Watching the disturbing images of the Spanish police violently dispersing peaceful Catalan civilians is an opportunity to draw urgent attention to the quick spread of policemen (and women?) in balaclavas, which appears as a new international norm of riot police units. The dangerous shift of the recent years towards masked policepersons operating against civilians is evident in journalistic photographs from the UK, the US, France, Germany, Israel, Turkey, Russia and many other countries, and necessitates serious public discussion. Presumably a spill over from ‘special’ anti-terror units who operate under the all-encompassing War on Terror, police forces’ new anonymity – and consequently unaccountability – testifies to how any civic unrest is now seen, and treated, as a threat to the nation.
The most obvious effect of masking anti-protest police officers is that they are less accountable and less deterred from wrongdoing, and therefore the masking means world citizens are less safe and more vulnerable to unlawful actions of the law-enforcers. In real time, fearless police officers and fearing protestors share the understanding that visual documentation no longer translates into a public post holder’s accountability. Masked, the police has written itself off potential disciplinary actions, which in turn encourages officers’ misconduct and ab/use of power, and both discourages and disables the complaints of its victims. Police forces took for themselves an unconditional peace of mind guarantee from potential victims, by dis-appearing the identity of officers and shielding it behind the identity of their appearance, so the covering of the face covers the potential cover up and saving face.
With the disabling of identification, not only are the victims of faceless police able to point their grievances to nobody (literally, to no-body), but they are now facing a new body instead, a body of faceless and fearless police officers, a Borg of sorts. Anonymised, the officers are not septate entities, but are experienced as one impersonal agency, a uniformed and uniformised form of force, an army of black robocops swarming like soldier-ants, indefinitely unidentifiable, well defended and highly trained to work as one fighting machine, and exposing the dystopian present, where ‘riot’ police is a hybrid of military special combat units and a civil law-enforcement force. Riot police — whose name already speaks volumes about the counterinsurgency perspective that fosters it and which sees any civil discontent as danger to the current order — is then not only bigger than its sum, but is even exclusive of its (human) components.
Milgram and Zimbardo’s famous experiments have taught us long ago how uniforms, anonymity and official roles strengthen obedience and liberate voluntary brutality of roleplaying humans. Can the balaclavas do anything other than enhance manifold this disembodiment? Than further dehumanise and de-individualise the police officer? Than ease the transcendence of a person from their identity, individuality and humanity?
Finally, perhaps most concerning is the shamelessness that replaced shaming, where yesterday’s fears from obedience and unaccountability to the public became today’s desirable operatives of public repression, in the name of law, order and public security.