The death of Carol Anne Gotbaum in the custody of the Phoenix Police Department last Friday afternoon is a shocking, unbelievable and a sad personal story. But, this tragic event is also a lesson in the inappropriate militarization of civilian police departments since 9/11. The fundamental question is this: Why was Carol Anne treated more like a prisoner at Abu Ghraib than a woman in distress who needed medical help?
Prior to 9/11 it would have been inconceivable that the National Guard, in full regalia and armed, would patrol public spaces like Grand Central Terminal. This greater military presence makes major American cities look more like third world countries with soldiers aiming their M-16s squarely at US citizens. Is it really that big of a deal, isn't it keeping us safer, some might ask? Well, yes it is a big deal, and no it isn't keeping us safer because the rules for safekeeping by civilian police are decidedly different from military protocol. The mission of the police is to support and safeguard the citizenry, the military is charged with securing and defending a space, a land, a country - and to do that you have to subdue the enemy - even if that enemy is sometimes us.
So, here's what we know so far about what happened to Carol Anne Gotbaum last Friday. Gotbaum became very upset and agitated when she was not allowed to board her flight late. She began to yell and threaten airline personnel. Two Phoenix police officers arrived at the concourse, had trouble subduing her, and ended up handcuffing and arresting her for disorderly conduct. According to a police spokesperson, they didn't have to "pepper spray or Tase her or anything else." I guess she was lucky that no presidential also-ran was around or else the Taser gun would surely have been used to protect such an important person from disorderly conduct.
According to one news account, Gotbaum yelled, "I'm not a terrorist! I'm a sick mom! I need help!" But there is no indication yet that the police ever contacted a doctor on her behalf. The assumption was that this was a security problem not a medical or personal one. She was left handcuffed and shackled to a table in a locked room for what the police say was 10-15 minutes, we may never know exactly how long, until they found her dead. The police department's initial comments that she appeared to strangle herself with the handcuffs that were behind her back are laughable -- if they weren't so sad and heartbreaking, particularly for the three children under 11 years old who are now motherless.
The difference between a military and civilian response is so stark in this sad story. A woman loses it in an airport terminal (and honestly who among us hasn't wanted to, especially in the last several years?) and she is treated like an enemy combatant rather than a woman in need of help. Why did the police feel it was necessary to physically subdue and shackle her and lock her in a room handcuffed and chained to a table? Because that is the appropriate military response to a security threat.
Police departments, encouraged by elected officials like Rudy G. who value order over personal freedoms, have come to view almost any public disturbance as a terror threat. Better to be safe than sorry in their minds. You lock up problems and throw away the key, as the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay are left to rot away, so was Carol Anne left to harm herself, or die of some ailment that the police seemed uninterested in treating. But, is it really better to be safe than sorry? Our slide into a military state is eroding our fundamental rights - slowly, inexorably, perhaps even permanently.
When, where, how does it stop? Well, we clearly can't count on our representatives, especially the lily livered reps in Congress who gave the feds more freedom to detain and interrogate people just this past August, to have the courage to change the public debate. It has to come from us, from individuals and citizens who know that this is not the way the United States of America should work. It's time to say enough is enough, we want the exit door out of the military-industrial complex before we all get shackled and left to die in locked rooms.