I grew up listening to Irish people singing rebel songs. One in particular – a barnstorming anti-internment song from the 1970’s called The Men Behind The Wire – would often spill out of the pubs at night during the summer music festivals of my childhood.
“Armored cars and tanks and guns/came to take away our sons…” it began. By the first verse almost everyone in the pub would be singing. Defiant cheers would erupt by the song’s end. It would bring the house down.
That song was written in an era where being Catholic on the wrong street could get you arrested and imprisoned indefinitely. Hundreds were. It was a protest song about blatant injustice. The anger it contained encouraged many to fight.
Back then it was hard to imagine there would ever be a ceasefire, or that we’d be celebrating two decades of it this weekend – but there was and we are. Great efforts can produce great rewards.
Like a lot of people of my generation, my first childhood memories include soldiers and barbed wire. I think I remember them so vividly now because of the tension in my aunt's hand each time she guided me through a military checkpoint.
I remember lookout posts with rifles pointing at all of us; I remember foot patrols with soldiers in black berets barking orders in sharp English accents; I remember tear gas and rubber bullets; I remember all the sights and sounds of a nation at war with itself.
People who lived through the decades of the Troubles often dream about them. I still do myself sometimes. You can’t be a witness to so much suffering and heartbreak and emerge unscathed. None of us has.
So like a lot of people from the north I had shiver of recognition when I saw the absurdly militarized police force that descended on Ferguson, MO after the shooting of Michael Brown. But these armored cars and tanks and guns were American made, and they were being turned on fellow Americans.
I was amazed that the local police force decided the thing to to do quell a potential riot was to send the biggest provocation they could think of – an armed militia more suited to Kabul than the midwest – into an already simmering powder keg.
The moment called for leadership not live ammunition.
But it’s a law of life: when you’re dressed up like a hammer everyone else looks like a nail. Within hours of their arrival on the streets the news reports will filled with stories of police brutality and heavy handed tactics, some filed by the news reporters themselves.
The nation watched in horror as Lt. Ray Albers, 46, threatened civilians protesting the death of Michael Brown on camera. "I will f—king kill you!" he shouted, his weapon raised and pointed at unarmed protesters. When asked to identify himself, Albers told the protester: "Go f—k yourself."
When did the solemn commitment to protect and serve instead become a charter to threaten and intimidate? How did we arrive in this new era of the Rambo cop?
The reactionary horror that drove so many of the wrong-headed decisions of the Bush administration after 9/11 led us into an endless conflagration in the Middle East. It led to US forces reportedly torturing captives in sinister “rendition” sites around the globe. And it led to the rise of the federally funded warrior cops, providing them with hardware more suited to warfare than policing.
In our fury responding to 9/11 we surrendered too much of what makes us who we are.
SWAT teams now routinely break up poker games. They break up underage drinking groups. Tibetan monks who overstayed their visas whilst on a peace mission in Utah were apprehended by a SWAT team in full gear.
When we send in aggressive, heavily armed units can we be surprised it can result in needless bloodshed? Even fellow police officers have lost their lives when the military type police forces are called in.
It’s easy to see why: when you’re kicking down doors and jumping out of helicopters, even if you’re doing it in the midwest, the world comes to look like a giant video game and everyone you encounter could be the person who takes the fatal shot.
But we have enough home grown problems in the US without over caffeinated steroidal Robocops turing our streets into Baghdad.
Corporate compensation is the highest it's ever been, climbing out of poverty is the hardest it's been in generations. Meanwhile overseas there are religiously inspired fundamentalists competing to enslave the world and we're sending armored tanks, smoke bombs and swat teams into our own Midwestern towns against our own people? Will we tear our own nation apart ourselves before our enemies have a chance fire a first shot?
I have to believe we were smarter than this once.
There are concrete steps we can take to turn things around right away. We can defund the federal programs that have militarized our police force. Instead of treating our fellow Americans as though they were bomb-throwing terrorists, we could fund programs to renew their neighborhoods and address the economic disparities that have stymied their progress.
We could also finally address the blatant imbalances in our justice system that disproportionately punish black Americans. Great efforts can produce great rewards.
We’re surrounded by enemies and we’re assembling a circular firing squad. If we don’t get smart soon what will be left that’s worth fighting for?