Huffpost Politics
THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Tom Engelhardt Headshot

How the Border Debate Was Militarized

Posted: Updated:
CHILDREN MEXICO BORDER
John Moore via Getty Images
Print

The militarization of the police has been underway since 9/11, but only in the aftermath of the six-shot killing of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, with photos of streets in a St. Louis suburb that looked like occupied Iraq or Afghanistan, has the fact of it, the shock of it, seemed to hit home widely. Congressional representatives are now proposing bills to stop the Pentagon from giving the latest in war equipment to local police forces. The president even interrupted his golfing vacation on Martha's Vineyard to return to Washington, in part for "briefings" on the ongoing crisis in Ferguson. So militarization is finally a major story.

And that's no small thing. On the other hand, the news from Ferguson can't begin to catch the full process of militarization this society has been undergoing or the way America's distant wars are coming home. We have, at least, a fine book by Radley Balko on how the police have been militarized. Unfortunately, on the subject of the militarization of the country, there is none. And yet from armed soldiers in railway stations to the mass surveillance of Americans, from the endless celebration of our "warriors" to the domestic use of drones, this country has been undergoing a significant process of militarization (and, if there were such a word, national securitization).

Perhaps nowhere has this been truer than on America's borders and on the subject of immigration. It's no longer "give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." The U.S. is in the process of becoming a citadel nation with up-armored, locked-down borders and a Border Patrol operating in a "Constitution-free zone" deep into the country. The news is regularly filled with discussions of the need to "bolster border security" in ways that would have been unimaginable to previous generations. In the meantime, the Border Patrol is producing its own set of Ferguson-style killings as, like SWAT teams around the U.S., it adopts an ever more militarized mindset and the weaponry to go with it. As James Tomsheck, the former head of internal affairs for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, put it recently, "It has been suggested by Border Patrol leadership that they are the Marine Corps of the U.S. law enforcement community. The Border Patrol has a self-identity of a paramilitary border security force and not that of a law enforcement organization."

It's in this context that the emotional flare-up over undocumented Central American children crossing the southern border by the thousands took place. In fact, without the process of militarization, that "debate" -- with its discussion of "invasions," "surges," "terrorists," and "tip of the spear" solutions -- makes no sense. Its language was far more appropriate to the invasion and occupation of Iraq than the arrival in this country of desperate kids, fleeing hellish conditions, and often looking for their parents.

Aviva Chomsky is the author of a new history of just how the words "immigration" and "illegal" became wedded -- it wasn't talked about that way not so many decades ago -- and how immigrants became demonized in ways that are familiar in American history. The Los Angeles Times has hailed Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal for adding "smart, new, and provocative scholarship to the immigration debate." As in her book, so today in "America's Continuing Border Crisis," Chomsky puts the most recent version of the immigration "debate" into a larger context, revealing just what we prefer not to see in our increasingly up-armored nation