Violence You Can't See -- By Darius Rejali, Reed College

Archive by Erudera News Dec 18, 2003


PORTLAND, Ore., Dec. 18 (AScribe Newswire) — Reed College today released the following editorial by Darius Rejali. Rejali is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Reed College, Portland, Ore., and a 2003 Carnegie Scholar. He is the author of “Torture and Modernity” (1994) and “Torture and Democracy” (forthcoming from Princeton University Press, 2004).

The Mayor of Cincinnati proposes to arm police with tasers and stun guns. He believes if police had such weapons, they would have detained Nathaniel Jones without causing his death. Instead, TV audiences across the country saw police clubbing Jones on the squad car video camera.

But before Cincinnati turns to stun guns and tasers, we should ask in whose interest it would be to have violence that cannot be easily seen or documented, no matter how nonlethal it is. We may be outraged by violence we can see, but how likely is it that we will get outraged about violence that may or may not leave traces, violence that we can hardly be sure took place at all? A victim with scars to show to the media will get sympathy or at least attention, but victims without scars do not have much to authorize their complaints to a skeptical public. A trial can focus on the specific damages of a beating – where did the blows allegedly fall? Were the strikes professional, necessary or neither? – but what precisely can a trial focus on with electric shocks that leave few marks?

Let me remind you of a different event.

On March 3, 1991, police pulled over Rodney King and two other passengers in Los Angeles. Most Americans saw how that incident ended.

LAPD officers beat King senseless with metal batons. Many will remember that police fractured King’s face and legs. But how many remember how many times police fired electric stun weapons at King during the incident? And how many can say how much shock passed through King’s body as he lay on the ground?

From the start, the King incident was about the sudden remarkable visibility of police violence captured, by happenstance, on amateur video. The Christopher Commission observed that without the video, it is doubtful there would have been an investigation.

But even a careful viewer of the amateur video would not see the police using electroshock on King. Sergeant Stacey Koon tased Rodney King thrice, twice prior to when the video started running and once in the course of the video. “To tase” means to use a Tommy A. Swift Electric Rifle (T.A.S.E.R). Tasers fire two darts trailed by long wires at the target. Once the darts catch onto the clothing or body, the operator presses a button releasing electric charge from the batteries along the wires to the target. Koon’s taser model possessed two dart cartridges. Koon lodged the first pair of darts on King’s back and the second on his upper chest. Each discharge delivered short pulses of 50,000 volts, 8 to 15 pulses per second.

The pain was not trivial. The California Highway Patrol officers said King was “writhing.” Even Koon, who was 9 feet away, declared, “he’s groaning like a wounded animal, and I can see the vibrations on him.” Then while Officer Powell beat King on video, Koon depressed the button a third time, draining whatever charge was left in the batteries. This was not a trivial discharge either. LAPD recruits knew that whoever touched a tased victim would also “get zapped. They don’t become unconscious … they just go down.” At any rate, the third tase didn’t subdue King, and the beating continued.

If these beatings led to the Los Angeles Riots of 1992, the multiple high-voltage shocks barely impinged on public consciousness. Indeed, what would have happened if King had suffered no fractures, only the mere burn of the taser? At the trial, the defense produced Dr. Dallas Long to contest whether there even was a burn scar. As Koon asserted, “Rodney King had no burn; a TASER dart doesn’t leave one.”

What would the police camera have shown if the police had used stun weapons on Nathaniel Jones instead of clubs? Nothing, perhaps; out of sight is out of mind. Niccolo Machiavelli once advised princes to use stealthy violence because people will get less alarmed. He said, “in general, men judge more by sight than by touch. Everyone sees what is happening but not everyone feels its consequences.” Before American citizens let princes decide for them, they better think about the consequences of using violence they can’t see.

Quotes and taser details are from Lou Cannon, Official Negligence (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999), 27, 31-32, 26, 44; Report of the Independent Commission of the Los Angeles Police Department (Los Angeles: The Commission, 1991), p. ii; Stacey Koon, Presumed Guilty, with Robert Deitz (Washington DC: Regnery, 1992), 38, 41-42, 187; John Murray and Barnet Resnick, A Guide to Taser Technology (Whitewater, CO: Whitewater Press, 1997), 75-77, 83; Niccolo Machiavelli, “The Prince” in Selected Political Writings, trans. David Wootton (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994), 55.

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