Sunday, November 25, 2007

Don't Tase ANYONE, Bro!

In more innocent days, when "homeland" was immigrant-speak and the World Trade Center towers were merely eyesores, most of us welcomed the taser into the arsenal of law enforcement. At last, police officers would have a non-lethal method for subduing the dangerous, the unbalanced, and the drug-crazed. Electric shock was surely unpleasant, we reasoned, but it lacked the bullet's capacity for rending vital internal organs or the Billy club's facility for crushing skulls. We thus pronounced the taser a win-win high-tech solution to crime fighting, tailor-made for the 1990s.

As so often happens, Americans focused on ends rather than means. We eagerly embraced what we assumed to be a new, life-saving technology. Thus enamored with our own humanitarianism, we spent little time contemplating the fact that the purpose of the taser itself is to inflict unbearable pain. We had, despite our best intentions, endorsed an instrument of at least short-term torture.

The barbarism of the past seven years has put a strain on our once-unanimous rejection of torture. No longer do we debate whether, but rather how much, or how long, or how excruciating. A society that can entertain ambivalence about waterboarding is not likely to flinch at the sight of a little street-level shock therapy. Hardened by nearly a decade of brutality, we even made a national joke of the University of Florida student who received a brief taste of electrocution when police removed him from a speech by Senator John Kerry. Don't tase me, bro! People downloaded it to use as their cell phone ringer. Ha ha ha!

The young man in Gainesville may have been overly dramatic in his pronouncements, but his screams of pain were all too real. He did not physically assault the police officers. He did not threaten anyone with harm. He was simply obnoxious and disobedient. And then he was tasered.

The Florida incident should have been a watershed event. We were promised—we promised ourselves—that this new technology would be, like the revolver, a last resort, employed only under the direst of circumstances. In this case, however, the electric shock was delivered as a matter of convenience, the easiest and most efficient way to deal with a troublemaker. A line had surely been crossed.

Except, of course, that the boundary had already been publicly breached several weeks earlier in the UCLA library. There was momentary outrage then, too, but other shiny objects demanded our attention and we soon forgot. And now it has happened again, captured by a police cruiser's dash cam on a remote freeway in Utah.

But, really, it hasn't happened again. It probably happens all the time, but we are only permitted to observe it when cell phone cameras are nearby or when a highway patrolman temporarily forgets that his own vehicle bears silent witness. There are, in all likelihood, hundreds of victims of elective taserings whose screams will remain forever unrecorded, never destined to become some hipster's callous ring tone.

I don't know why it never occurred to us, as we were blissfully paving the road to Hell, that the taser would become a weapon of first, rather than last, resort. It is quick and efficient, and it requires no heavy lifting. It is, indeed, the very opposite of the handgun: it can be employed thoughtlessly and without regard for consequences. It eliminates the need to argue, to reason, or to take a load of crap off some mouthy speeder in the middle of the desert.

It also turns out, on occasion, to be more lethal than advertised. But even if it never took a single life, the taser would still rank among the worst law enforcement innovations of the past quarter century. The thing about the gun and even the stick is that they are not easy solutions. They're messy and they require follow-up reports and interviews with internal affairs. No sane officer would ever have beaten that kid in Florida with a Billy club, much less fired a bullet into his body. Not with everyone watching.

But even if police reserved the taser for only the most serious confrontations, it would still be unacceptable. The deliberate infliction of extreme pain is simply not a valid tool of law enforcement in a civilized society. We once understood things like that. It used to be the way we distinguished ourselves from the Communists and all the other bad guys in the world. They were brutes who never thought twice about torturing their citizens.

But America doesn't torture. Our president said so.

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