As recently noted, the new diagnosis whenever someone dies following a tazing is “excited delirium,” which Steve Tuttle from Taser International advised me was not their invention, even if they seized upon it as an awfully facile excuse. But there is another word in the lexicon of force to note: superhuman.
Who doesn’t think it sounds pretty darned cool to be described as a “man of steel”? Except the word gets trotted out not as a compliment, but a rationalization. From Work Without Dread :
Bartholomew Williams, the unarmed African-American graduate student shot dead on Sunday night by Cal State San Bernardino campus police, showed “superhuman strength” as he struggled with them, according to police. If that sounds familiar, that’s because superhumanity is a lot more common than has been thought. Roberto Laudisio-Curdi, an unarmed student killed by police in Sydney in October, also had “superhuman strength.” A man on a stolen motorcycle who resisted arrest in South Carolina last September had “superhuman strength” too, although it seems to me that it was more to his advantage that he had a gun, which the deputy through superhuman strength of his own got control of. Last summer in Maryland, a guy in a shootout with police “held on to his gun” after being hit by a bullet, which led a police spokesperson to remark, “The PCP just provokes superhuman strength.” And at about the same time, police in Georgia said that a delirious man that they arrested “had superhuman strength and admitted being high on bath salts.” (See also State of North Carolina v. Jonathan Howard Norton, No. COA10–1544, June 2011.)
The post goes on to argue that the use of the characterization “superhuman” is the new means of dehumanizing the target of police violence.
You don’t have to be Foucault to see that superhumanity functions as subhumanity; it allows the nonhuman to be eliminated while releasing the perceiver from having to answer for seeing someone as nonhuman. Like last spring’s “bath salts” hysteria itself, the phrase “superhuman strength” reflects police discomfort with mental illness–or even just “irrationality”–on the one hand, and with the unaccountable phenomenon of resisting arrest on the other.
While this explanation delves deeply into the police psychology of viewing non-cops, the us-and-them mentality, as lesser humans unworthy of concern or compassion, my sense is that the description isn’t so much a tacit reflection of their dehumanization as it is another in the long list of convenient words that can provide a ready excuse for the use of force. It’s easy, quick and immediately explains why they had to shoot, taze, beat a person whose conduct otherwise compelled no need for force.
As is often the case, the word is used in conjunction with the underlying criminal accusation, such as the use of PCP or bath salts, playing upon public hysteria and ignorance. After all, how many people are going to rush to the aid of the dead man claiming they use PCP all the time and never had superhuman strength? On the other side, the mythology surrounding crazy, wild things that happen to people who do demon drugs plays right into a claim like this. As Judy Tenuta liked to say, “it can happen.”
While police are frequently uncomfortable with mental illness or irrationality, though the latter usually reflects the peculiar police perspective that failure to immediately comply with their commands constitutes irrationality per se, the use of force isn’t limited by any stretch to those who suffer from some mental impairment. With increasing frequency, it’s just a matter of time and convenience, where they have the means to end an incident now, and use it, or don’t feel much like chasing down a perp and just shoot instead. It’s quick and easy, the only thing needed is an excuse.
The beauty of characterizing a person as having “superhuman” strength is that it not only provides a justification for the use of force that would otherwise be inexcusable, but it can’t be tested later for veracity. Much like the beloved “furtive gesture,” it happened only because the police officer said so, and then it’s gone. In the case of furtive gesture, the result is a search. In the case of superhuman strength, there’s usually a dead body.
Does anybody actually have this “superhuman” strength? No and yes. No, there is no such thing as Superman, and no one suddenly manifests abilities beyond those of mere mortals, regardless of whether they’re wearing a cape. But drugs do cause disinhibition, where a person will exert his very human strength to its fullest, without any reluctance, despite doing so in the face of police force. The fact is that a person on PCP may well beat a cop in fight; cops don’t necessarily have secret cop-fu that allows them to come out on top in hand-to-hand combat. They can be beaten. They can be hurt. They are not inclined to let that happen.
At the same time, use of such shorthands as “superhuman” strength build a mythology that’s hard to resist. It becomes a mantra, where just saying the magic words makes whatever comes afterward perfectly understandable. What could the cop do in the face of this drugged up guy with superhuman strength? He had no choice but to shoot. And another unarmed person lies dead on the street, and there is no way to dispute it. Except it isn’t real.