Like Glenn, I write a lot about civil liberties, which have been at the heart of the national conversation since the beginning of the War On Terror and the expansion of the national security state. But my interest in civil liberties predates 9/11 and until then was usually pointed at the far more prosaic issues of police and prosecutorial misconduct (and the inevitable conclusions any study of those things brings to the issue of the death penalty). Nowadays, the theme of civil liberties seem to be a sub-plot to a James Bond flick rather than “To Kill A Mockingbird.” And yet, I think the two are intertwined much more closely that we think. In our apparent acceptance of torture as a legal method of interrogation, the bar of civilized official behavior has been lowered to the point where we are accepting torture in everyday life as if it’s nothing. Indeed, we are using it as a form of entertainment.
I’m speaking of the ever more common use of the Taser, an electrical device used by police and other authorities to drop its victims to the ground and coerce instant compliance. The videos of various incidents make the rounds on the internet and you can see by the comments at the YouTube site that a large number of Americans find tasering to be a sort of slapstick comedy, the equivalent of someone slipping on a banana peel, with a touch of that authoritarian cruelty that always seems to amuse a certain kind of person. “Don’t tase me bro” is a national catch phrase.
Tasers aren’t benign however. They kill people. Nobody knows exactly why some people die from being tasered, and they certainly don’t know how to tell in advance which ones are at risk. But there have been hundreds of deaths similar to the one below, which nobody can adequately explain:
A Detroit teenager who police say fled a traffic stop Friday died after being subdued with a Taser. He is the second Michigan teen to die following a Taser stun in less than a month. Warren Police say they don’t know why the 15-year-old bailed out of a Dodge Stratus he was riding in during the stop on Eight Mile near Schoenherr, leading officers on a half-block chase that ended in an abandoned house on Pelkey in Detroit. The car was stopped for having an expired license plate. In the scuffle, officers shocked the teen one time with a Taser, police said. Shortly after, he became unresponsive and died.
Taser International has successfully defended themselves in lawsuits by attributing the deaths to drug use and if that doesn’t work do to the fact that drugs were not present in the victim, they rely on an unrecognized medical condition called “excited delirium”, a disease that only afflicts people who die in police custody. Juries apparently find this convincing. Taser has only lost one case.
But that isn’t the real problem, although it may eventually be the path by which tasers are banned for use in civilized countries. As awful as the possibility of death is, tasers would be a blight on any free people even if they weren’t so often deadly. Tasers were sold to the public as a tool for law enforcement to be used in lieu of deadly force. Presumably, this means situations in which officers would have previously had to use their firearms. It’s hard to argue with that, and I can’t think of a single civil libertarian who would say that this would be a truly civilized advance in policing. Nobody wants to see more death and if police have a weapon they can employ instead of a gun, in self defense or to stop someone from hurting others, I think we all can agree that’s a good thing.
But that’s not what’s happening. Tasers are routinely used by police to torture innocent people who have not broken any law and whose only crime is being disrespectful toward their authority or failing to understand their “orders.” There is ample evidence that police often take no more than 30 seconds to talk to citizens before employing the taser, they use them while people are already handcuffed and thus present no danger, and are used often against the mentally ill and handicapped. It is becoming a barbaric tool of authoritarian, social control.
Last week there were three taser episodes that made the rounds on the internet. (There may have been more, but these were the three most discussed.) The first was of a drunken, belligerent man at a baseball game who after 41 seconds of discussion was tasered while sitting in his seat. Indeed, the video shows that the taser threw him down onto the cement steps where he rolled down several. Since this scene must have happened literally thousands of times over the years, you have to wonder what they must have done in the past. Somehow I doubt they pulled out a gun and shot them.
The second incident was this sad tale of a man who allegedly refused to come out of a store restroom. Police blew pepper spray under the door, kicked it open and instantly tasered the man. It was only afterward that they discovered he was deaf. Police tried to book the man anyway, but the magistrate refused to accept the charges.
It was the third incident, however, that should get civil libertarians’ serious attention. It featured an Idaho man on a bicycle who happened to ride past a police stop in progress on the side of the road. He had nothing to do with the stop, but was pulled over by the police and told to produce his ID. He said, correctly, that he had no legal obligation to produce ID and the police insisted he must. The situation escalated and he demanded that they call a supervisor to the scene when the police said they were going to arrest him. He ended up being tasered seven times — you can hear him moaning in pain on the tape at the end. (In an especially creepy moment, the police try to confiscate the tape of the incident.)
Now, many people will say that he should have just showed his ID, that it’s stupid to confront police, that like Henry Louis Gates you get what you deserve if you mouth off to the cops. And on a pragmatic level this is certainly true (although I would reiterate what I wrote here about a free people not being required to view the police in the same way they view a criminal street gang, which is to say in fear.) But the fact remains that there is no law against riding a bicycle without ID, and there is no law against mouthing off to the police. Certainly, there can be no rationale behind using a weapon designed to replace deadly force seven times against someone under these circumstances.
These are just three incidents that happened last week. There’s nothing special about them. They happen every day.
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