A federal officer in Portland, Oregon, on July 23 2020. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/AFP/NATHAN HOWARD
A federal officer in Portland, Oregon, on July 23 2020. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/AFP/NATHAN HOWARD

Masked men, clad indistinguishably from soldiers, yanking civilians off the street in the dead of night and throwing them into unmarked cars is the modus operandi of totalitarian regimes — or the stuff of dystopian fiction.

But that’s now the reality in the US. In recent weeks the department of homeland security has sent hundreds of federal agents into Portland, Oregan, to quell protests over racism and police violence. The justice department and Oregon governor appear to have negotiated a withdrawal of those agents. But attorney-general Bill Barr told Congress last week that federal agents would be headed to other cities, including Cleveland, Milwaukee and Detroit.

Federal agents should assist local jurisdictions, if they ask. But, at least in the case of Portland, the conduct of federal officers clearly made a bad situation worse. Many of those federal agents aren’t easily recognisable as law enforcement officials, nor do they act like them. Even the military is concerned about the public confusion sown into society when heavily armed federal agents dress like soldiers. All the more reason for federal agents on the streets of US cities to be required to wear uniforms that clearly identify them and their civilian agency.

Complicating matters even more for the average American are the other masked and armed men who have appeared at public demonstrations in the US over the past few months — lockdown protesters, antigovernment activists, white supremacists, self-declared “militias”. To the unschooled eye they look remarkably similar, both in the flesh and in the millions of images flitting around the globe at the speed of social media.

Camouflage uniforms are intended to conceal a person’s presence and intentions from an enemy, or hunters from their quarry. But in our masked and militarised moment the righteous should make every effort to publicly stand out from the wicked. The only reason to wear camouflage in an urban setting — be it federal agents or self-declared militia members — is intimidation. If officers were easily identifiable, it would be harder for them to get away with thrashing unarmed Americans with nightsticks, shattering their bones as the camera phones roll./New York, July 31

New York Times

Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments?
Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.