At least that’s what the US edition of the British rag Guardian wants us to believe.
Most people, asked to identify the most universal shift in law enforcement over the past 15 years, would likely think of militarization, calls for community policing or perhaps the slow decline of “broken windows”.
But from the turn of the millennium to to date, arguably no development has been more widespread in law enforcement than the adoption of so called “less-lethal” Electric Control Devices (ECD), which many people know by the name of their most prolific manufacturer: Taser International. The company currently supplies their weapons to 17,800 of the United States’ roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies.
The brand name Taser has become as synonymous with these devices as Kleenex or Xerox have to photocopies and tissues – a quirk of language known as a “proprietary eponym”. The word has even become a verb, as people commonly speak of being “tased” or “tasered”.
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The word Taser, though, didn’t start with the company: it’s actually a loose acronym of the book Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle. Jack Cover, the inventor of the modern ECW, named his prototype after the young adult Sci-Fi novel he loved, and the very idea for a less-lethal electric gun was largely inspired by the fictional one described in the book.
And while this quirky history is known among some in law enforcement and engineering circles, the innocence with which it’s told – a curious inventor culling inspiration from the literature of his youth – belies a more sinister truth: the book itself is boldly racist.
Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle, published in New York in 1911 under the pen name Victor Appleton, is typical of the literature of its time: an imperialist adventure tale set against the backdrop of a wild and dark African continent. In it, the protagonist, Tom Swift, develops an electric rifle – a totally novel idea in 1911 – and decides to test it in Africa in the hunt for ivory.