Last Friday, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the NYPD will be upgrading its equipment by acquiring $7.3 million dollars worth of high-end bulletproof vests. These vests, which Police Commissioner Benjamin Bratton calls the “Rolls Royce” of body armor, cost $700 each and contain a ceramic plating capable of stopping knife thrusts as well as shotgun blasts.
No one disputes that police need protection, and it’s a basic fact of materials science that bullet-proof vests degrade over time and need to be replaced. The issue here, though, is that these particular vests are made by a company named Paraclete Body Armor, and, if the photos from the press conference are any indication, they bear that company’s logo: a cross. And not just any cross, either – it’s a big red one with distinctively tapered corners that is immediately recognizable as the symbol of the Knights Templar. The Templars were an order of European warrior-monks that arose during the Crusades in the Twelfth Century and who, among other things, were involved in numerous atrocities – including systematically decapitating some three thousand prisoners, largely women and children, at Acre in 1191. Like other monastic orders during the Middle Ages, the Templars followed a “Rule” (a sort of personal code of conduct and set of organizational practices). But unlike more friendly monks whose Rules involved morning prayers and guidelines for brewing beer, the Templars’ Rule was obsessed with martyrdom – and the red crosses they wore explicitly symbolized their willingness to die for their faith.
It’s not a coincidence that the company in question uses this logo. “Paraclete” is the Greek name for the Holy Spirit, and Paraclete Body Armor itself was founded by one Tim D’Annunzio, a former paratrooper and born-again Christian. To call D’Annunzio a colorful figure is an understatement: he’s a strident gun rights activist, a multiple-time Tea Party-favored candidate for Congress in North Carolina who held “machine gun socials” to support his campaigns, and a donor to the notorious anti-John Kerry “Swift Boat” ads. He’s also denounced President Barack Obama for “associating with terrorists,” and stated that “As a Christian, I cannot vote for Barack Obama.” Although his blog, “Christ’s War,” is now no longer operational, and much of his online presence appears to have been scrubbed, he’s still on Twitter, where his thoughts on Islam and Muslims in general are a matter of public record.
Although D’Annunzio sold off Paraclete a few years back, the company still uses his preferred logo. Which, I emphasize again, also happens to have been the symbol of an order of religious fanatics dedicated to putting nonbelievers to the sword and who believed that dying in battle while wearing that Cross guaranteed them entry into Heaven. Now whether under D’Annunzio’s stewardship or otherwise, Paraclete can use whatever it wants for its logo, much as scope manufacturer Trijicon can inscribe Biblical verses on optics shipped to US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. The question, rather, is: should the NYPD be buying this product? What kind of message does that patronage send to the general public, and what kind of message does an individual cop wearing a Crusader’s Cross on their chest send to civilians with whom he or she interacts? The NYPD has previously taken the stance that religiously symbolic garments must be more or less concealed beneath uniforms. Presumably these crosses, which appear on the ceramic plating within the vest, will be hidden, but will the logo be visible elsewhere? And even if it is hidden, what about police officers who find wearing that symbol to be abhorrent to their own beliefs – but who still need protection regardless?
I hope and presume the contracting process was transparent and fair, and that the NYPD got the best product they could. That said, I think it’s inadvisable and unacceptable if the department actually uses models that have the crosses on them, and I question the judgment of choosing this particular brand (all other alternatives being equal) in the first place. If you think I’m overreacting, consider a counterfactual example: what if the NYPD just dropped seven million dollars on bulletproof vests with a big scimitar on them, manufactured by a company called “Ghazigear” that was founded by a darling of the Muslim Brotherhood who had run for Congress after making a series of statements saying GW Bush was behind 9/11?
After the absurd, profoundly ignorant kerfuffle over the President’s comments about the Crusades and religion’s role in American racial violence, can you imagine the response? And yet here we are, in 2015, dressing armed public servants in garb that hearkens back to one of the most violent religious conflicts in history. What are we thinking – or are we thinking at all?
Update 2/10: My friend Scott Moringiello – who remembers his Jesuit education vastly better than I do mine – correctly points out that “cross” and “crucifix” are not technically interchangeable: a crucifix features the suspended body of Christ (a corpus) on a cross, whereas a cross is just, well, a cross. I have updated the terms used in this piece accordingly.
Update 2/19: The Village Voice’s Jon Campbell, who contacted the NYPD about this issue, reports that the Department wrote back to him and insisted that the vests it has procured will not feature the cross, “which it describes as an adhesive and an optional component.” The Department admits that it was “aware of the logo” although it remains unclear why a model with the cross was featured at the press conference; Campbell describes the procurement of the vests as “unusually rapid.”