When the Guardian recently revealed the existence of a clandestine interrogation and detention site run by the Chicago police department, many were shocked, but not surprised.
Apparently, the Homan Square facility has been used to detain suspects without going through the legal requirements of formally booking them, and providing them access to their lawyers.
Over the years, we have become used to horror stories of black sites and torture centres run by the CIA and the US army from Kandahar to Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo Bay. And of course, torture has been frequently outsourced to allies like Pakistan, Egypt, Morocco and Poland, to name only a few.
Read: Lahore, Ferguson & Toronto: Three sides of the same coin
But so far, American law prohibiting torture has obliged authorities to restrict such illegal detention and duress to offshore locations. However, with the increasing militarisation of police forces across America, it is possible that Homan Square is the tip of the iceberg.
As we saw at Ferguson, police now have heavy military equipment — normally used on distant battlefields — at their disposal. This is the result of a law that allows police departments to apply for, and receive, surplus army equipment.
The Chicago police department alone has received 1,700 pieces of military kit, including an armoured Humvee.
When police officers carry military-style automatic weapons and are dressed in helmets, black uniforms and bullet-proof vests, nobody should be surprised if they start behaving like soldiers at war with their own people. Soldiers, after all, are trained to kill, not persuade and patiently investigate.
Also read: Protests in US cities as troops deployed in Ferguson
In Ferguson, a young black citizen, Michael Brown, was killed by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, in broad daylight. Despite conflicting testimony, there was no evidence to suggest that the victim posed a threat to the policeman’s life.
But a grand jury, composed largely of whites, did not find grounds to prosecute. This triggered weeks of confrontation between Ferguson’s largely black citizens — joined by white activists — and the police, leading to almost daily violence. Again, this was nothing new: in 2012, 410 Americans were killed by the police in ‘justifiable homicide’ cases. Black teenagers were 21 times more likely to get shot than their white counterparts.
These figures pale into insignificance when compared with the 35,000 or so Americans killed every year in gun-related incidents. With monotonous regularity, there are incidents involving some nut with a real or imagined grievance who goes on a shooting spree. And often, there are tragedies involving toddlers who accidentally shoot their parents with pistols they are playing with.
No politician dares take on the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) to make it more difficult for Americans to get their hands on firearms that range from hunting shotguns to the most lethal automatic weapons.
Americans have become so accustomed to this daily mayhem that they think it is normal for gun-toting citizens to parade around their streets. Gun clubs teach children how to use sub-machine guns: last year, a seven-year-old accidentally killed her instructor when she was unable to control the recoil of her Uzi machine pistol.
So what is it about Americans and guns? The powerful firearm lobby insists that the Second Amendment of the constitution gives citizens the right to bear arms. Originally, this provision was designed to enable armed militias to act as a check on the state, but in this day and age, this right is clearly obsolete. Nevertheless, the NRA exploits it to block any change to the laws.
Apart from the Second Amendment, the American self-image of rugged frontier men conquering the West is a potent one. Never mind that it was the indigenous people who bore the brunt of this aggressive expansion. To this day, they remain traumatised by their displacement and their terrible suffering.
Another, darker, thread in the American story is provided by the hundreds of thousands of black African slaves shipped to work on plantations and in homes. Their emancipation and absorption into society has been a slow, painful process. Some 10 years ago, with the election of Barack Obama, the world thought the Americans had put this troubled past behind them. However, as events at Ferguson and elsewhere remind us, blacks continue to be persecuted in parts of America.
Then there is the glorification of the military: throughout its history, there has hardly been a single year in which the United States was at peace. From its revolutionary war to the many conflicts with native Americans to its unending wars in the 20th and 21st centuries, the military has been projecting American power around the world. To support the forces, books, comics and movies have shown their troops as the good guys. Violence is shown to be an effective means of imposing a Pax Americana across the globe.
Liang Qichao, a Chinese intellectual, travelled to the United States in 1902, seeking inspiration from a democracy he sought to introduce in his own country. However, what he saw appalled him, specially the treatment of blacks and of Chinese migrant workers. He noted poignantly:
“The American Declaration of Independence says that people are born free and equal. Are blacks alone not people? Alas, I now understand what is called ‘civilisation’ these days.” When he came across the lynching of blacks, Liang observed: “Had I only been told about this and not been to America myself I would not have believed that such cruel and inhuman acts could be performed in broad daylight in the twentieth century.”
Despite this troubling violence at the heart of America, I have found kindness and warmth on all my visits to the country. Clearly there are contradictions at work that are difficult for a foreigner to understand. Whatever the causes, America remains an enigma to outsiders with its call to democracy and decency while it simultaneously sets such a poor example to the world.
Published in Dawn, March 2nd, 2015
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