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The Taserification of America

Unless you've been living in a Waziristan cave for the last 24 years, you've heard about the unfortunate misdemeanor-breaking dude who got Tasered at a Phillies game at Citizens Bank Park last night. My computer screen here in Center City went all a-Twitter about it even before all the electrons had even stopped flowing through 17-year-old suburban high school senior Steve Consalvi.

My gut instinct when I first learned of it was the same as I feel about it a day later: That while it wasn't exactly a Rodney King affair, clearly the officer had used excessive force. I've been watching baseball games for more than 40 years, and the drills is always the same. The fan isn't trying to do harm, just get attention; it used to be that the TV cameras never even showed a field-jumper for exactly that reason, back before ESPN needed an endless stream of fodder for its "Top 10 Plays."

People forget that the whole justification for police to get Tasers in the first place was to subdue potentially violent suspects in cases in the past in which they might have been tempted to use lethal force. But the notion that the cops would have pulled a gun and shot 17-year-old field jumper Steve Consalvi is absurd, which means the rationale for tasing him is...what? There's something oddly funny about zapping a fellow human for some reason, but Tasers are no joke to the loved ones of the estimated 50 people who died because of their use.

Consalvi didn't have the risk factors of most of those killed or injured -- he is young, health, and wasn't drunk or on drugs. But he still -- while committing a misdemeanor, let's remember -- was subjected to the brief, intense pain of 50,000 volts of electricty. There was a simpler, quainter time when causing pain to another person was called...violence.

I guess that quaint time was America before 9/11 -- after which for some reason we lost all sense of proportionality on how to respond to various levels of wrongdoing. After my low-key blog suggestion that Tasering a mildly lawbreaking fan wasn't a great idea, I got an email from a reader. He said, in part: "Were you there last night? I was. Idiots like that are unpredictable at best! The days of "Morgana (sic) the kissing bandit" are gone. We live in a post 911 world." I don't mean to be harsh to the emailer -- he actually made some decent points about security entering Citizens Bank Park.

But I also had to wonder: Must we see every single act of wrongdoing, even minor ones, through the prism of 9/11? Is a fan running on a field in the same ballpark with killing nearly 3,000 people? What has happened to us in this country. Did anyone call for stun-gunning "Morganna the kissing bandit" in the 1970s because we lived in "a post-JFK assassination world" and that maybe she had a concealed weapon inside of those, um. concealed weapons. Of course not. Americans have changed..and not for the better.

Make no mistake -- the 9/11 attacks were the most cowardly acts of pure evil ever committed on U.S. soil -- but the American ideals of civil liberties should be so sacrosanct they should not have been unduly violated even for the people who planned and executed 9/11, but of course they were at Guantanamo and with the John Yoo-justified torture regime that was expanded to many people who had nothing to do with 9/11 and eventually to people who were innocent of any crime altogether.

But even more damaging is the way that attitude -- that any kind of lawbreaking or even potential lawbreaking requires the harshest possible response, with no regard to more than 200 years of momentum toward basic civil liberties and human rights -- is filtering down to other aspects of American life. Exhibit A is what's happening in Arizona.

Let's be honest -- although there are some very bad apples scattered in there, the vast majority of undocumented immigrants are the Steve Consalvis of the American political debate. They've jumped over a fence and are running around on the field of national economy, and just like Consalvi they've broken a law but also aren't a threat to cause serious injury (especially with studies that show undocumented migrants have a low crime rate and tend to even pay more in taxes than they get back in services).

The response from the majority of Arizonans and many Americans is no longer to work toward a mature solution like real immigration reform that would view these humans as what the pre-soul-dead Sen. John McCain of the mid-2000s once called "God's children," but to use a totalitarian-tinged "papers please" brand of racial profiling in order to round up as many of these "illegals" (Note: actions are "illegal," not people -- sad that that even needs to be spelled out in 2010) as possible, even separating them from their children. The chief offender is Phoenix's "Sheriff Joe" Arpaio, who makes his predominately Latino inmate population swelter in a brutal tent city in the pink underwear he issues them. Many of his inmates would probably prefer to be tased.

And when you voted for change in 2008, you thought you were ushering in a presidency of Barack Obama, not the era of Draco, the Greek lawgiver.

Which brings us to Times Square and the failed car bombing. This is the second time in less than a year that a young man apparently inspired by some warped brand of Islamic extremism attempted attacks that would kill a large number of Americans. It's alarming and upsetting that anyone is trying -- however ineptly -- to kill so many innocent people. However, our current draconian rules of political discourse practically prevent us from even suggesting that these attacks be looked at as not quite exactly the same thing as 9/11, which after all was a well-planned attack with 19 trained perpetrators.

The failed Times Square car bombing and the failed airplane underwear bomber over Detroit were poorly planned events by young, naive individuals that, even combined, did not harm or kill a single individual; they were quite serious crimes nonetheless -- and they were both handled and properly investigated with remarkable skill and speed by the law-enforcement structures we already have in place -- that is, police and federal law-enforcement like the FBI -- who followed normal procedures, all applicable laws, and honored the U.S. Constitution. We also worked cooperatively with a foreign power with whom we've sometimes had a rocky relationship -- Pakistan -- to round up additional suspects in the Times Square case.

And the response of some of our top political leaders today has not congratulatory toward good police work or a criminal justice system that at times can still be the envy of the world --  but rather anger and disappointment...that the suspect's Constitutional rights were not violated. Even though Faisal Shahzad is a naturalized American citizen accused of felony crimes under U.S. law, some lawmakers were furious that authorities followed the law and read Shahzad his Miranda rights regarding self-incrimination (which hasn't stopped him from a confession or providing information, by the way).

One of those critics, of course, was John McCain, who said Mirandizing Shahzad "would be a serious least until we find out as much information we have." Ironically, it fell upon right-wing media icon Glenn Beck to point out that the Times Square case was no time to "shred the Constitution." The main point here is a rather obvious -- when an anything-for-ratings entertainer like Beck is the voice of reason, then democracy is rolling seriously off the rails.

But this is increasingly who we are in 2010 -- an unforgiving nation where you can be zapped with 50,000 volts for a minor transgression, where you might be stopped on an Arizona street corner for having brown skin or speaking with the wrong kind of accent, and where citizens who are accused but not convicted of a crime are no longer all equal under the law. It is a nation where we are suddenly all Steve Consalvi every time we get up from our seats of conformity, never knowing where a new shock to our system might come from.

Call it a "post 911 world" if you want, but I would call it the slow, sad Taserification of America. At least on the green grass of left field in South Philadelphia, it was all out in the open for a change, for all of us to see.