What Should We Do About the Spirit of Military Violence?

Americans — and Congress — must grapple with the militia spirit that has gripped our police at home and soldiers abroad.

Just one day before 18-year-old Michael Brown was gunned down in his hometown of Ferguson, Missouri prompting protests and the local police department’s military-style crackdown, a historic document was published — one that has gone largely unnoticed.

Amnesty International’s “Left in the Dark” is a detailed report of apparent war crimes in Afghanistan committed by United States and allied Afghan forces from 2009 and 2013. As Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific Director, Richard Bennet, stated in a press release, “Thousand of Afghans have been killed or injured by U.S. forces since the invasion, but the victims and their families have little chance of redress. The U.S. military justice system almost always fails to hold its soldiers accountable for unlawful killings and other abuses.”

Such words from one of the world’s most respected non-governmental organizations would be chilling in any context, but they are words that have (quite literally) “been brought home” in the raw and naked militarism on display in Ferguson. Military junta-like images from the suburbs of St. Louis have rightly rattled the conscience of the nation, but so too should accounts of torture and killing by U.S. troops abroad.

Here is just one such account:

Qandi Agha, a former detainee held by US Special Forces in Nerkh in late 2012, spoke of the daily torture sessions he endured. “Four people beat me with cables. They tied my legs together and beat the soles of my feet with a wooden stick. They punched me in the face and kicked me. They hit my head on the floor.” He also said he was dunked in a barrel of water and given electrical shocks.

Agha said that both US and Afghan forces participated in the torture sessions. He also said that four of the eight prisoners held with him were killed while he was in US custody, including one person, Sayed Muhammed, whose killing he witnessed.

Amnesty International is not a hot-headed institution; they are not in the business of making unsubstantiated claims of criminality. When it returns from summer recess, Congress should hold immediate hearings on the AI report.

The report means one of two things: that the alleged war criminals (and perhaps those who conspired to cover up war crimes) are still active-duty military, receiving stable paychecks from the U.S. Treasury; or, that they are now veterans seeking jobs in U.S. society — including in civilian law enforcement. (The Justice Department has run federal aid programs to incentivize local police departments to hire veterans.)

Especially in light of the images that have been on full display in Ferguson, every American who values our freedom has a right and a moral responsibility to put this question to our elected officials at every level of government: Are there any civilian police officers in the United States who have either committed war crimes or aided in the military’s concealment of war crimes?

When Congress returns in September, members of both parties will be faced with a groundswell of public support for rolling back the Pentagon’s efforts to militarize our local police departments in cities like Ferguson — as well as cities like Orlando, where, in 2010, the sheriff’s SWAT team raided barbershops — yes, barbershops — for “barbering without an active license.” As reported by the Orlando Sentinel, before handcuffing barbershop employees, the police officers would enter the shops wearing face masks, a la Russian soldiers invading Ukrainian territory, with their guns drawn, and shouting obscenities at the barbershop employees.

The recent military equipment flow from the Pentagon to local police departments is receiving much attention these days, but what should be more concerning is the martial spirit that has infected a sizable number of American men in this post-9/11 era. That spirit is the root cause of the tyrannical abuses carried out by so many police departments from coast to coast.

Take a look, for example, at this video of the California Highway Patrol officer who was caught on camera savagely beating unarmed Marlene Pincock, whose attorney accurately describes the officer’s behavior as akin to someone who was “trying out for mixed martial arts”:

Then there’s the NYPD officers who swarmed unarmed Eric Garner last month (video below). They had no military equipment, yet their martial spirit is on full display. The officers placed Garner in a chokehold, which led him to plead for his life: “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” The NYPD officers, who had no cause to tackle the man in the first place, didn’t listen, and Mr. Garner died.

Let’s get real: men who are genuinely interested in protecting their communities do not behave this way: namely, treating unarmed citizens as their enemies whom they must defeat, treating American streets as battlefields.

We need to confront the grotesque proliferation of military equipment to local police departments, yes. But we also must face the grotesque proliferation of the martial spirit itself, whether it rears its ugly, tyrannical head in the faces of Afghan civilians who are tortured to death or American civilians from New York to Missouri to California who are forced to plead for their lives before being beaten and killed by U.S. police officers.

Image via Shutterstock.

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