The policies of the new homeland security state reflect a consensus between law enforcement officials and the military about the use of new technological weapons against citizens and non-citizens. The Pittsburgh security forces used non-lethal weapons to disperse crowds, including the Long Range Acoustic Device, or the LRAD. This large sonic gun radiates short bursts of sound waves that are audible over very long distances. Firing it up-close creates a very loud and powerful noise that is capable of causing hearing loss and great levels of pain. These LRAD devices have previously been used in Iraq for similar purposes. It was also used as a defensive weapon on the cruise ship Seabourn Spirit in 2005 off the coast of Somalia to fend off a group of pirates. The pirates were repelled despite having rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns.
And now the use of the weapon domestically against non-violent crowds of American citizens is taking place, arguably not only a violation of their civil liberties but also a violation of basic human rights. The device is meant to inflict “non-lethal injury.” In this sense it echoes the “enhanced interrogation” techniques that the military uses to torture enemy combatants in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and the US prison at Guantanamo Bay. Like the Taser gun, which has become popular with local police departments, the LRAD is yet another law enforcement weapon that’s supposedly non-lethal but also relatively unstable in live trials. Like Predator spy planes that shoot Hellfire missiles at suspected targets in Pakistan, the Taser and the LRAD are weapons that fundamentally change the new laws of security powers. These weapons modulate wide ranges of before unheard of force in order to subdue individuals and crowds.
Equally problematic is the increase in the use of the 1968 Riot Act to criminalize the use of social networking technologies such as Facebook and Twitter. Local authorities in New York took major steps to circumscribing the effects of public protests in 2004 through mass arrests, but they went a step further in Pittsburgh by targeting the use of communications devices by protesters. Elliot Madison’s arrest by the Pennsylvania State Police in Pittsburgh for Tweeting the location of police to protesters is symptomatic of a campaign to prevent crowds from intelligently organizing. The subsequent search of Madison’s apartment by an FBI counter-terrorism unit confiscated pictures of Marx and Lenin as evidence. A grand jury trial is still open. The police are using the Riot Act as legal precedent.
This is an orchestrated attack on legitimate forms of political dissent. These actions send a chilling message to potential political activists and everyday citizen protesters, that public authority will use any means necessary to control individuals and crowds. This includes authorizing the use of violent new instruments of control. Each new tool reflects a unique technological breakthrough in the science of controlling human bodies efficiently. These on-going assaults are tolerated because of little compromises that individuals make about the social contract and the ethical responsibilities one has toward the suffering of others. Each little compromise has required a denial that returns as a form of fear and anxiety in much of the American public.
Not coincidently, the American public has reacted passively against these new technologies of immobilizing bodies. Anxiety paralyzes one’s ability to think clearly about the real movements in American politics. These movements reflect essential changes in the technology of crowd control. Companies that provide emergency training for local authorities use computer simulations that construct scenarios of natural disasters, fires, terrorism, and civil disturbances. A simulation video advertised on YouTube boasts that every block in New York has been digitally reproduced for that training.
The expression of these policies in physical confrontations reveals an organized, methodical, and potentially dehumanizing approach toward all bodies present in declared “emergency” and “disaster” zones. In much of the military literature, for instance, protests are also classified as civil disturbances. Civil disturbances are, in turn, defined as man-made disasters. As a result, strategic responses to natural disasters and protest disasters are very similar. They involve suspending civil liberties for the purposes of protecting public order and private property. Crowds are “managed,” whether they have gathered to loot, commit violence, or just to protest.
In a parallel development, a federal appeals court recently concluded that members of a marching crowd of demonstrators heard to be cheering on the isolated vandalism of a few individual members can be arrested and charged with rioting without an order to disperse.