It's a sadly reliable feature of the Trump administration that no matter how truly awful something seems at the time, it will probably eventually be revealed to have been so much worse. Take, for instance, newly released allegations that the President's ghoulishly staged photo-op this past June nearly involved zapping innocent civilians with a military "heat ray" to clear a path for Trump to access St. John's Church across Washington D.C.'s Lafayette Park.
In documents obtained by National Public Radio (NPR), D.C. National Guard Major Adam DeMarco claimed that during the social justice protests outside the White House this past June — you know, the ones where the Trump administration and police buzzed demonstrators with military helicopters and blasted them with tear gas — military police considered deploying two highly specialized types of anti-personnel weaponry: Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) sound cannons (which were used against protesters in Florida this summer) and the comparatively benign-sounding Active Denial System (ADS).
And just what is an Active Denial System, you ask? On its dedicated Department of Defense FAQ page, it is described as a "non-lethal, directed-energy, counter-personnel system," which is the sort of hyper-anodyne military terminology that occludes what the ADS actually does: makes people feel like their skin is burning. In other words, it's a heat ray.
Ultimately, neither the ADS nor the LRAD were used on the Lafayette Square protesters. According to DeMarco, the D.C. National Guard didn't actually have either in its arsenal at the time — but the fact that their deployment was considered shows just how normalized the potential use of military equipment against civilian protesters has become.
Similarly, while there is no evidence that the president himself was involved in the tactical decision-making process during the protests in Lafayette Square, this is not the first time officials within his administration have allegedly turned to the ADS as a potential weapon to be deployed against unarmed people. In August, the New York Times reported that Customs and Border Protection agents had pitched using the same heat ray technology against migrants approaching the U.S.-Mexico border during the lead up to the 2018 midterm election. Reportedly, the proposal was eventually dismissed.
The Lafayette Square photo-op has gone on to become one of the (many) indelible snapshots of the Trump administration's commitment to performative fascism. And like so much of the past four years, what we actually saw only scratched the surface.