Have a look at this Youtube video and witness the raw beauty of the mustang—wild horses that symbolize freedom. We domesticated horses, used them for transportation, sport, combat, and hard, manual labor. We tamed the mustang with a combination of ropes, saddles and stirrups. The history of the mustang parallels the history of our own species from the feral hominids of the African savannah to the factory workers in Cambodia or Bangladesh.
The taming of our species, like that of the mustang, has required technology, training and techniques to produce a useful, domesticated animal.
Law enforcement authorities since the dawn of mankind have used two basic tools handy in their quest to restrain suspects, prisoners, activists, and other assorted troublemakers. Either limit the mobility of their arms and hands with handcuffs or use shackles to restrict movement of their legs.
Shackles play a role in our domestication. The image of shackles on a human being is a display of authority and power, one that denies freedom of movement. The shackles were used like a rope, saddle and stirrups to bring us into line.
The idea is fight or flight is much harder with handcuffs and shackles. The secondary purpose is the visual impact on others who watch guards parade a prisoner dragging his chains and trying to maintain a small measure of dignity as he walks. No one looks innocent in chains. No one misses the message: Mess with the big boys’ laws and rules and this is what happens.
Shackles are costume art used in the ancient theatre of ‘justice’. They are part of the humiliation wardrobe that fashion statement that proclaims the wearer’s guilt. Bad people, so the theory goes, are put in chains. Let’s have a look back time and trace the origins of the chains that bind our species to its very beginnings.
Using leg irons to restrain movement has a long association with slavery. The history recedes into the midst of prehistoric times as archeologists have unearthed fetters that served the same purpose—restraining or limiting the range of movement of a person’s walking gait. The history of Roman and medieval times indicates the widespread use of shackles. In the late eighteenth century plantation owners in the French West Indies colony of Saint-Dominque shackled their slaves to prevent their escape. Shackles were widely used on slaves living on American Southern cotton plantations; the emotional backlash in the North against shackling was a factor in turning sentiment against the plantation system, a factor in the run up to the Civil War.
You might think that in the age of data mining, AI, Mace, Tasers, digital surveillance technology, and sensor tracking, shackles could only be found in museum or the antique collection of a bondage entrepreneur, but you’d be wrong. Shackles must be the last vestige of criminal justice system that predates talking pictures, high schools, cars, TVs, electricity, the steam engine, pizza, the printing press, the musket, and indoor plumbing. Basically shackles come for the dark, distant noir past slippery with the blood and tears of slaves and subjugated enemies.
We are the only primate on record with an evolutionary history of tying up another’s legs to hobble him or her. The history of shackles goes back to the dawn of our species. I am not saying we evolved to shackle our own kind but our social development is a fancy phrase for species domestication. A feral beast is tamed with shackles. The question is who has legitimacy to be the trainer and rider over the domesticated herd. No one has fully answered that question. It may be one reason that the ancient practice of shackling is widespread throughout the world and is not a violation of human rights per se.
How could such this humiliating, cruel, and brutal form of restraint continue from generation to generation? Being tainted by slavery wasn’t enough to cut the restraints. Digging up the remains of Roman women and children in shackles doesn’t shock us.
We are better than that, right?
If you are a pregnant prisoner in Ohio, convicted on a dope charge, a Federal Marshall shackles you from the cell to the hospital infirmary where they remain fixed to your legs while delivering your child. The child enters a world that, in one way, hasn’t changed at all. This isn’t a report from Roman times. The shackling of the pregnant woman occurred in the year 2000. I am not picking on Ohio, apparently this is common practice in other states and the US federal prison system: pregnant women are treated in the same was as a twenty-year sprinter champion who was convicted of selling pot. Savor that image: Mother in labour vs. track star. Both get shackled to go to hospital.
There is an online human rights push to bar shackling of pregnant women. When you read something like this, you seriously question why you gave up drinking. If there is an excuse for drugs and booze, thinking about a nine-month pregnant woman walking in shackles is one of the better ones to get you through one more day of the nightmare of this life.
Indonesia has a history of shackling people with mental health problems. While it is illegal, the practice is widespread. Up to eighteen thousand people with mental health conditions are shackled in Indonesia.
Political activists are also candidates for shackles. These young, wild mustangs demonstrate and protest and claim the right to do so as part of a right to freedom of expression, association and assembly.
A recent example happened in Thailand. Seven university students protesting against the military junta and arrested for their efforts were photographed in prison garb and shackles as they were led to a court appearance. After having been jailed for 12 days, they were not charged and released without bail. Now you may say, that shackles prevent prisoners from escaping. The shackles would definitely slow them down.
In this case, the students had refused to request release bail (six other students arrested at the same time were released after requesting bail). Their failure to request bail indicates a willingness to suffer jail in the name of civil rights and liberties. That principled position, one might assumed, would minimize their flight risks. The military government said the use of shackles was in the discretion of the prison administrators. Further shackles were not, in the view of the government, a violation of human rights.
Shackles provide a powerful metaphor for official control over those minorities—blacks, women, mental patients, political activists who are making too much noise. Like the mustang all people have a yearning for freedom. That, of course, is a pipe dream. We aren’t free. We’ve internalized our shackles by turning them into sexual fetishes such as bondage. Our sexual shackles arouse us. Our political shackles are being tested around the world as people are not starting to break free of control imposed by cowboys who have rounded us up one too many times and sent us off to the slaughterhouse.
The days of the mustang are largely gone. The days of mustang-like human beings vanished long ago. Shackles remind us of a time lost in the midst of history when we were once free of control. Leg irons remind us of what awaits the wild horses among us who wish to break free of control. Meanwhile, people continue to secretly act their shackling fears through sexual bondage rituals. No other domesticated animal (including horses) has discovered sensual pleasure in tying each other up. Our species is exceptional in the animal kingdom—tin pot dictators engaged in ropy bedroom power games to excite pleasure.
Let’s look down the road and imagine shackles in the future.
My prediction is that within fifty years, we will have invented chemical and electrical stimulations of the brain that will replace the need for shackles and drugs. There will be no more need for corporations to used state powers to physically tie up or restrain people. We will largely live inside virtual worlds without the boot to our throats. The bucking of the system will be in the distant past. The freedom of the old physical world will seem cruel, grim and unfair to those in the virtual reality. Those who would have been shackled in the past will no longer try to buck the rider off their back. They are free by default.
They won’t feel the pressure to work to produce products for consumption. The idea of productivity and contribution will no longer have the same meaning. Once jacked into mixed virtual reality, the old physical space becomes a cartoon. The next step will be full-time in a virtual space of unlimited reality. Better than drugs. Better than work. Everyone can realize that inner Mustang self.
The future promises freedom unimaginable in our shackled world of work, wine, sex, Internet and rock ‘n roll. We will have gone from a society that imprisoned drug user because widespread drug use threatened to erode the workforce to a society mandating drug use (or the new technological equivalent—the virtual fix) because there are no jobs. In virtual world no one cares about jobs.
Their identity will come from other virtual experiences. In the future if you test negative for matching a certain range of brain phase transition, you must show either a special permit or be deemed a dangerous subversive, a danger to society—someone who wants to return to the unfree era of shackles. That’s not the end of the story of shackles, though. I suspect a technological shackle will be discovered and applied to an ‘anti-drug outlaw’. We are inventive in shackling each other and so far no new technology since the beginning of our era has managed to exclude shackling as an effective way to control the unruly, restless horse stamping the ground, one who wants to run wild and away from the crowd.