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Trivializing Peace

Robert C. Koehler

What goes around comes around . . . and around, and around.

Last month, the day after I left Santa Rosa, Calif., a 13-year-old boy carrying a toy replica of an AK-47 was shot and killed on the outskirts of that town by a Sonoma County deputy sheriff with a reputation for being trigger-happy. The officer had ordered the boy to drop the “gun,” then in a matter of two or three seconds opened fire, giving him no chance to comply.

This is not an isolated incident, which is why it’s yet one more tragedy I can’t get out of my mind — one more logical consequence of the simplistic militarism and mission creep that’s eating us alive. This is gun culture running unchecked from boyhood to manhood, permeating national policy both geopolitically and domestically. This is the trivialization of peace. It results in the ongoing murder of the innocent, both at home and abroad, at the hands of government as well as criminals and terrorists.

“That’s America, we say, as news of the latest massacre breaks,” Henry Porter wrote in September in the U.K. Observer. The massacre of the moment was lone gunman Aaron Alexis’ slaying of 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard.

“But what,” Porter asked, “if we no longer thought of this as just a problem for America and, instead, viewed it as an international humanitarian crisis — a quasi civil war, if you like, that calls for outside intervention?”

This begins to get at the American lunacy, its out-of-control certainty that authorized violence has things under control. We need some kind of outside intervention. I fear the death of Andy Lopez in Santa Rosa won’t bring about the fundamental changes we need, any more than the tragedies that preceded it. We lack systems capable of holistic assessment of our problems; we lack systems that are not part of the problem.

Lone-nut massacres and increasingly militarized police departments are parallel phenomena, both emerging in a social climate of depersonalization. Both bring the war home.

“Whatever the reason, not a week goes by without more reports of hair-raising incidents by militarized police imbued with a take-no-prisoners attitude and a battlefield approach to the communities in which they serve,” John W. Whitehead wrote recently at Huffington Post.

Deputy Sheriff Erick Gelhaus, the officer who killed Andy Lopez, instantly firing seven rounds at him, was a firearms instructor for his department and an Iraq war vet. Strikingly, “the deadly encounter recalled how soldiers might confront an insurgent in a war zone,” Dennis Bernstein wrote recently at ConsortiumNews, quoting a former member of the military police who lives in the neighborhood where the shooting took place. Military training seeks to override recruits’ moral compunctions about taking human life and establish “muscle memory” that allows them to kill on command. Such a quality is alarming to contemplate in local sheriff’s deputies, putting residents of the neighborhoods they patrol at the same risk as those who live in occupied territory.

As Whitehead notes, however, the problem isn’t isolated bad cops but something “far more pervasive, arising as it does out of America’s obsession with war and all things war-related, which is reflected in the fact that we spend more than 20 percent of the nation’s budget on the military, not including what we spend on our endless wars abroad. The U.S. also makes up nearly 80 percent of the global arms exports market, rendering us both the world’s largest manufacturer and consumer of war.”

“The transformation from ‘community policing’ to ‘military policing’ began in 1981,” Michelle Alexander wrote in The New Jim Crow, “when President Reagan persuaded Congress to pass the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act, which encouraged the military to give local, state and federal police access to military bases, intelligence, research, weaponry, and other equipment for drug interdiction.”

A couple decades later, local police were also enlisted into the so-called war on terror, and the U.S. Defense Department began bequeathing “billions of dollars’ worth of free weapons, armored vehicles, protective clothing and other military items” on U.S. law enforcement agencies, Whitehead writes.

The benefactors even include campus police departments. Ohio State, for instance, “recently acquired a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle (MRAP), a hyped-up armored vehicle used on the battlefield to withstand explosive devices, land mines and other sneak attacks,” Whitehead goes on. “The university plans to use its MRAP for crowd control at football games.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: We lose every war we fight. Actually, “lose” does not adequately describe the nature of our ongoing defeat. Every war we wage implodes, destroying the integrity that sustains us.

“Drop it, kid!”

Being able to bring violent, overwhelming force to bear on a given situation complicates matters immeasurably.

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Robert C. Koehler

Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. Koehler has been the recipient of multiple awards for writing and journalism from organizations including the National Newspaper Association, Suburban Newspapers of America, and the Chicago Headline Club.  He’s a regular contributor to such high-profile websites as Common Dreams and the Huffington Post. Eschewing political labels, Koehler considers himself a “peace journalist. He has been an editor at Tribune Media Services and a reporter, columnist and copy desk chief at Lerner Newspapers, a chain of neighborhood and suburban newspapers in the Chicago area. Koehler launched his column in 1999. Born in Detroit and raised in suburban Dearborn, Koehler has lived in Chicago since 1976. He earned a master’s degree in creative writing from Columbia College and has taught writing at both the college and high school levels. Koehler is a widower and single parent. He explores both conditions at great depth in his writing. His book, "Courage Grows Strong at the Wound" (2016). Contact him or visit his website at

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