Stelco Tower

This week downtown Hamilton has been treated to a first-hand demonstration of a helicopter assault on an urban skyscraper. The target: Stelco Tower.

Over and over and over again.

The operation has been a training exercise by Canada’s 427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron, an Air Force tactical helicopter squadron which deals with “counterterrorism”. Originally it was supposed to be over by now, but apparently the storm has prolonged the exercise, and of course it’s all been happening at night. They’ve been simulating a troop drop onto the roof of the tower by approaching, hovering, flying off and circling back, adding realism by turning their running lights on and off. With two choppers, and circles which only went north a little past Barton, it made one hell of a racket.

Residents aren’t amused. Downtown Councillor Jason Farr has lodged complaints, but to no avail. It’s a military matter, and hopefully it’s almost over.

Do you feel safer now?

For the last decade, there’s been a lot of talk in military circles of cities as the battlegrounds of the future. Since a quickly growing majority of the world’s population now lives in cities, often massive, dense and poor, attention is now shifting toward “urban warfare”. During the same time, we’ve also witnessed militaries beginning to shift focus toward domestic military operations. Bush created NORTHCOM and the DHS, while taking issue with America’s traditional restrictions on such action, Posse Comitatus, making changes to the Insurrection Act in 2006 (reversed in 2008), focusing on domestic “unrest”. Recent papers such as this, which deals with a hypothetical Tea Party uprising, gives a glimpse of the kind of scenarios they’re imagining. Such changes are taking place at least as far as Germany, where courts chose last August to allow the military greater powers and presence during emergencies. Here in Canada, where military involvement in civil matters has long been a fact of life, we’ve seen a similar shift toward even more domestic involvement (G20, Vancouver Olympics etc) in recent years, both in policy and practice.

While the above articles make mention of some pretty horrific (possible) disasters, they very quickly digress into far more civil situations. The FLQ crisis was one thing, but Olympic Games? There’s a fine line between “preparing for the worst” and “making a show of force”. Everyone from an old Eastern Bloc nation (among many others) knows exactly what’s being said when soldiers and tanks roll through the streets – why are we so afraid to admit it?

Paralleling the shift toward “domestic security” in the military, there’s been a widespread rise of militarized policing. Through tactical uniforms, assault weapons, “SWAT” commando teams, armoured vehicles and, of course, helicopters, police forces across the continent have been looking and acting far more like soldiers. Hamilton now has slick grey “tactical” uniforms, and Burlington now has unmanned aerial drones. In theory, this has been in response to the threat of rising drug/gang violence, but in reality, over the same period, crime has dropped steadily and substantially.

What are they preparing for? Riots? Insurrections? Protests? Strikes? Sporting events? Or all of the above? What’s very clear is who they’re preparing for: us.

Is this exercise preparing for a terrorist strike, or a rent strike?

This video came in yesterday from Occupy Denver, being evicted from an eviction defence action. It’s honestly hard to tell whether the troops involved are cops dressed like soldiers or soldiers acting like cops, but either way they’ve got camoflage, helmets and M16s, arrayed against a small number of nonviolent protesters in tee-shirts. Is this what we have to look forward to? Is this something we want?

I’ll ask again: Do you feel safer now?

If emergency first-responders like paramedics and fire-crews must train with choppers, I’m all for it. I hear them come and go from the General Hostpital daily, but that’s about saving lives, not ending them. If anything, this week’s disasters show an incredible need to shift resources away from war-making and toward fast response to natural disasters, which are only going to keep coming. What we don’t need is soldiers in our streets or in our skies. We don’t need paramilitary cops, and we certainly don’t need the military stepping into this role. Too many countries have gone down that road, and it never ends well.