All posts by alexkimpwr

SWAT Teams, Drugs, and the War on Terror

Serious police militarization has grown steadily in the United States since the Reagan era and continues to create controversy today. While the media often covers the negative consequences of police militarization, it often fails to address the greater causes in its connection to the War on Terror.

Police militarization refers to the equipping of police departments with military weapons and armor, including assault rifles and armored trucks. The initial movement to arm police with greater weaponry has its strongest roots in the early 1980s, when President Reagan identified illegal drugs as a threat to national security. Through his commitment to the “War on Drugs,” Reagan began a trend of harsher punishment for drug use that has more or less continued into the present day.

The War on Drugs has promoted police militarization because it represents more than a domestic issue, but a problem that involves international drug trade with more dangerous criminals. Thus, SWAT teams and armored trucks act as a protective measure against the greater threats involved in illicit drug market.

Some of the most popular controversies that have arisen are the misuse of military-like arms by police and the overuse of SWAT forces, especially in lower-income areas. These controversies have embodied themselves most recently in the displays of police weaponry in Ferguson, Missouri, and most recently, at the oil pipeline protests at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

While the media often pinpoints racial tensions and economic disparity as the causes of these issues, they fail to recognize it as a rebirth of a national containment rhetoric. In my RBA, I aim to argue that both social tensions and police militarization are effects of a larger movement to promote America’s superiority in the international realm—through the War on Terror. This parallel of military power both abroad and domestically works to enforce an “us versus them” mindset that values compliance with national norms.

Star Trek and the Nuclear Arms Space Race

In his essay on the original Star Trek series, Nicholas Evan Sarantakes covers the connection between the episode “Assignment: Earth” and the nuclear arms race in the 1960s. In this episode, the crew of the Enterprise travels back in time to the 1960s and observes the US military’s deployment of a nuclear weapon system in space. They then cross paths with a future-seeing human from a distant planet, who ultimately destroys the nuclear weapons platform in the atmosphere to prevent an outer-space arms race.

Sarantakes claims this episode demonstrates that “unless the two global superpowers of the 1960s change direction, they will take their own societies and the rest of humanity down the same path of ruin.” As demonstrated by this episode, it seems that the advancement of military technology would lead only to more options for the complete destruction of both sides; thus, the first step in reducing conflict would be to avoid new fronts for nuclear weapons altogether.

I think the unrealistic scenarios of sci-fi/fantasy writing cause people to view it more explicitly as fiction, separating it from the issues of the real world. As a result, governments and large organizations are less likely to view it as a threat, preventing efforts at censorship and suppression. Furthermore, the often-immersive experience of reading sci-fi/fantasy allows readers to see the full depth of the larger ideas involved. Readers can therefore understand the complexity of certain issues presented in the writing, which may challenge views of political and cultural issues in the real world.

I think the 2009 movie District 9 self-consciously provides a cultural critique. The movie follows a government worker working on the relocation of alien refugees to an internment camp in South Africa. The movie takes place in 1982, during the Apartheid. Thus, it makes clear the main views towards refugees and outsiders, as well as the problems that may arise from such views.

The Physical Avoidance of Fear

“Whether cities were primary targets was not the issue … the simple fact was that there was no set understanding of when an attack would come, and where it would occur … such ambiguity bolstered calls for the spatial independence of new communities from urban centres”

In this quote, Farish ties together the 1950s boom in suburbanization with the uncertainty of nuclear attacks. Because the United States picked the Japanese urban center of Hiroshima as a target, many suspected that the Soviets would do the same in the United States. Thus, large American cities became associated with fear and dread. While moving to the distant suburbs couldn’t guarantee safety from nuclear attacks, it did provide a supposedly idealized place of living disconnected from the mindset of the city.

The 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers arguably had a more amplified effect on American fears, as they occurred directly on domestic soil. However, rather than emphasizing attacks from outside, these attacks highlighted terrorist threats from within. The image of terrorists indiscriminately killing civilians raised the fear that anyone—not just the military—could be a target. This led to a persistent distress that materialized in several ways, notably though increased security measures in public places. Americans again turned to technology to provide relief, visible in x-ray machines and full-body scanners at airports. It is interesting to note that, while these devices are designed to protect against threats, they also serve as a reminder that such threats exist.

Enemies for the Sake of Purpose

In chapter three of Lugo’s Containing Unamerican Hobbies, I found it interesting that Zalmay Khalilzad explicitly cited the need for the United States to return to certain elements of the Cold War mindset. Khalilzad’s idea of a “grand strategy” included taking national leadership and finding a rival to give a sense of purpose. While most of readings made it clear that the United States has picked up many Cold War ideas after the 9/11 Attacks, I had no idea that some officials consciously did so. In fact, I find it most interesting that Khalilzad made these suggestions six years before 9/11, allowing the attacks to act as a catalyst to launch the United States into global military and economic leadership.

Iron Man: Weapons of Mass Protection

In recent years, America has adopted a national rhetoric of containment, creating a close resemblance to its culture during the Cold War. Since the 9/11 Attacks, terrorism has become the new communism, taking on the role of an evil, unpredictable force that threatens peace in America.

One instance of this Cold War ideology in today’s popular culture is the 2008 movie Iron Man. For those who haven’t seen it, Iron Man follows the American technological mastermind Tony Stark as he develops a robotic super suit. While the entire film is rife with examples of the Cold War mindset, I will focus this post on a single scene in which Stark demonstrates his Jericho Missile to the United States Army.

The scene begins with Stark’s pre-demonstration speech, in which he states that the missile will make its user both feared and respected. He claims that the best weapon is “the weapon you only have to fire once,” because “that’s how dad did it” and “that’s how America does it.”

In these opening lines, Stark establishes a militaristic “us versus them” mindset. He appeals to the Army officers by stating that the missile will allow America to visibly demonstrate its superiority to its enemies, keeping them in constant distress. Furthermore, he connects the missile to American tradition, speaking of it as an embodiment of American values.

Before firing the missile, Stark remarks that “the bad guys won’t even want to come out of their caves.” In other words, this military technology very literally keeps the faceless enemies contained within their hiding spaces. Stark keeps the identity of the enemies limited to the simple term “bad guys,” which enforces the idea that they are inherently evil – similar to the black-and-white view of communism during the Cold War.

Next, the camera cuts to the demonstration of the missile, showing a fully automated, camouflaged weapon system. Not only is the weapon hi-tech, but it also lies hidden within the terrain, reflecting the popularity of covert and unconventional warfare. As the missile approaches its target, it scatters into many smaller missiles, demonstrating that it is far from regular military technology. Again, this highlights America’s resolve to build stronger, more complex weaponry to assert its superiority over the threatening enemy.

After the missile strikes its target, Stark raises his arms at his sides, making the position of a cross. In this symbolic pose, Stark elicits an image of divinity related to his technological superweapon – not at all dissimilar to the divinity associated with the atomic bomb during the early Cold War.

From start to finish, the scene consists entirely of uniformed military men, aside from Tony Stark in his sharp, black suit. Thus, the men serve as a symbol of American might and protection. This all-male scene highlights a different aspect of American Cold War culture: the glorification of strong uniformed men. While feminism has made significant strides in the 21st century, Iron Man demonstrates the concurrent reinforcement of traditional gender roles in much of popular media.

In both words and pictures, this scene showcases the movie’s saturation with Cold War values. Through glorification of futuristic military technology and traditional gender roles, Iron Man serves as one among many examples of the reemergence of containment culture today.