In the past few weeks there have been many descriptions of the horrible slaughter of human beings in the War on Terrorism. The shootings at the newspaper offices in Paris continue to horrify readers and incite volatile responses.
One of the terms used by a number of journalists to describe this and other attacks is that the terrorists were “armed to the teeth.” The use of this idiom is meant to indicate that the attackers were not carrying just a pistol or even just one rifle. To the contrary, they were equipped with more arms and ammunition than one would need to wipe out a whole community.
The term comes to us from the 1600’s when pirates were prominent in the various oceans and seas around the world. When the pirates actually boarded a ship, they had only one chance to equip themselves with sufficient armaments to accomplish their takeover of the victim ship. There was no going back to the pirate ship to get another gun or other weapon.
Consequently, the pirates would carry a gun in each hand, and…as a backup…they would stick a knife between their teeth. We’ve all seen the cartoons of this but maybe never stopped to think about what it meant.
The feeling that many of us have to the attacks we read about every day is that there is a sense of “overkill.” Victims are not only shot, but shot many times, sometimes even after they are already dead. And, in the Middle East killings it sometimes ends in beheadings and other forms of physical abuse of the body. This is accomplished by having an overabundance of arms on hand, including knives and sometimes machetes. The adrenaline surge on the part of the attackers is huge, leading to monstrous acts which defy the imaginations of most of us.
The incidence of militarization of police has also sparked commentary about police being “over-equipped” for the tasks before them. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down, military weaponry has been made available to local police unites, allowing them to become more and more a military unit rather than the community-based “friendly police” organizations we remember from other eras. SWAT teams used to be special units that were occasionally called into criminal events such as hostage-taking. For the most part normal police activity at a scene of a crime was restricted to a car or two of police officers and backups who were normally equipped with the weaponry needed to put down a situation rapidly and with some degree of discretion.
In recent times, however, trucks filled with heavily-armed, and dramatically dressed and equipped martial units pull into a scene and there is a pseudo-military atmosphere in which emotions run high and the possibility of over-kill can occur. This is not meant as a criticism of current policing as much as a notation of the changing environment in police response.
Armed to the teeth, these units tend to create or expand a setting in which ammunition can fly in abundance and injury and death of perpetrators and sometimes hostages and other innocents are endangered. It will be good to have the pirate image in mind when this topic arises again…and it will.
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