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What “Battlestar Galactica” Can Teach Us About the Militarization of Police

“There’s a reason you separate the military and the police. One fights the enemy of the state, the other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the enemies of the state tend to become the people.”

In Battlestar Galactica there’s a scene where President Laura Roslyn and chief military Commander William Adama debate how to respond to the potential rioting of civilians. In the absence of a police force capable of handling the situation, Roslyn wants the military to police the civilians. Adama tells her the military won’t be her cops.

“There’s a reason you separate the military and the police,” he says. “One fights the enemy of the state, the other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the enemies of the state tend to become the people.”

It’s difficult to imagine a more succinct warning for what’s unfolding in Missouri right now. The images coming out of Ferguson show police who are militarizing their policing tactics because they believe they cannot maintain law and order through regular policing. Police cars and batons have been traded for armored vehicles, tear gas, and assault weapons.

This unfolding military-style policing highlights how difficult it is to determine what reasonable limits we should expect from our civilian police forces. Police do not possess absolute authority, nor do they wield the powers of the military. Yet many ordinary people are unsure what limits are, or should be, in place to restrict police behavior—or what lines should be drawn to protect citizens from the police.

Recent events have proved Adama is right.

The phrase “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” reflects the growing disparity between what citizens consider acceptable behavior from our police forces and what police forces often consider to be within their power.

For the past two weeks, we have seen images of police in camouflage aiming assault rifles at citizens, arresting journalists, and using tear gas on protesters. It is worth asking: Do Americans consider this behavior within the acceptable range of police enforcement?

Pew recently asked this question, and the response shows a clear division: Among African Americans, 65 percent of respondents said police response in Ferguson has “gone too far,” and 32 percent of white respondents agreed. So there’s no consensus on what the limits of police behavior should be. This makes determining the limits of American policing complicated.

Perhaps this is why popular culture so frequently explores these questions. The militarization of civilian police and the role of protests in police states are subjects that arise regularly in movies and television—especially in science fiction.

Here are four scenes that question the corrupting power of police authority.

1. Battlestar Galactica

In “Water,” the second episode of Season 1, a sleeper Cylon (Cylons are the robots that destroyed human civilization) who is secretly embedded on the central military battleship (Galactica) places explosives near the water tanks. The bombs detonate, the holding tanks explode, and 60 percent of water reserves are lost. The lost water means that one-third of the civilian population will run out of water in two days. Adama, the military commander, immediately orders the civilian ships to begin emergency water rationing.

The second in command predicts this action will create riots. “Civilians don’t like hearing they can’t take a bath, wash their clothes, or drink more than a thimble a day,” he warns. And he turns out to be right.

President Roslyn implores Adama to police the riots with military forces:

President Roslyn: Rioting broke out on the cruise ship when they reduced water rations. We need to demonstrate an ability to maintain order, and we need to do it now.

Commander Adama: We don’t have extra manpower for fleet security.

Roslyn: You have the only armed, disciplined force available.

Adama: Yeah, but I’m not going to be your policeman. There’s a reason you separate the military and the police. One fights the enemy of the state, the other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the enemies of the state tend to become the people.

Roslyn: I appreciate the complexity of the issue, and I won’t let that happen.

Over the next four seasons of Battlestar, the role of the military in civil society is explored in exceptional detail. The show, which debuted in 2004, addresses the rise of terrorism and the control of Homeland Security, a fear of foreign peoples, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, restrictions on the press, and military-style policing.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

In the Hunger Games series, the people of Panem already live in a militarized police state. Order is maintained by “Peacekeepers” through any means necessary, including lethal force and public execution.

On a “victory tour” after winning the Hunger Games, victors Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark pay tribute to a young girl named Rue from District 11, who aided Katniss in the competition before she was eventually killed by another player.

In a show of solidarity, a man from District 11 makes the three-fingered salute, an illegal hand-gesture Katniss used in the Games. Soon, the rest of the district follows suit. The police, recognizing the dissent unfolding, seek to quell any further disobedience.

They drag the elderly black man who sparked the dissent in front of the crowd. Then, the cops shoot him.

The brief moments of rebellion that unfold in this moment are seen through the eyes of Katniss, and her horror of this execution reveals much what The Hunger Games are built on: the abuse of power, the subjugation of the poor, and the division of people by race and employment. These divisions are upheld by a police force with absolute power and enforced on people who have become enemies and slaves.

The Dark Knight

In a very real sense, the central question of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is about the very same question William Adama raises: How far we are willing to let our protectors go to keep us safe?

The Dark Knight Trilogy is filled with scenes that warn against the militarization of police forces. Batman Begins starts with police (paid by the mob) using brutal tactics to patrol the streets; The Dark Knight Rises ends by asking what it means to protect a city and its people from a madman.

But no scene raises the point more clearly than the interrogation (torture, really) of the Joker by Batman in The Dark Knight. It is hard to imagine a stronger justification for the abuse of power over citizens than the beating and torture of a “bad guy” in custody.

The Joker has abducted two people: District Attorney Harvey Dent, and Dent’s fiancee, Rachel Dawes. He has since been arrested by Gotham PD. To find out what the Joker has done with Rachel and Harvey, Police Chief Jim Gordon has locked the Joker in an interrogation room and handed the room over to the Batman.

“You have all these rules,” the Joker says, taunting Batman. “The only way to live in this world is without rules.” The Joker rightly predicts that Batman will go apeshit on him.

Batman reaches so far beyond the dictates of acceptable superhero behavior (at one point spying on every Gotham resident simultaneously) that even his allies question whether he has lost his moral tether to his position as hero.

Others have noted these themes in The Dark Knight Trilogy. The philosopher Slavoj Zizek has considered how the series engages an era of anxiety over capitalism, terrorism, and the Occupy movement. He notes the irony of handing over the protection of society to a mega-rich arms dealer moonlighting as a moral authority figure.

But Zizek also notes the necessary “event” underlying the actions of the series, which is the power of the people reclaiming authority over society, wrested out the hands of villains and heroes.

Minority Report:

In Minority Report, a film based on Philip K. Dick’s 1956 short story, the police have access to a group pre-cognitive psychics who can predict murder. The Pre-Crime unit of the police force uses this information to stop murders before they occur. With absolute authority, they capture murderers before they act, place them into a catatonic state, and imprison them underground.

But herein lies the same old question about the limits of law enforcement: If you arrest a murderer before a murder is committed, did you not just arrest an innocent civilian?

If it didn’t happen, how can you be guilty? What right do the police have to seize an innocent man?

Early in Minority Report, this question is addressed by Detective John Anderton of the Pre-Crime unit, and Danny Witwer, a Department of Justice official sent to investigate the program.

Witwer asks whether the police have the right to arrest a man before his crime is committed. In response, Anderton rolls a ball off the edge of his desk. Witwer catches it.

Anderton: Why did you catch it?

Witwer: Because it was going to fall.

Anderton: You’re certain?

Witwer: Yes.

Anderton: But it didn’t fall. You caught it. The fact that you prevented it from happening doesn’t change the fact that it was going to happen.

Thus the authority of the Pre-Crime unit is established. The question of individual guilt has been determined in the minds of the guilty before they even reach the crime scene.

The police are meant to serve and protect. But here, preventative lock-up is used as a tool to keep the “inevitably guilty” off the streets and away from the law-abiding public, in a justice system that provides police an almost absolute authority to clean up the streets. That hardly sounds like science fiction.

The protests underway in Ferguson have already begun to calm, and the images of dramatic military policing will in time fade from our screens. But the importance of such moments in the public imagination should not likewise disappear.

We are constantly faced with the civic and moral questions surrounding police forces. Anytime, the events in Ferguson could unfold in the lives of American citizens anywhere.

Which makes wrestling with these questions all the more necessary.

Science fiction has long been a place to wrestle with collective social complexities. As we remember what happened in Ferguson, let’s also draw from the stories that caution us against turning our civil rights over to an unrestricted power.