the unarmed African-American graduate student shot dead on Sunday night by Cal State San Bernardino campus police, showed "superhuman strength" as he struggled with them, according to police. If that sounds familiar, that's because superhumanity is a lot more common than has been thought. Roberto Laudisio-Curdi, an unarmed student killed by police in Sydney in October, also had "superhuman strength." A man on a stolen motorcycle who resisted arrest in South Carolina last September had "superhuman strength" too, although it seems to me that it was more to his advantage that he had a gun, which the deputy through superhuman strength of his own got control of. Last summer in Maryland, a guy in a shootout with police "held on to his gun" after being hit by a bullet, which led a police spokesperson to remark, "The PCP just provokes superhuman strength." And at about the same time, police in Georgia said that a delirious man that they arrested "had superhuman strength and admitted being high on bath salts." (See also State of North Carolina v. Jonathan Howard Norton, No. COA10–1544, June 2011.)
Superhumanity functions as subhumanity; it allows the nonhuman to be eliminated while releasing the perceiver from having to answer for seeing someone as nonhuman. Like last spring's "bath salts" hysteria itself, the phrase "superhuman strength" reflects police discomfort with mental illness--or even just "irrationality"--on the one hand, and with the unaccountable phenomenon of resisting arrest on the other. People who are on drugs or mentally ill are more often "resisters" by default, since they are less likely to understand what's happening. Laudisio-Curdi had taken LSD, stolen cookies from a store, and was not wearing a shirt when he ran away from police. The man in Georgia was "half naked" (i.e., not wearing a shirt) and delirious, and was an African-American waving a golf club around on a golf course. We don't know what Bartholomew Williams was doing or saying, but it has been called "irrational behavior." The two seriously violent incidents above (in SC and Maryland) involved actual armed criminals resisting arrest. In their cases, superhumanity is invoked to explain their choice not to give themselves up, making it sound less like an ability and more like an involuntary condition. (Police officers themselves never show superhuman strength, even when they're agitated by adrenalin in struggle; they show fortitude and tenacity--at least when they don't cut matters short by shooting.) From the perspective of the police, resisting arrest is necessarily irrational: they perceive irrational people as resisters, even if that isn't their intention, and resisters as definitionally crazed.
Since superhumanity is not an actually existing condition, I wish I could say that it was not an actual diagnosis. But its perception has been officially encouraged by medical examiners and emergency physicians. According to the LA Times, medical examiners started citing "excited delirium" as a cause of death in the '90s, usually to explain how someone had died in police custody. Civil rights groups have been objecting to it ever since. The language police use today attests to the institutionalization of superhumanity, even as Excited Delirium arose in the first place in the medical examinations of those already killed.
"ExDS" has never been adopted by the DSM, but was formally accepted as a "syndrome" by emergency medicine in 2009. With the announcement of this formalization, Emergency Medicine News showed a color photo of a bleeding black man being held face down by at least nine hospital staff. Pointing out that "the syndrome is often only diagnosed on autopsy" and admitting that "no clear definition or cause exists," the article nonetheless argues that it will be good for patients' safety that police be made aware of the syndrome because it is a medical condition that can lead to death in and of itself. While the public assumes that people are dying from tasers, in other words, they are dying from their own syndrome instead, or at least in addition: "Prehospital ExDS should be presumed, the task force said, if a patient is disoriented or not making sense, constantly physically active, impervious to pain, has superhuman strength, is sweating and breathing rapidly, has tactile hyperthermia, and fails to respond to a police presence [my italics]."
Emergency physicians and medical examiners have almost as much of a conflict of interest here as police officers do, being liable for or pressured by official abuse respectively, and the circularity of their logic is telling. The list of symptoms fits precisely over the symptoms of undergoing police restraint itself, and resisting arrest is expressly associated with superhumanity. That something as figuratively vague, not to mention literally nonexistent, as "superhuman strength" could ever find its way into professional medical discourse is damning in itself. Part of superhumanity is being "impervious to pain," which explains why someone would continue to struggle even after being tasered a dozen times--once you've disallowed the thought that they are enraged because they are being tasered, and therefore need a new explanation. But how could this imperviousness be shown except by continuing to resist? Another "potential clinical feature" of "ExDS," according to the newsletter, is "lack of tiring": a description that assumes observation during counter-resistance. Since resisting arrest also counts as "not making sense," the list of symptoms really reads: resisting arrest, resisting arrest, resisting arrest, resisting arrest. Worse than the circularity is the reversal, in which suffering pain becomes imperviousness to pain as long as there is someone there who refuses to credit it.