Violence begets violence. We’ve all become accustomed to television images of US police responding to even the most apparently minor civil disturbance with guns drawn and pointed, barking orders at suspects and bystanders alike, taking no prisoners and no chances whatsoever, because somebody, anybody, could suddenly turn violent and put them in a life-threatening situation. And it’s true, they could. But what came first, the chicken or the egg? Is America an armed society because everyone is armed to the back teeth, or is everyone in America armed to the back teeth because they live in an armed society? Do American police adopt their ‘shoot on sight’ approach because every suspect is lethally dangerous, or is the lethal danger at least in part a product of police willingness to ‘shoot on sight’?
This week we saw the bizarre spectacle of armoured vehicles and heavily armed troops parading the streets of the midwest American town of Ferguson Missouri in the wake of protests over the police shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown a week ago. On Monday Missouri Governor Jay Nixon called out the National Guard to confront the protestors in the name of “peace and order”, turning the town into a war zone.
Some may consider the response akin to cracking a wall-nut with a sledge-hammer. But it’s certainly not the first time American authorities have turned their guns on their own citizens. Many of us well remember the grim day May 1970 when, at the height of the student anti-Vietnam war protests in the US, the Ohio National Guard was called out to deal with a demonstration by unarmed college students at Kent State University. The over-enthusiastic troops opened fire on the demonstrators, firing 67 rounds over a period of 13 seconds, killing four students and wounding nine others, one of whom suffered permanent paralysis. Several of those shot were merely innocent bystanders observing the protest from a distance.
What dreadful crimes have caused the state of emergency that requires armed troops to invade the streets of Ferguson Missouri? So far the only lethal incident has been the shooting by police of an unarmed teenager, not the other way around, and from the vision we see of armed troops advancing on the protesters there’s at least a fair chance the next lethal act will also be perpetrated by an officer of the state.
Perhaps this is a timely reminder to Australian authorities that fire is not always best fought with fire. The absurdity of the vicious cycle of the current violent reaction by authorities to threatened violent reaction by demonstrators to the actual violent reaction of a police officer, apparently to feared violence from a young black teenager, would be almost laughable if not so tragically obscene. Somehow the cycle must be broken.