10/08/2012 08:48 am ET Updated Dec 05, 2012

Police State Tactics and the First Debate

I was just perusing the photos of the police called in to intimidate Walmart warehouse strikers and their supporters in Elwood, Illinois. The photos are disturbing enough in their own right, but for me they resonated with a book I just finished reading and a debate I couldn't finish watching. But first, the cops.

They stand there like puffed-up buffoons from a comic opera, refugees from a teen-aged boy's fantasy video game. They are overstuffed with military surplus gadgets, armed to the teeth with assault rifles and enough hand weapons to stock a street gang, and fitted out with protective gear more suited to Fallujah than the American heartland. They are armed for combat and suppression. Against whom? The same Wal-Mart workers who are their neighbors and who direct them to the lawn care department at their friendly neighborhood conglomerate store.

According to Elwood police Chief Fred Hayes, "Police officers always have to prepare for the worst thing that could possibly happen." That is an empty-headed, dangerous statement. It justifies a perpetual heavily armed police presence at every possible event. Teenagers having a party? What if it becomes a riot? What if they set the town on fire? Send SWAT! This is police-state twaddle at its worst. Three people discussing politics in a diner? Arrest them! They may be plotting the overthrow of Elwood's political regime.

Supposedly the Elwood cops feared a riot. However, it's generally the police who riot at these events. So the good news was that the police didn't actually riot this time. Perhaps Chief Hayes was right after all: they did prevent the worst thing happening, i.e., a police riot. We saw that during the Occupy protests, at immigrants' rights marches, at the political conventions, and too many other protests and gatherings in the past decade.

The police were not wholly restrained this time. Never know when Cathy from Aisle 8 will whip the strikers into a frenzy and run amok in the parking lot. So they did arrest 17 people for blocking the warehouse entrance, including a County Board member and several local ministers. The police also fastened plastic restraining ties ("Aisle 6b, Officer, just past the garbage bags") around the wrists of some demonstrators. According to a report in the Naperville Sun Times protesters were threatened by police with "chemical or less lethal munitions". The presence of a Long-Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) police vehicle was also reported. LRADs send intense sonic beams that inflict pain on everyone within range; they're the future of crowd control both here and abroad.

So first the book: Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts brilliantly depicts the poisonous atmosphere that crept over Germany as Hitler solidified his power in Germany from 1933-1937. One of the most frightening features was the reaction of the general population to the ongoing militarization of German life and the omnipresence of the brown-shirted SA, the black-shirted SS, and the Secret State Police (Gestapo). Most people kept their heads down as Germans became inured to every new outrage against civil liberties. Through the eyes of U.S. ambassador William Dodd and his family, Larson captures the gradualism of the process, how no one quite believed what they were seeing until it was too late while those who did were ignored or disparaged by skeptics.

In 1984 my wife and I attended a speech by Ronald Reagan in Boston's City Hall Plaza. We brought anti-Reagan signs and, standing about 75 feet from the President, I shouted out occasional questions and comments about his environmental policies and support of death squads and dictators in Central America. Some people got angry at me, some college kids joined us, and the entire event ended without incident. No heavily armed cops. No one hustling me off. No plastic restraining ties. No seizing and tearing up of signs. It was civilized. Free speech. What we love about the USA.

No longer. And I'm not comparing the US in 2012 to Germany in 1934. But really, so what? We don't have to be headed into the equivalent of history's most disgusting state-sponsored savagery to be concerned at the path our own country is taking. Police states come in different flavors, though they all have the same nauseating after-taste.

One thing is certain, whatever comparisons one makes. In any society where the police a) are armed to the teeth; b) present in force at every public demonstration; c) justify the threat or use of overwhelming force with vague and fear-mongering statements; and d) rely upon public indifference to grasp more power, the freedom of the individual and the people as a whole is truly threatened. And as freedom erodes, corruption and tyranny - whether governmental, corporate, military, or religious - extends their reach.

As for the debate. Four years ago I would have seen the photos of the police at Elwood and, along with many other progressives, would have muttered something about "George Bush's America". Only it's been four years and this is Obama's America. And Obama's inability to stand up against Romney's misrepresentations (i.e., lies) and the Republicans' stonewalling of his jobs plan, the 47% statement, the specifics of Romney's proposals to transfer wealth to the ultra-rich, and a host of other vulnerabilities, points to his own ambivalence about certain basic values.

In Obama's America neither the president or federal government stands for unequivocal support for civil liberties. The examples, from the federal attack on torture's whistleblowers to Guantanamo, the failure to eradicate torture as US policy, the President's approval of assassination of US citizens abroad, the back-pedaling on the government's marijuana policy, all indicate an often well-meaning man incapable of bold and passionate defense of all but the most general, crowd-pleasing values.

A year ago the President did express sympathy with both the Occupy and Tea Party protesters, and on his watch Homeland Security urged local police departments not to arrest Occupy protesters unless they "pose a threat to life or public safety' or engaged in criminal action. This I found admirable but it was done without follow-through or presidential defense of the right to protest. And then came a sequence of police over-reactions that went unremarked by the Obama administration.

Obama does represent a very real alternative to Romney but he seems almost embarrassed to put himself forward as such. He still doesn't get it: that one doesn't fight fire by behaving as if the fire is irrelevant. His defenders point to health care reform as an example of his ability to take the heat. They fail to see that he didn't take the heat, he sought to chill it through immediate give-aways of key provisions. It's just that with the Republicans the heat kept coming because they are fanatics in elephants' clothing. At some point, one has to defend certain core values and ideas. That is what a leader does and what Obama consistently fails to do.

Obama may well recover in the next debates, but the man we saw Wednesday night will always be lurking in the wings. If he loses the election because the debates reveal the ambiguities that mark his approach to office, that will be a tragedy for this country for Romney and the Republicans are so, so much worse. But we shouldn't be surprised. Because if the increasingly militarized US of January 2009 was a projection of George Bush's America, then the events at Elwood, Illinois belong to Barack Obama's America. And therein, symbolically at least, lies the same failure of will and commitment that Obama revealed in the first debate.