Saturday, June 14, 2014

Symbols and connections

Branding, narratives and symbols have been on my mind a lot these days.  Not so much for the "hidden secrets" that many on the fringe want to find in them but rather our own involuntary responses to them. We look for meaning in symbols and try to come up with narratives for them.  Sometimes these narratives are quite accurate such as gang symbols indicating the presence of a gang.  Or it may be something even larger such as Putin's "protecting Russian speaking people" to give meaning to actions.  Other times, we overreach for a meaning to those symbols and draw faulty conclusions.  Case in point, the two cosplay psychopaths from last weeks shooting out in Las Vegas.

A killer clown (after all, that's who The Joker really is) and his female accomplice (Harley Quinn).  The Joker and Harley Quinn are both super villains from the world of Batman.  Both characters are homicidal psychopaths as are their real life counterparts, Jered and Amanda Miller.  The Millers killed two police officers and one bystander last Sunday.  Before events Iraq had seized the headlines, the story of the two killers added a certain narrative to another gruesome crime.  Two teen-age girls repeatedly stabbed their 12 year old friend in an attempt to invoke "The Slender Man".  Bizarre crimes that took pop culture as their nexus to identify themselves with something larger than themselves and to rationalize the hate and blood lust they used in committing their crimes.

But it is easy to start seeing connections and patterns in randomness.  How many people read comics and even go so far as to dress up as their favorite character and yet commit no greater crime than poor fashion choices?  How many people read Creepy Pasta and end up doing nothing more than giving themselves a bad case of the heebie-jeebies?  Yet Creepy Pasta recently had to post disclaimers on their website about "The Slender Man" stories and have just recently instituted and age verification such as the demand that somehow the site was responsible for the stabbings.

What though is more distressing is how the Millers headline-ready personas and killings have gotten the whole police world on edge.  The Millers not only killed cops but they also draped the dead officers in the Gadsden Flag.

The Gadsden Flag was used early in the American revolution and flown by the Continental Marines.  It was both a rallying symbol for the 13 colonies as well as a symbol of defiance to the British.  In modern times, it has come to represent a range of feelings from individuals and groups that don't agree with the government to those that are outright anti-government.  The latter groups are the ones that especially concern the police as they anti-government groups tend to see the police as an extension of the government (hence "police-state").

Many of my police friends on social media have lamented the most recent shootings in Las Vegas as proof that there is a "war" being waged against cops.  They need to protect themselves (taking the motto "To Protect and Serve" to mean something else) and are fueling the pro-gunners paranoia the gun control and gun confiscation are going to happen.  And here is where we let symbols and our quest to fill in the story take over.

The police feel they are under attack and are freely using the words "war" or "under siege" to describe the situation.  If you are at "war" who do you look to model?  The military of course.  Ever since the first the Los Angeles Police Department started their SWAT team in 1967, the police have become increasingly more military in their appearance and actions.

I'm not a fan of SWAT.  First, the premise behind SWAT is more akin to an elite special forces military group than a police agency.  The military is there to kill the enemy.  The police are there to keep the peace and enforce laws.  SWAT blurs those doctrinal lines.

Furthermore, SWAT is like the proverb that says if your only tool is a hammer, than everything starts to look like a nail.  SWAT teams are highly trained and well equipped.  SWAT teams cost a lot of money for a typical department so both the chief and the SWAT officers want to see the team being used.  But in reality, how often is a SWAT team truly needed in most municipalities?  Was it because of the situation or was it because the department had the team?

Increasing the firepower of the department is not going to make the officers safer.  It is only going to fuel the fears of the anti-goverment groups leading to escalation.  If the enemy has a bigger gun, then we need an even bigger one.  But we gets lost is that the police are there to protect and serve the COMMUNITY.  Community police based approaches are far more effective but less glamorous ways of keeping the police engage with their local communities.  The headline that never gets written is the crime that never happened.  SWAT teams grab headlines.  Community policing doesn't.  Unfortunately headlines help chiefs maintain or increase their budgets.

Jered and Amanda Miller are two psychopaths that used symbols to get under the skin of the police.  Intelligence analysts working for the police are just drooling over all of the details coming out of the Miller's home.  They tendency will be to draw conclusions of the exception to create the rule.  Will now police have to monitor comic conventions and renaissance fairs to find leads on potential cop killers?  Will everyone wearing the Gadsden Flag but suspected of anti-government feelings?  We all dismiss those questions as too ludicrous but can you see how easily a few well place symbols can lead us down a faulty path.

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