Last summer my band played a Fourth of July gig at an outdoor festival in a well-heeled suburb of Atlanta. The lawn in front of us was filled with parents on picnic blankets and little kids running to and fro. The street was filled with noisy but well-behaved revelers, enjoying the rare legal opportunity to drink locally-brewed beer in public. Fireworks filled the dusk sky.
Everyone was happy.
Everyone that is, except for the company-sized contingent of heavily-armed black-clad militarized police, complete with an armored assault vehicle and automatic weapons, which surrounded the event. Especially the guy who threatened me with arrest for backing my car up to the stage without awaiting orders.
This, I realized grimly, isn’t my granddad’s America anymore…
My grandfather Carl Bauman was also a musician (saxophone). Unlike me (guitar), he was a full-time professional. Absolutely unlike me, he never played surrounded by militarized police kitted out in the latest battlefield gear, imported from America’s far-off wars.
Grandpa Carl died when I was little, and I have only vague memories. I have no idea what his politics were like. But given that he raised my father — our own liberty-minded Bob Bauman — I’m pretty sure he would not have appreciated plying his trade under such circumstances. I know I didn’t.
The odd thing is, heightened vigilance was much more appropriate during Carl Bauman’s career than now. After all, he lived at a time when America faced truly existential threats: World War II, then the early Cold War. But even then, the deployment of militarized police at a Fourth of July parade wouldn’t have made any sense. After all, the real threats came from outside the country.
Tell It to New York
There aren’t any Nazi Germanys or Soviet Unions out there to threaten us today. Instead, the threats used to justify militarized police — at least the officially-acknowledged ones — exist at two levels. There’s mass terrorism, like 9/11. Then there’s local-level terror, similar to what we’ve seen in France and Australia recently.
Neither of these threats, however, warrants the display of overwhelming force I saw last Fourth of July. Paramilitaries carrying small arms can’t stop a city-scale attack. And Paris-style terror assaults are something for which local police forces should be prepared, not expect every time people gather in public.
So why then does New York City plan to establish a new 350-officer Special Response Group (SRG) equipped with extra heavy protective gear, sniper rifles, machine guns, drones and even a small navy?
Come to think of it, why does NYPD already have more manpower than the active militaries of many sovereign nations?
Thinking of Another Threat Entirely
When NYPD Commissioner William J. Bratton announced the SRG, he said it was intended for “advanced disorder control and counterterror … for dealing with events like our recent protests or incidents like Mumbai or what just happened in Paris.” He added that “The officers will … assist us in dealing with demonstrations … terrorism, and large-scale disorder, and other so-called ‘black swan’ events.”
As some commentators quickly pointed out, this amounted to equating civil protest with acts of terrorism. Although the NYPD subsequently clarified that the SRG wouldn’t be carrying machine guns at public demonstrations, they admitted that they would be in nearby vehicles.
The bottom line is that those Americans in positions of authority over such matters, such as Commissioner Bratton, do not distinguish between legal First Amendment protest and terrorism. It’s just one big threat to “order” and “authority,” and therefore requires “similar skill sets.” And similar weapons.
Even worse, the majority of Americans — including those with otherwise admirable sentiments about “liberty” — don’t see this as a problem. That’s what really worries me.
No Soldiers Sounds Good to Me
Panama, Costa Rica, Iceland, Mauritius and a few other countries don’t have any military or paramilitary forces at all. Others, such as Uruguay, New Zealand and Ireland, have just a few thousand.
That sounds like a really good idea to me. There are countries that support ideas such as liberty, freedom of expression and the right to demonstrate peacefully without having an automatic weapon pointed at your temple should you step out of line.
I’ve lived under one trigger-happy authoritarian government already. I didn’t like it then and I don’t like it now. Fortunately, I’ve got my Plan B lined up, insuring that my family, my rights and my assets are protected.
Offshore and Asset Protection Editor