Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Militarization of Our Discourse

I have been following media coverage of a deadly head-on collision on Interstate 87, just a few miles from where I live.  In and of itself, the story is not remarkable.  We see more than our share of accidents on this interstate, including head-on collisions.

I initially paid attention because the head-on collision was at 7:00 a.m. and one driver was heading south in the northbound lane.  Someone reported the car stopped for a time and the driver apparently asleep.  Another driver reported he had seen the suspect car turn around, apparently making a conscious choice to head in the wrong direction.

I was talking to the owner of a local wine store, and he said it was devilishly difficult to make that wrong turn, especially during rush hour.  One had to cross a concrete medium to get to the other side. The wine guy, who rides a motorcycle, suggested such a maneuver was unlikely to happen by chance.

A narrative began to take form through television, print and online.  The wrong-way driver was a police officer. He was also an Army veteran, having served in Bosnia and the Middle East.  He was a cop in the Bronx with the New York City Police Department.  Up to this point, there was only passing mention of the other fatality, except that he lived in the neighborhood, about ten miles from where the other driver resided.  We would eventually learn that he was a cook at a local Catholic college. 

The only television interviews I saw—and perhaps the only ones available--were with the police officer’s family.  The first I saw showed their understandable grief and anguish.  In later interviews, while there was no less grief, a clearer narrative began to form.  The dead man was “sleep-deprived.”  He was working overtime because his girlfriend was pregnant, and he wanted to be financially ready when the baby arrived.  During the various interviews, a young man said something to the effect that it definitely wasn’t a suicide.

None of this is remarkable in itself.  We understand that a grieving family wants to have a sustaining narrative they can live with.  And we just don’t know much.  Both men died from blunt force trauma. The toxicology reports won’t be available for two months.  Police report there was no evidence of drugs or alcohol at the scene.

My first thought when hearing about the accident and knowing the terrain very well, was that it must have been deliberate.  Understandably, this kind of conjecture, without any proof, is not ready for prime time.  But people in the community were talking about this possibility.

From a journalistic perspective, I found the media narrative a little uneven from the very beginning.  There was very little reporting about the actual naturalistic detail of the accident and the decisions that set it in motion.  There was little of the old-fashioned cause and effect.  Rather, most reports seemed to begin with the fact that the driver at “fault” was a veteran who served in the Middle East.  That fact was followed by the other fact that the man was also a police officer.  Now add this to the family’s narrative about workload, lack of sleep, concern about an unborn child and we have a rather sympathetic story about a young man who, according to the information we have to date, made a determined effort to head in the wrong direction and kill another man.  We can argue the motives but there is no disputing the deaths.

Let me be clear.  The forensics will fill in some of the remaining gaps.  I am more interested here in the storyline, the semantic froth and the verbal associations that too often kick in when we hear the words veteran, police office, father-to-be and the like.  The associations readily come to mind: honorable, disciplined, and someone in service to the community and nation.  I live in the shadow of New York and listen attentively to the police being routinely referred to as the Finest, always in capital letters.  If there is truth in these acclamations, there is also hubris.

After the shooting death in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent unrest, we are hearing a lot about the militarization of America’s police departments with an estimated 400 nationwide indiscriminately awarded heavy equipment and automatic weapons that were used or intended for use in Iraq and Afghanistan.  These include: grenade launchers, automatic weapons, night-vision goggles and armored vehicles that are mine-resistant and ideal for protecting against ambushes.  We should be concerned about the militarization of our police departments because there is more at stake than bringing home the political bacon.  The September 2014 issue of The Atlantic Magazine provides an interesting perspective of how America is becoming a police state and explores the role of local authorities in this dynamic.  This is not a case of Big Brother, per se.  It’s a much more pervasive form of Big Little Brother, replete with local accents.

But we should also be concerned about the “militarization” of our language, immediately putting anything associated with the police, military, terrorism task forces, border patrols, and the like in the same box that holds platitudes about our patriotism, righteousness and exceptionalism.   Our War on Terror has also become a War on Language where reports, inferences and judgments—our semantic intelligence at work--are mixed together in a palatable political stew, dumbing us down, dumbing the country’s discourse down, and making it easier for us to wage a highly questionable war in Iraq and to “nation-build” in Afghanistan, demonstrating American hubris and simplemindedness at its best.  America’s rabid international behavior since 9/11 is as much a failure of language as it is of politics.  The just-announced war on ISIS smacks of the same grammar, inverted and unbelievable.

President Obama is criticized for wearing a tan suit during a news conference and for being cautious about committing American military forces in the Middle East, as if we are in some “King of the Castle” kid’s game.  The psychologist Carl Jung writes in The Undiscovered Self: “Insight that dawns slowly seems to me to have more lasting effect than a fitful idealism, which is unlikely to hold out for long.”  Unfortunately, this sentiment is currently out-of-vogue and so un-American.   

I come from a large family of police officers, veterans and active duty personnel who have served our time.  We’ve put in our collective half-century of military service since Vietnam.  I recall my four years in the Navy with appreciation and necessary understatement.   Anyone who has served understands the shadow side of our armed forces, and the subliminal echoes of Catch-22 that will always resonate in the ranks where mere humans serve.   I touch on some of these Navy treats in my new novel USS Bunker Kills: A Sea Story.

America loves its sea stories.

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