The World

If It Happened There: Courts Sanction Killings by U.S. Security Forces

Protesters take to the streets.

Photo by STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

The latest installment in a continuing series in which American events are described using the tropes and tone normally employed by the American media to describe events in other countries.

NEW YORK CITY, United States—The heavily armed security forces in this large and highly militarized country have long walked the streets with impunity, rarely if ever held accountable for violence committed against civilians. In recent weeks, however, several such incidents have ignited public anger and threatened to open new fault lines in a nation with a long and tragic history of sectarian violence.

In America’s largest city, the judicial branch declined to pursue charges against a security officer who was videotaped in broad daylight choking a man to death. This came less than two weeks after courts in the nation’s often overlooked central region reached a similar decision in the shooting of an unarmed teenager. Both victims were members of the country’s largest minority group, and the killings have set off nationwide protests that have often escalated into clashes between dissidents and the security forces.

While lower than that of other countries in the Western Hemisphere, America’s violent crime rate is high by the standards of developed nations, a situation experts blame on a variety of factors, including skyrocketing income inequality and easy access to firearms. In response, the country’s recent ruling regimes have broadly expanded the policing and surveillance powers of the domestic security forces and instituted draconian sentences for even minor criminal offenses. As a result of this campaign, the world’s second-largest democracy has the highest percentage of its population behind bars—a virtual prison state of 2.3 million people housed in an archipelago of often poorly maintained facilities throughout the nation.

Information provided by human rights groups shows that the state’s crackdown has disproportionately targeted members of the country’s ethnic minority groups, who have been historically marginalized and subject to severe discrimination. The election of the country’s first minority president, it was once hoped, would help bring these disparities to an end, but experts say they have persisted and in some cases even worsened.

Domestic critics also say the state has grown increasingly intolerant of dissent. Security forces have been outfitted with the latest in military hardware, often battle-tested on the fields of the country’s multiple foreign wars. The use of tear gas and rubber bullets against domestic protesters is reminiscent of the state’s tactics during protests against the system of legally enforced apartheid, which was in place in the country’s southern region until the middle of the last century.

With calls for sweeping democratic reforms mounting, the state has been slow to respond. Thus far, the ruling party has announced only limited measures, including new training programs and cameras to be worn by members of the security forces—an odd choice given that one of the killings in question was already videotaped.

The United Nations Committee Against Torture and global NGOs including Amnesty International have condemned the U.S. in recent days, though as yet there’s been little discussion of sanctions. With many of the country’s political leaders and media outlets casting aspersions on both the victims of violence and the protesters, it’s unclear if the events of the past few weeks will mark a turning point, or if this is just another periodic eruption of the country’s long-simmering internal tensions.