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The normalization of the extraordinary, and other thoughts on Ferguson

1. As the events play out each night, we can't ignore the fact that for a great many people, rioting is fun. All the protestors are not on the side of the angels.

That said, what we are seeing in Ferguson is, more or less, the making explicit of a number of post-9/11 trends in North America, beginning with :

2. The permanence of the temporary: the extraordinary police and judicial powers that were awarded immediately after 9/11 under the guise of defending liberalism against clear and present danger have become entrenched. To this extent, we have validated the Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt's view that liberal democracy is at core a sham, because it is unable to defend itself on its own terms.

3. The normalization of the special: The S in SWAT might as well be changed to N, since we have asked police at all levels to be faster and more aggressive in their response to potential terrorist threats. Don't wait for backup if someone is shooting up a school, and so on. But this means giving beat cops tactical shotguns and Kevlar.

4.The militarization of policing in North America, especially the United States, has been a recognizable problem for a few years now. The most obvious problem of course is the outfitting of even rinky dinky county cop shops with LAVs and sniper rifles and MRAPs and camo and all the rest.

5. This is partly a response to points 2 and 3 above - that is, it was driven by the feds -- but don't discount the visceral desire by many cops, especially those too dumb or too fat or too old or too young or too risk averse to have fought in Iraq or Afghanistan, to "get some". The more they are kitted out like the army or the marines, the more they are going to feel like soldiers, and the more they are going to want to act like soldiers, and the more they are going to want to earn their stripes in something resembling combat.

6. That is why the real problem with what we are seeing in Ferguson is not the equipment, but the culture. And by that I don't just mean the culture of policing, but our culture as a whole. Over the past decade, the dominant themes and motifs of our culture have become increasingly militaristic. Partly it's video games, but that's just a small part of it. Stuff that is essentially gym gear is now branded as "combat" or "tactical". People used to go running or to the gym, now they do Spartan Races or Tough Mudder courses and go to cross-fit, which has its origins in the military. Weekend warriors no longer play paintball, instead they participate in compressed versions of the SEALs hell week. And so on.

7. What gets lost in all of this is the extent to which the military is a distinct culture, and you can't simply give its gear and its training methods to police and expect good results. One thing that is interesting about the military is the rigorous legal, administrative, and moral codes that govern the use of force. You could call it "honour" but you'd just get laughed at, but a number of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have been commenting on social media about how the police in Ferguson have operated under far looser rules of engagement than the soldiers did walking patrol in Fallujah or Kandahar.

8. This alone should make everyone stop and think really really hard about what has happened to policing, because

9. Enforcing the law and maintaining the civil order in a constitutional democracy is fundamentally different from forcing a political outcome upon a foreign power through the use of violence and deadly force. They are so different that the very notion that the equipment, training methods, culture, and norms that govern them should be shared is insane.

Exercise for further discussion: The Libertarian Conundrum

10: The events in Ferguson pose an interesting problem for libertarians.  While it has been gratifying to see people like Mark Steyn chime in on the absolute gong show that is law enforcement in America, people like him quickly run up hard against what we can call the Libertarian Conundrum:

On the one hand, libertarians are in favour of what has been called the "night watchman" state. The state should enforce contracts, protect property, life and liberty against assault and theft, but otherwise leave people alone.

But a big part of leaving people alone is letting them own guns, so a libertarian society is one that will likely have a large number of individuals armed with military-grade weaponry. And as a number of police officials in the US have pointed out, we can't have police forces trying to enforce the law with revolvers when they are going up against people armed with AR-15s.

So if you're a libertarian, you have a problem. You can have your guns, or you can have your minimal state, but you can't have both. It would be interesting to debate which is worse, the Nanny State, or the Military State.