Out of Pandora's Box: Taser Nation

The legal use of Tasers for pain compliance -- hurting people so badly that they are rendered submissive -- is common. This is legal torture. It doesn't stop being torture, and it doesn't stop being wrong, when inflicted to make someone obey police orders.
09/19/2012 12:59 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2012

When Tasers make the news, it's usually in a report about police brutality or someone's death after being Tased, and these are important stories about the chief evils of Tasers. There are fewer news stories about legal, nonlethal Tasings. But they're bad, too -- really bad -- for reasons that are easy to overlook and harder to describe but worth worrying about.

Tasers are like those ugly stinging things that flew out of Pandora's box. Once they're out, you can't get them back in the box; they make for more pain and danger and fear in the world, and it's all our own fault. The law-and-order crowd love them, of course; Tasers hurt people terribly and invite sadistic abuse. Tasing causes hideous pain, pain that rises to the level of torture. If you think it isn't torture, watch this. (Sensitive readers: It's upsetting, as are some videos linked to below.)

Tasers were initially sold to the public, back in the 1990s, as a safer police tool than guns for dealing with situations where life or serious injury was threatened. Although big, strong, brave people scream in agony when they are Tased, Taser proponents claimed that the goal in using them was not the pain but immobilization. Yet in many locales, pain quickly did become the goal. Tasers were soon used in ordinary police practice as a general "compliance" tool. In many places today, the police are allowed to enforce their orders with an excruciatingly painful shock, with or without the immobilizing effect, no matter how minor the offense, how harmless the citizen, or how completely unthreatening and non-dangerous the circumstances. The legal use of Tasers for pain compliance -- hurting people so badly that they are rendered submissive -- is common. This is legal torture. It doesn't stop being torture, and it doesn't stop being wrong, when inflicted to make someone obey police orders, even sensible and legitimate police orders, and even when the Tased person is wrong, obnoxious, or foolish in refusing to obey.

Huge numbers of police are equipped with Tasers. According to Taser International, over 16,000 law enforcement and military agencies have bought them, and over 7,000 of them equip all their patrol officers with Tasers. This has meant a dramatic increase in the number of Tasing incidents (about 1.4 million in the field as of 2011, and another 1.3 million for training purposes). Because Tasers present a stronger temptation to police to engage in wrongdoing than fists, batons, or guns, the more they are used, the more they are abused, as in the recent incidents here and here.

But the scores of thousands of incidents that are not considered "abuse" have their own devastating consequences. One is the incorporation of torture into the public's ideas of what is normal and acceptable. This was visible in the response to a 2010 incident that made national news only because it took place at a Phillies game. A 17-year-old boy ran onto the playing field and got chased by security personnel for 30 seconds before being felled by a police officer's Taser. The police considered the officer's action to be within guidelines because the boy "resisted" by running; a disturbing number of people approved.

Their attitudes illustrate how the widespread use of Tasers as compliance tools causes social damage. Lots of people take police behavior as a moral model. Thus Tasers quickly get absorbed into the culture and change the way people think and act. In most places, citizens can legally carry Tasers, and they have bought hundreds of thousands of them. Criminals are using Tasers for mugging and robbing. Private citizens have used Tasers on a child, in quarrels, and on fans in a sports stadium. Films, television, YouTube, and fiction are full of people Tasing each other. Again and again, they depict Tasing as funny, as no big deal, and as a satisfying means of vengeance on bad guys or anyone's enemies. Tasing has been normalized, and this creates a vicious circle. The sense that it is unspeakably bad to cause torturing pain gets numbed, which, in turn, permits a readier, less inhibited resort to Taser use and misuse -- especially, and most dangerously, by the police. Even if you are lucky enough to live somewhere that doesn't arm police with Tasers, you can't avoid the cruel and brutalizing culture that Tasers are helping to build. You still live in Taser nation.

When Tasers are used in these grotesque ways, they create rage toward the police and attitudes toward government that are destructive to democracy. For one thing, they terrorize. The law-and-order crowd likes this, but smart law enforcement doesn't. Police who are feared because they are cruel are hated, not respected. This creates high tension and danger for both police and citizens around all their encounters. Sometimes people "resist," running or backing off, because an officer is threatening to or has Tased them. Reliance on pain, and fear of pain, also hurts law enforcement by making a law-enforcement career more attractive to sadists and bullies and less attractive to those who find this trend in police work repellent.

Law enforcement that relies on terrible pain discourages people from approaching police with the candor and confidence that no democracy can afford to squelch. Democracies need feisty citizens who protest -- civilly, let us hope -- when they think police have done wrong or made mistakes; they cannot afford a population of people who don't dare suggest to officers that the speed limit isn't 40 m.p.h. or ask what the regulations say. An episode of the 1960s TV show Mission: Impossible has an oddly poignant scene that reminds us of how different relations used to be between citizens (white ones, anyway) and police. The scene takes place in a mock American town, set up by a totalitarian country to train their spies in American customs and attitudes so that they can pass as American citizens. One trainee is scolded by the instructor for being too submissive and timid in an encounter with the fake police. Americans are outspoken with the police and don't fear them, the instructor informed him. But, sadly, that's our used-to-be.

While some courts have recently reached good decisions on Tasers, the law has a long way to go. Guidelines should limit Taser use to an elite of highly trained, psychologically fit personnel in situations where death or serious injury is threatened, or perhaps ban them outright. It's true that sometimes using a Taser is much the lesser of evils. Unfortunately, those cases are a drop of good in a bucket of very bad stuff.