What does it say about us as a nation when even the killing of sleeping children is incapable of making us change our course?
As Amy Davidson of the New Yorker reports, U.S. led NATO forces have killed four Afghan children in the past few days, “two of them where they were sleeping, one in a crowd on the street, and another while she was collecting firewood.” The two children who died while sleeping were killed in SWAT style raids or home invasions. One girl, age 12, was killed while sleeping when shrapnel from a grenade thrown into her yard by NATO forces hit her in head. Last Saturday, a 15 year old boy was shot by NATO forces while sleeping in his own bed. His mistake: waking up (and most likely being startled) when a gang of men burst into his room.
For people of color living in the United States’ impoverished inner cities, however, the U.S. military’s treatment of the Afghan people probably looks very familiar. In Afghanistan, paramilitary forces invade peoples’ homes in search of terrorists; in the hypersegregated U.S. ghetto, paramilitary forces invade people’s home in search of drug dealers. In both places, there are many innocent victims, as these armies frequently invade the wrong house, or, upon entering the “right” house (that is, one in which a suspect resides), they often kill, injure, or terrorize completely innocent people. Just as the United States’ “war on terror” is also a war on the Afghan and Pakistani people so too is its war on drugs also a war on the urban black and brown poor. Because the war on drugs, like the war on terror, is prosecuted via the frequent use of paramilitary forces to arrest suspected evildoers, it is not just metaphorically, but literally, a war on the black and brown poor.
In other words, we treat the Afghan people the way we treat African-American and Latino people.
Take for example the January 2011 killing of 68 year old Eurie Stamps of Framingham, Massachusetts, an African-American man who had the misfortune of sharing a residence with two men who were suspected (remember: suspected is not the same as convicted) of illegal drug activity. He was shot by SWAT officers who entered (read: invaded) his home to serve an arrest warrant for two other men. The officer who killed him was aquited of all wrong-doing.
A few weeks later, SWAT forces in New York mistakenly raided the McKay family home. The event is described thusly:
“The McKay family, including husband David, wife, 13-year-old daughter, and brother-in-law, were all roused from their sleep and rounded up by masked law enforcement agents. The child was pulled from her bed and “drug” down the stairs. She would later be taken to the emergency room for the resulting asthma attack, vomiting, and fainting episode. The entire family was led outside while officers searched inside for Michael, with the father in his underwear on the front lawn desperately trying to explain that no such person lived there.”
Or take the March 2008 invasion of family home of Tarika Wilson by SWAT forces in Lima, Ohio. The paramilitary squad burst into her home looking for her boyfriend. Instead of arresting the boyfriend, they fatally shot Wilson, a 26 year old African-American mother, and shot and wounded her 1 year old son whom she was holding in her arms. The police were of course never convicted of wrong doing.
Like the home raids conducted in Afghanistan, home raids conducted in the United States (mostly in our cities’ ghettos) are conducted often in the dead of night by a gang of heavily armed and armored men, who burst into a home without warning, shouting and screaming and very often shooting anything that moves. Whether in L.A. or Afghanistan, if a SWAT team storms your home, you not only can be killed “by accident,” but also you can be killed for acting surprised, for reaching for a golf club to defend yourself against the armed militia who have broken into your home, or for any reason at all.
The video recording of the home invasion and killing of a Utah man provides graphic evidence of what the McKay family, the Wilson family, the recently killed 15 year old Afghan boy and ten of thousdans of others like them have experienced at the hands of these paramilitary home invaders. While the video is truly graphic, it makes the barbarity and even terrorism inherent in our nation’s use of SWAT-style forces to prosecute its wars on terror and drugs evident in a way that no newspaper story can. If you can, I encourage you to watch it.
From what I can tell, this is a pretty typical example of a paramilitary home invasion, regardless of whether it is conducted on the south side of Chicago or in an Afghan village.
As Michelle Alexander argues in her brilliant The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Obama, the use of parmilitary forces to arrest those suspected of illegal drug activity is both common and relatively new as “in 1972, there were just a few hundred paramilitary drug raids per year in the United States. By the early 1980s, there were three thousand SWAT deployments, by 1996 there were thirty thousand, and by 2001 there were forty thousand” (74).
Alexander criticizes these “no-knock warrants” arguing, “in countless situations in which police could easily have arrested someone or conducted a search without a military-style raid, police blast into people’s homes, typically in the middle of the night, throwing grenades, shouting, nad pointing guns and rifles at anyone inside, often including young children” (74).
This use of paramilitary force in the prosecution of the war on drugs is no accident; instead, like most other components of the war on drugs, it is an outcome engineered by the federal government. As an exception to the Posse Comitatus Act, “the civil war era law prohibiting the use of th military for civilian policing,” Presidents Reagan, Clinton, and both Bushes have “enthusiastically embraced the…increased transfer of military equipment, technology, and training to local law enforcement, contingent, of course, on the willingess of agencies to priotize drug law enforcement and concentrate resources on arrests for illegal drugs” (75). In other words, rather than being a logical response to the daily realities of police-work, the militarization of our nation’s police forces was imposed from the top down. From “officers of the peace,” the federal government has turned many of our nation’s police officers into soldiers.
In other words, local police forces both pay disproportionate attention to the drug war and prosecute it via military technology because the federa government pays them to. The federal government has designed a system in which it is highly profibable for local police forces to declare war on its own citizens (76).
That the victims of the paramilitarized prosecution of the war on drugs have overwhelmingly been the black and latino residents of our nation’s hypersegregated ghettos is no secret. In fact, the ghetto makes people of color basically sitting ducks, with nowhere to go. The problem is compounded by the fact that, as Alexander points out, precisely because our nation’s cities are so segregated, “what happens to them does not directly affect—and is scarcely noticed by—the privileged byond the ghetto’s invisible walls (122). Like the Afghan victims of our war on terror, black and brown victims of the war on drugs often suffer in secret, their deaths considered too insignificant or routine to matter all that much.
In light of this, therefore, perhaps we should not be too surprised (although we should of course be very sad) that the killing of sleeping Afghan children by home-invading paramilitary forces is tolerated both by US policy-makers and by the general U.S. population. After all, we have been tolerating (in some cases even actively clamoring for) the killing of our own citizens by these same forces for decades.
We even use similar arguments to mitigate our responsibility for these deaths. Often, the United States claims that it can’t be blamed for the innocents it kills in the war on terror because “terrorists” use human shields. I have heard this same logic with reference to the killing of black and brown American innocents. Upon speaking with people about Ms. Wilson’s death, for example, (an incident that occurred very near to my own hometown) I heard people (who were white) argue that Ms. Wilson bore a significant share of the responsibility for her death since she was dating a “drug dealer.” (nevermind that the drug dealer had not been convicted of said crime.) In other words, black people who live in the inner-city (read: criminals and criminal-sympathizers), like Afghan people (read: terrorists and terrorist sympathizers) somehow “deserve it” and white and/or Americans are the truly innocent.
As with the Afghan innocent, therefore, the deaths of African-American and Latino Americans are considerated acceptable. These are the deaths we can live with, these are the lives we can sacrifice in the achievement of our “security.” These are the people whose deaths are almost always justified and for whom we are never responsible.