In an era of riots and hijackings, the SWAT model understandably spread nationwide. But as the riots died away and the threat of domestic terror receded, SWAT tactics — helicopters, heavy weaponry, the works — became increasingly integrated into normal crime-fighting, and especially into the war on drugs.
This was phase one in the militarization of America’s police forces, as described in Radley Balko’s essential 2013 book on the subject, “The Rise of the Warrior Cop.” Phase two, in which the federal government began supplying local police with military hardware, began in the 1990s and accelerated after 9/11, under the theory that Islamic terrorists could strike anywhere, and that it might take a cop with a grenade launcher to stop them.
Why yes, that in fact happened. And as I recall, conservative columnists jumped up and down, eager to spread the Gospel of George W. Bush. Eager to give the world the Bad News about dirty bombs and nukes in shopping malls, they encouraged the erecting of barricades outside every Little League ballfield, because anywhere two or more of you were gathered in America’s name, there the terrorists would be also.
The people who pointed out that this was just the most egregious bullshit, and that that fearmongering nonsense did nothing other than make people want to vote Republican (oh wait, I think I cracked their code here), were derided as traitors, fifth columnists, and general scum on the bottom of the Decider’s paratrooper boots.
But don’t let that get in the way of your newly enprincipled stand against Big Militaristic Government, Ross:
Well before Ferguson, this broad critique — long pressed by a mix of libertarians like Balko and left-wingers — was gaining traction in the political mainstream. This is why sentencing reform has a growing number of Republican champions, and why Rand Paul’s critique of the Ferguson police was more pointed and sweeping than President Obama’s.
Rand Paul’s critique, speaking of those sight-challenged rodents locating morsels out of pure luck, was effective precisely because it spoke to that contrarian impulse so beloved of our Beltway press. Fully half the coverage of his comments was about him bucking his own party and running for president; you could see the saliva filling pundits’ mouths as they rolled the word “maverick” around their tongues once again.
Ross can’t quite bring himself to agree that Saint Reagan’s blessed drug war was more sacrilege than sacrament, however, and positions himself so as to take no position at all:
But there may be trade-offs here: In an era of atomization, distrust and economic stress, our punitive system may be a big part of what’s keeping crime rates as low as they are now, making criminal justice reform more complicated than a simple pro-liberty free lunch.
Paul may be right! But he also may be wrong! How can anyone tell? I am considering, and pondering, and ruminating, upon this question. I take no stand, lest someone accuse me of unbecoming friendliness to poor and/or black people.
Watching the conservative reaction to the biggest policing and crisis communications clusterfuck in American history has been entertaining this week. It’s the only part of this ongoing Dumpster fire that is remotely entertaining, watching defenders of American liberty and individual freedom cheer big government’s big guns and defend the execution of alleged shoplifters before reports of their crimes even reached the guillotines.
Crime rates rise and fall, but crime-fighting is a constant for police; dealing with terrorism and insurrection, however, decidedly is not. Yet for decades we’ve been equipping our cops as though the Symbionese Liberation Army were about to come out of retirement, as if every burst of opportunistic lawlessness could become another Watts, as though the Qaeda sleeper cells we feared after 9/11 were as pervasive in life as they are on “24” or “Homeland.”
And this is where it’s ended: with a bunch of tomfool police playing soldier, tear-gassing protesters, arresting journalists and turning Ferguson into a watchword for policing at its worst.
Time to take their toys away.
Time to possibly suggest that the next time somebody says maybe don’t give them the toys in the first place, refrain from calling that person a filthy Osama-loving hippie who wants Americans to die.