Plate Mail: Armor Class -9

Police showed up at the house in Kyle, Texas, today for completely pro forma non-confrontational reasons. One of them recognized me from a couple of weeks ago which, long story, but I’ve had a lot of interaction with the Kyle police department recently and am impressed with their general decency and nuanced appreciation for the trade-offs between liberty and safety in a free society. It’s clearly something a number of them have thought about on their own and deeply. Not going into too much detail because it’s none of your business, but you don’t get to fully call yourself a liberaltarian until you have grudgingly accepted the cops’ explanation for why their hands are tied in a particular situation despite the fact that their inaction means an increased degree of physical risk for you.

The four guys who showed up today looked…bulky. Some were bigger than me, some were smaller, but gear included all had more mass. And they weren’t even wearing bullet-proof vests–just radios, and orange-handled tasers, and gold buttons with star emblems, and encumbered belts full of God knows what else. The tools of the trade. I noted this, not because it struck me as odd, but because it struck me as fitting. This is the way people who come into professional contact with violence look anymore. For the past decade the U.S. has been at war in the same places our British forebears were at war a century ago, and even those of us who’ve sat on the sidelines have been able to witness the changes in military industrial design. There’s the shift from blobby green camouflage to pixelated brown and grey, the smaller carbines, and the proliferation of body armor. Like everyone else, I have watched the helmet-cam Afghanistan videos and absorbed their weird normalcy. (Firefights seem to involve a lot of standing around.) And also gotten a sense of how lumbering first-world soliders look in their body armor. We are beetles encased in ceramic. They carry AK-47s and scurry about in mufti.

For a certain generation of people old enough to be me this is odd because our touchstone of organized violence is still World War Two. This is what we made pictures of as eight year-old boys because tanks and swastikas are so easy to draw. A mid-century American GI wore clothes not so much different than what I am wearing as I write this. Back in the dark ages of Vietnam and the Russkies, cloth fatigues meant modernity. Body armor meant plate mail–the Crusades and Monty Python. The last physically intimidating men (and now it’s men and women–and this is progress) who wore uniforms as heavy as today’s warriors fought at Agincourt. My first personal contact with this change was the Seattle WTO protests in 1998, which I took part in more out of a curiosity about violence than any political conviction.1 Years later my wife went to the ER and was treated by an absolute mensch of a nurse had in a previous life been a cop and took part in the whole business on the other side–black Darth Vader uniform, electrician’s tape over the badge number, banging a baton against a plastic shield that even at the time made me think, they’re afraid of me too.

For a while gunpowder trumped metal, and now for a while vests trump gunpowder. This too will pass someday, but one hundred years from today these specifics will make up much of what people remember about circa 2013.

1It has always struck me as odd that two of the biggest bugaboos for my fellow liberal intellectuals for whom I feel a sentimental if not always ideological affinity are Neo-liberalism and Globalism. What could be bad about something that is global, liberal, and new? I feel like the character in Wilt Stilman’s Metropolitan who wonders plaintively, “Why do people hate yuppies? ‘Yuppie’ stands for Young Urban Professional. Those are good things.”

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