The Militarized Mind: How a Narrative Becomes a Weapon

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The militarization of the police strikes one with the immediacy of tear gas or the blunt trauma of a baton. It is, more than most things, painfully obvious. As the spell bound after 9/11 has finally unravelled in the wake of some truly indefensible crimes on the part of American police, we at least find the hopeful sight of a diverse coalition of politicians, pundits, activists, and ordinary citizens treating the issue with the seriousness it deserves.

And yet, too many seem to still speak as if police violence were sudden inclement weather, rather than a culture we all participate in. The police are not drawn from an alien population– they are us, our neighbors, our relatives, our friends. Their abuses are shockingly familiar. After all, there is a reason that civilian George Zimmerman’s murder of Trayvon Martin is mentioned in the same breath as those of young black men and women killed by police.

The militarization of the mind, and not just of uniformed police, is what makes these tragedies both possible and inevitable in our current culture. As a society, we lust not for unfettered violence for its own sake, but for violence with a specific narrative, one where the ‘good guys’ can be perfect judges and punishers, and where the ‘bad guys’ submit– preferably through death. 

Our police have license and sanction to behave as they do, but they merely act as many civilians wish they could. We do live, after all, in a society where every level of culture seems to say that violence is the answer; the first and last resort. The motif of the violent cop or federal agent who breaks the rules to catch the bad guy is a venerable one in our culture that has, of late, gone on steroids. Many video games enlist players into performative versions of the same fantasy: cut through red tape, blow up the bad guys, shove aside naysaying ninnies who whinge about rights and liberties.

Time and again, with a high definition urgency that even the jingoistic fare of the Cold War would be hard pressed to match, we glorify violence as the ultimate and most efficient solution to all our ills, limited only by the spinal will of its wielder.

On a parallel track runs all the old prejudices in a nightmarish train, distinct and discrete, but linked by the fact that most such bigotries rely on making the groups they target into indistinguishable blobs that are barely even recognizable as human.

When one combines the valorous story of the violent hero with the undertow of racist othering, say, what results is a culture where black Americans are ubiquitously cast as the quintessential “Enemy” to be defeated at all costs, with all means at one’s disposal. Per the narrative, protestations about Constitutional rights or equality are a mere smokescreen to prevent the “good guys” from doing their jobs and saving the day. Rights and laws are merely tools abused by canny no-goodniks with slick city lawyers always able to “get them off on a technicality.”

Drunk as we are on this narrative, which repeats itself again and again in popular culture and in most mainstream news media, it’s a wonder we aren’t more violent.

All the Men and Women Merely Players

George Zimmerman was not a policeman. But as a neighborhood watchman, with his own handgun and a hulking SUV to patrol in, he got to play the part of the hero. Theodore Wafer, who killed Renisha McBride, considered himself simply a red blooded American man defending his property (his castle, even) from a dark skinned intruder he admitted he was afraid of. Trayvon Martin and Renisha McBride were both forcibly cast into each man’s narrative fantasy, unto death.

Fun fact, you could enter a Bushmaster sponsored contest to get a bona fide Man Card.

Fun fact, you could enter a Bushmaster sponsored contest to get a bona fide Man Card.

In the wake of the Newtown shooting, an advert for the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle used in the mass murder emerged, suggesting none too subtly than one’s masculinity was tied to owning the gun. (The link between firearms and phallic manliness is neither new nor even a feminist insight: it’s provided us all with fertile material for well over a century). The iconography of gun culture in the US often relies on such starkly gendered imagery, whether it’s well endowed women in tight fitting shirts bearing a rifle across her bosom, or countless suggestions that owning a gun is essential to the autonomy that is the chief desideratum of Western manhood. It’s quite rare for narratives about gun ownership to deviate from the standard “man defending his property and family” story for a reason.

That the man in question is almost always presumptively white and middle class is a given. The Republican right, after all, will valorize that generic man while forcefully condemning the Black Panthers in spite of their clear enthusiasm for a liberal interpretation of the Second Amendment. That one is a “man defending his home” and the other a “thug” is telling by itself.

Indeed, one St. Louis County policeman, Dan Page, is in the national spotlight for speeches he gave at the Oathkeepers— a right wing social group for soldiers and police officers who believe in the use of coup tactics to defend against what they perceive to be the government’s violation of the U.S. Constitution. Among many other vile things, he averred that there is no such thing as rape in the military, likened Ferguson protesters to “rabid dogs” and said of domestic violence, “If you don’t like each other that much, just kill each other and get it over with.”

Race and gender were always subtexts in our culture’s celebration of violence, now more than ever.

A still grabbed from Anders Bering Breivik's manifesto video on YouTube. Breivik murdered 77 people to stop what he believed was a Muslim invasion of a Norway weakened by feminism. This particular image has enjoyed a lot of popularity, however, among a diverse group in the US as well: white nationalists, casual racists, atheists, and gun enthusiasts alike.

A still grabbed from Anders Bering Breivik’s manifesto video on YouTube. Breivik murdered 77 people to stop what he believed was a Muslim invasion of a Norway weakened by feminism. This particular image has enjoyed a lot of popularity, however, among a diverse group in the US as well: white nationalists, casual racists, atheists, and gun enthusiasts alike.

There is a reason, after all, that the overwhelming bulk of mass shootings are committed by white men— often they wish to punish the world for robbing them of their entitlements. The manifestos of such killers make for blood curdling but vital reading. In so many ways they are, with the clarity of neon signs, simply telling us all this, no great psychological deductions required. But, usually, we dismiss them as the senseless ravings of “mad men” and carry on.

All the while we fail to ask why these men– some of whom were indeed clinically depressed or suffering from other mental health problems– chose violence as their redemption.

We act as if that is a natural choice. But it isn’t. They learned the cultural significance of violence– its ultimate proof of masculinity, autonomy, virility, and strength– from all of us. When at last their various despairs dragged them into an abyss, murder shone out as their lives’ great valediction. A cleansing fire through which they would both punish the evildoers who had so wronged them, and which would end their existence on a note of pitch perfect masculinity.

That these men chose these means is neither natural nor a coincidence.

Dealing Out Death in Judgement

The punishment impulse, the inhumane vision too many of us share to act as executioner to those we judge, drives this, and completes the militarization of the mind. We lack reverence and respect for the act of punishment; instead of seeing it as a terrible responsibility best borne only by a few sober minds, we clamor and jostle to take our turn at the arcade game of justice, eager to pass sentence on bad guys and then mete out our punishment. All at our discretion, of course.

This mentality, again, is always inflected by other prejudices, which then gives it a familiarly unique shape and texture. This punishment impulse takes flight in any discussion about prison– bloody retribution is what so many of us seem to lust for with an unsettling passion– and it manifests in just about any instance of victim blaming. It’s why so many in our society are so easily distracted by any rumors or context-free social media photos of young black men and women murdered by the police, why so many rush to wag their fingers and intone “s/he was no angel.” All the while, we waste breath and ignore the core moral question: did they deserve to die?

Indeed, “he deserved to die” is the silent parenthetical to all victim-blaming of this genre. “He looked like a thug in this Facebook photo (therefore he deserved to die).” “He got in trouble at school sometimes. (therefore he deserved to die).” “He smoked pot (therefore he deserved to die).” “He might’ve shoplifted (therefore he deserved to die).” When one pronounces this silent parenthetical out loud it becomes easier to see the moral stakes with all due clarity.

This culture of death is the byproduct of our love affair with violence, which deliberately obscures the reality and finality of death. What should be seen as an absolutely shocking judgement to make on a person simply because they were “no angel” (and for Goddess’ sake, who among us is?), instead feels chillingly normal because of how ready we are to pronounce death on those deemed unworthy, as we eagerly emulate the plot of 24 or Homeland, as if life were now a great reality TV show where we could vote people we didn’t like out of existence. It deadens us to the sanctity of life so many of us claim as a value, leading to scattered cultural detritus like those ghastly memes that show the “solution” to the Middle East crisis: a map of the world with a giant crater where several countries once were.

The shocking ease with which we pronounce death sentences should indict us all.

The Myths we Live (and Die) By

It would be beyond hypocritical of me to chastise our society for simply liking violent media– I love violent video games, I grew up with Law & Order, James Bond, and Jason Bourne, and I just positively reviewed a grotesque crime novel. The issue is our relationship to such media; we want it to be true, and in the process have developed an unhealthy codependency with the myths we live by.

If we are going to confront this with the candor a cultural sickness of this scale demands, then we will have to admit that a militaristic police force playing with their toys and holding SWAT trainings to the strains of “Die, Motherfucker, Die” are merely our own dark fantasies wearing the cloak of the state. We shall also have to grapple with the toxic way that too many men are taught to seek independence, strength, and a sense of purpose, and how this seduces men into murdering each other as they jockey for position in sexism’s Dante-esque hierarchies. We will have to admit that though we all blithely claim we know the difference between fantasy and reality, we are still too well disposed to imitate the former with disastrous results.

It will be an awe-inspiring moral inventory, and long overdue.

Katherine CrossKatherine Cross is Lawful Good and damn proud; she also believes an unjust law is no law at all.

Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

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