blame the child. The state of the police state is on everyone’s mind. A large bomb has devastated Bali. The Irish peace process has collapsed. Nepal is on the verge of civil war. Ivory Coast has spontaneously ignited. Venezuela is facing massive civil unrest. Brazil’s economy is teetering dangerously. Iraqi citizens overwhelmingly pass a referendum in support of Saddam Hussein, some pricking their fingers and marking their ballots in blood. At home, Rush Limbaugh insists that war will liberate the Iraqi people, who will rise up and thank us for invading. The Pope has added five new mysteries to the saying of the rosary: the mysteries of light. Just in time for the age of darkness.
It’s a crazy world, getting crazier. People use words like matches in a dry barn. Amiri Baraka, poet laureate of New Jersey, launches himself into an ugly verbal brawl in which he conflates Ariel Sharon’s policies with all of Israel, Israel with all Jews. Harvard’s president, Lawrence Summers, launches himself into an unattractive polemic in which he conflates Sharon’s policies with all of Israel, Israel with all Jews, and thus seems able to conclude that economic boycotts protesting specific human rights abuses under Sharon’s leadership are “anti-Semitic in their effect.” Entrepreneurs operating in Muslim countries, having happily conflated the American economy with the American President, are profiting from boycotts of American products through a boost in sales of catchy alternatives like Mecca Cola and Halal Fried Chicken.
But it is Jerry Falwell, as always, who goes that extra mile, conflating Al Qaeda with all Middle Easterners with all Arabs with all Muslims, leading him to the conclusion that the prophet Mohammed was “a terrorist.” Falwell apologizes later to “law-abiding Muslim[s],” but not in time to prevent some Muslims conflating Falwell with all Christians, in turn sparking communal rioting in India that leaves at least eight dead. An Iranian cleric, apparently aspiring to more constrained models of pre-emptive strike, declares Falwell a mercenary who deserves to be taken out, “but his case should not be tied to the Christian community.”
On other fronts, a sniper is on the rampage in Washington, a tortured ghost for whom the war on terror seems not to be enough. The FBI calls in Army reconnaissance planes to try to find him. This is touted as a fair response under the circumstances, but in the process we Americans quietly witness the ultimate conflation of army and police. Given the reorganization of police power over the past year, it seems almost anticlimactic, reasonable, desirable. And given the urgency of current events, we seem to have abandoned all thought of other, less constraining alternatives. Who needs gun control, goes the popular logic, when we can have the gloriously panoptic control of the military aerially surveilling suburban shopping malls? And, hey, is it really so different from those surveillance cameras the Giuliani administration installed all over Manhattan?
Meanwhile, Rudolph Giuliani himself has been hired to reduce crime in Mexico City; he plans to follow the same formula he used in New York–arresting every violator no matter how minor, on the supposition that petty criminals are predisposed to larger crimes. It will be interesting to see how this works in Mexico City, so much of whose population is desperately poor, and so many of whom beg illegally. It will be interesting to see how much of the population ends up behind bars before some kind of crisis erupts. But let me not be a naysayer. Mexico City’s fathers are so filled with bright hope for the possibility of a turnaround that they have recently decided to outfit their street cops like cowboys, complete with large sombreros. On National Public Radio, this unusual decision is described as a measure designed to make tourists feel more comfortable.
I find this ingredient of display intriguing. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d think it wouldn’t help police morale one bit to have to walk around dressed in period costume, like gatekeepers at Disneyland. Is this “tourist comfort” factor premised on making the police presence stand out? Or is it about toning it down so Mexico doesn’t look like an armed camp? Are the police mere mercenaries for the tourism industry? And what does this imply for our new global culture? If Mexico’s getting officers in sombreros, will this mean that the NYPD gets to ride around Harlem in big hats and chaps?
But the image of the police as global urban cowboys is no laughing matter. It was a team of self-described police “cowboys” who shot Amadou Diallo, after all; it was the teach-’em-a-lesson justice of the Wild West that motivated officers to assault Abner Louima. And it was a street crimes unit under intense, at times hysterical, public pressure to make New York safe for tourism that led to the arrest and conviction of five young men in the Central Park jogger case. Those young men were convicted with coerced confessions and utterly no physical or other circumstantial evidence. The faces of those five ruined young men were conflated with the so-called “wilding” of “young black males” writ large. That in turn justified a degree of racial profiling on an unprecedented and now national scale. Only within the past few weeks has it come to public light that DNA evidence implicates a serial rapist who has confessed to committing the crime alone.
Sometimes things get so crazy that people simply cannot hear through the mass panic of the moment. As we ride out the heightened troubles of these times, as our domestic fears become conflated with international terror, let us work hard not to fall back on the models that have betrayed us so often, of cowboys, of careless verbiage and of blind faith in the culture of guns.