Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The War on Drugs and the birth of a police state

Boston SWAT, April 16, 2013
(Photo by Jozef Stazka/Flickr)
The terrible events in Boston last week were many things. One thing that struck me was the massive show of power on the part of police departments. Shutting down an entire city, conducting a sweeping manhunt, etc. This is no small task. In the case of events like last week, this is generally seen as a very good thing, even if it was somewhat surprising and shocking to many, least of which the residents affected by the whole ordeal.

For a nation that's been at war for over a decade, perhaps seeing armored vehicles, assault weapons, and camouflaged police officers isn't a big shock. But it does give some pause.

One thing to ask might be: How did police forces end up looking like paramilitary units?

Michelle Alexander, in her book The New Jim Crow, offers some clues. The "War on Drugs" - that is by now seen as a colossal failure - began its life as a political utterance in the late 1960s, made a rhetorical device over the next decade, and then in the 1980s was institutionalized by the Reagan administration and foisted onto all levels of law enforcement, from federal all the way down to local/municipal departments. (It also had a racial dimension, which is key to her argument, but that's not this topic.)

To help convince all levels of law enforcement to take up the battle in the invented drug war, the federal government began giving departments equipment, weapons, training, and created incentive programs to help (Alexander uses the word "bribe" here) police forces fight the war. While there was some level of initial resistance, eventually it was eliminated and the massive flow of resources and training has continued unabated ever since.

After 9/11 the rhetoric shifted from "War on Drugs" to "War on Terror," but nothing substantively changed. Police forces are now highly militarized and there's no un-warring them. It's all war, all the time. Fourth amendment (the "against unreasonable searches and seizures" one) rights are now irrevocably eroded. Surveillance of the general population has never been more pervasive. By 2015 drones in US airspace will be the new tool in that system of surveillance. The president now claims the power and legal authority to kill anyone, anywhere in the world - including U.S. citizens - with no due process. This is all in the name of securing the homeland. But at what cost?

Ah, the business of being a pacifist radical Christian living in the United States has never been more interesting! What better time than now to start imagining small-scale alternatives to the decaying national status quo?

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