Slowly, A Consensus Emerges To Oppose The Security State

12/13/2013 10:11 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014
  • Radley Balko Senior Writer and Investigative Reporter, The Huffington Post
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From a new Reason/Rupe poll (pdf):

Do you think local police departments using drones, military weapons and armored vehicles are necessary for law enforcement purposes, or are they going too far?

• Necessary ............................................ 37%
• Going too far........................................ 58%
• DK/Refused ............................................ 5%

This seems consistent with other polling data showing that the public is finally turning on issues like marijuana legalization and mass incarceration. (Public support for the death penalty remains pretty high, but I have some theories on why that might be.)

In my book, I talk about how police militarization has flourished in part because while partisans on the left and right have been quick to denounce heavy-handed tactics when used against people with whom they sympathize or to enforce laws that they oppose, they've been somewhere between silent and gleeful when such tactics are used against their political opponents. But that too is changing. The reaction to the book has been encouraging, from across the political spectrum.

More broadly, I think there's an increasing pan-ideological realization that the creeping surveillance/security/military state is starting to tread on the values and principles that are critical to a free society. And more encouraging yet, a willingness to speak up when government violates the rights of one's political opponents.

There were a couple more examples this week. First up is Kevin Williamson, writing at National Review Online:

Our relationship with the national-security and public-safety bureaucracies has changed. It used to be that you called the fireman to get your cat out of a tree; now the policeman shoots your dog. We have police rolling through the streets of such combat zones as Lubbock, Texas, in armored vehicles, wearing camouflage uniforms to help them blend into the honeysuckle bushes and crepe myrtle . . .

Things are bad on the police front, but they’re even worse on the national-security front. There has always been a tacit understanding that organizations such as the CIA are inescapably in the moral-compromises business, and that they would occasionally do things that were unsanctioned. In a perverse sense, the whole point of the CIA is to sanction the unsanctioned — we create a limited license while keeping those necessary acts of coloring outside the lines contained in an intelligence community that could be counted upon for its discretion, professionalism, and competence. We created a monster, probably a necessary monster, and put it on a leash. That leash was not a body of laws so much as a tradition of good judgment: When the lines of demarcation are murky, we must perforce place our trust in the judgment of men rather than in codes and statutes. The assumption was that they were good men who were good at what they did . . .

Today the police, military, and intelligence worlds are closely interconnected. And they are, collectively, a menace. The Soviet Union was a much more credible geopolitical threat than Islam-in-arms will ever be, but during the Cold War, we met allegations that Americans were working with Communist insurgents — and some of them were — with hearings, investigations, and trials. We did not assassinate them. But between the so-called wars on drugs and terror, we have let that monster off the leash, or at least given it a leash so long as to be practically useless.

Next comes Chase Madar, in a piece that was widely syndicated across the progressive web this week.

If all you've got is a hammer, then everything starts to look like a nail. And if police and prosecutors are your only tool, sooner or later everything and everyone will be treated as criminal. This is increasingly the American way of life, a path that involves "solving" social problems (and even some non-problems) by throwing cops at them, with generally disastrous results. Wall-to-wall criminal law encroaches ever more on everyday life as police power is applied in ways that would have been unthinkable just a generation ago.

By now, the militarization of the police has advanced to the point where "the War on Crime" and "the War on Drugs" are no longer metaphors but bland understatements. There is the proliferation of heavily armed SWAT teams, even in small towns; the use of shock-and-awe tactics to bust small-time bookies; the no-knock raids to recover trace amounts of drugs that often result in the killing of family dogs, if not family members; and in communities where drug treatment programs once were key, the waging of a drug version of counterinsurgency war . . .

But American over-policing involves far more than the widely reported up-armoring of your local precinct. It's also the way police power has entered the DNA of social policy, turning just about every sphere of American life into a police matter.

Madar's piece is quite long, and an excerpt doesn't really do it justice. I'd encourage you to read the whole thing.

The nice thing about both of these pieces is that they find space to criticize the garrison/incarceration state on issues usually championed by the other side. Williamson, for example, criticizes the harassment of law-abiding Muslims. It's also interesting to see publications like National Review, the Daily Caller, and the Free Beacon increasingly running pieces about police misconduct. Madar gets into the problem of overcriminalization, a term conservatives and libertarians use to describe broadly-written white collar laws, confusing administrative law, and the broad prosecutorial powers that make it difficult to run a business. I'm sure both would find things to disagree with in the other's article. But generally there's agreement here, and Williamson and Madar aren't outliers in their respective movements.

In theory, Democrats are supposed to defend civil liberties, and Republicans are supposed to defend businesses from onerous regulations that make it more difficult to operate (but increasingly can actually result in criminal charges). In reality, government operates more like a one-way ratchet. Once in office, politicians tend to be reluctant to limit their own power. So Republicans tend to compromise on reining in bureaucracy and regulation, while expanding the security and military state, and Democrats tend to compromise on all of that and civil liberties, while expanding the bureaucracy.

I don't know that much of this can really be stopped. Politicians are pretty risk-averse on these issues. It will take more than just giving them political cover to roll any of this back. It will need to become a political liability for them not to. But if intellectually honest opinion leaders on the left and right continue to speak up, that might at least slow it all down.

HuffPost writer and investigative reporter Radley Balko is also the author of the book, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces.

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