In April of this year, The Future of Freedom Foundation and Young Americans for Liberty presented a one-day conference at The University of Texas at Austin entitled "Stop the Wars on Drugs and Terrorism." The three speakers at this conference were Ron Paul, Glenn Greenwald, and Radley Balko. While spending an afternoon watching all the videos from this conference would be a good use of anyone's time, I want to focus here on one chilling observation made by Glenn Greenwald.
"The war on terror must eventually come home," Greenwald warned.
Let that thought sink in for a moment.
It's true in more ways than one. Men trained in warfare in foreign theaters are now becoming law enforcement agents here at home; equipment designed for warfare—including the infamous Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs)—is now in the hands of local police forces; and politicians who were willing to compromise liberty in the name of "war" and "national security" are now making similar compromises to grow and perpetuate the burgeoning police state.
While the changes are subtle in some cases, they are starkly obvious in others. The increase in SWAT activity may be harder to recognize for the average person, but the fact that an MRAP shows up at a local charter school for show-and-tell is a bit more in-your-face. Both the subtle and the obvious shifts toward a police state—and towards its acceptance by the general public—are highly problematic.
Consider the increase in SWAT deployments. As Radley Balko explained in a 2006 Cato whitepaper, "by the early 1980s there were 3,000 annual SWAT deployments, by 1996 there were 30,000, and by 2001 there were 40,000."
The reason for this shift? Today, SWAT teams and even MRAPs are deployed for serving minor warrants. It hasn't always been this way as Balko explains:
The use of paramilitary police units began in Los Angeles in the 1960s. Through the 1970s, the idea slowly spilled out across the country. But at least until the 1980s, SWAT teams and other paramilitary units were used sparingly, only in volatile, high-risk situations such as bank robberies or hostage situations.
How about the surveillance state? The NSA is not the only—or the first—federal agency that has been engaged in widespread domestic spying. We recently learned the DEA started logging billions of international telephone calls more than a decade before the NSA ramped up similar programs as part of the post 9/11 fear mongering typified in the so-called Patriot Act.
The twin evils of the war on terror and the war on drugs have served up a nearly endless supply of excuses for the militarization and federalization of law enforcement across the nation. As Chris Soghoian, the lead technologist with the ACLU, has observed "the War on Drugs and the surveillance state are joined at the hip." In 2013, 88 percent of the reported wiretaps for which the DOJ sought warrants were for narcotics.
Don't be fooled. The government is not spying on you to protect you from murderers or rapists. The police state and surveillance state tactics which have become so prevalent in this country are not making us safer, they are eviscerating our privacy and brainwashing our children into accepting a 'new normal' in which invasive government surveillance and small town tanks are as much a part of everyday life as smartphones and the internet.
Now there's a new wrinkle. In response to growing discontent with police abuse in certain urban areas, the Obama administration is making splashy public statements about reducing the flow of military gear to law enforcement agencies, but the reality is that it's all just a cynical publicity stunt. Tracked vehicles are now on the short list of prohibited items, but MRAPs are not. There will be no more grenade launchers transferred, but automatic rifles are still available. Oh, and all the stuff that has already been transferred from the DOJ will remain in the control of local police.
Behind the scenes, the growing federal interest in local law enforcement is less about reining it in, and more about increasing federal control. As is typical for the federal government, their primary tactic for doing so is offering piles of cash with federal strings attached.
It's all spelled out in the Final Report of the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Consider "Action Item" 2.6.1 in which it is recommended that the federal government "could further incentivize universities and other organizations to partner with police departments to collect data and develop knowledge about analysis and benchmarks as well as to develop tools and templates that help departments manage data collection and analysis."
The federal government wants to use taxpayer dollars to bribe both local police departments and universities to do its bidding. Recommendation 7.3 includes the innocuous sounding suggesting that the feds should "prioritize grant funding to departments meeting benchmarks." "What benchmarks?" You might ask, but don't expect to find the answer in a public document. Once the pattern of dependency is established, the local police need only realize that failure to comply means a loss of funds and the implementation of federal control will be complete.
Perhaps Obama is merely heeding Al Sharpton's demand that "We need federal intervention without delay." There are not merely two options here. It's not a choice of accepting local police gunning down 12-year-olds or accepting the nationalization of police. We can acknowledge that local policing needs radical improvement without endorsing greater federal control.
If it appears the media has been complicit in working to implement Obama's agenda, there is a reason for that. They're following orders. "I expect our friends in the media to really focus on what's in this report and pay attention to it," the President said in early March. Judging by the amount of press coverage the alleged racial component of police misconduct has generated recently, it's clear that Obama's friends are on the job.
Expecting the federal government to fix the problems with local law enforcement is utterly ridiculous because it is largely the federal government which caused these problems in the first place. The war on drugs is a federal initiative that was picked up by local police primarily because of the influx of federal money. The military gear that has flowed into local cities and towns came from the feds. The local police are even being trained by the US military to envision their cities as war zones.
If we want to prevent American cities from ending up like Fallujah, the federal government needs to stop providing equipment and training that was designed for waging war abroad to those who are supposed to keep the peace at home.
It's long past time to put an end to both the domestic and foreign wars which are being used to justify the subjugation of individuals and the obliteration of their privacy. Let the Patriot Act expire. End the wars. Bring the troops home. Shutter the NSA. Put James Clapper in a cell and erect a statue to Edward Snowden in the middle of Washington D.C. Admit that everything the federal government has done in the last 15 years in the name of "security" was a tragic mistake.
H.L. Mencken once stated that "the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." How many times will we allow ourselves to be fooled? The fear of alcohol (Prohibition); drugs (the War on Drugs); and terror (the War on Terror) has caused untold suffering and loss of life both at home and abroad. Now fear is again being leveraged in order to facilitate a federalized police force.
Let's stop fearing the federal government's endless series of hobgoblins and start fixing our policing problems at the local level. History reveals that adding more federal control to the situation is only going to make things worse.
Photo from the Boise Police Department.