In June of 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs.” This war was framed in the typical language of conservatism: Us vs. Them; Good vs. Evil; The Battle for America’s Soul—not coincidentally, this language also obscured the true purpose of the war.
John Ehrlichman, one of Nixon’s top aides, later revealed the President’s true intentions:
You want to know what this was really all about? Nixon…had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. […] We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
The dishonest origins of the drug war (the effects of which continue to disproportionately impact people of color) should be reason enough to revisit the debate; adding to that is the preponderance of evidence that the war on drugs is a failure. In 2015, the United States spent $25 billion in federal money (and an additional $25 billion in state and local money) on drug enforcement, with negligible results.
That’s the problem with declaring war. There are no shades of gray; there is only black and white, complete victory or abject failure. In pursuit of this triumph—or a fear of failure—our government has taken increasingly drastic steps to curb and control illegal behavior. Nowhere is this more evident than the ongoing militarization of local police forces.
The images from the riots in Ferguson offer a clear example of what that looks like: armored personnel carriers, riot gear, military-grade weapons, all wielded by local police officers with minimal training and intended for use on the very citizens they are sworn to protect. Supporters of this new breed of police officer argue that policing is a highly dangerous job, that police officers risk their lives on a daily basis, protecting us from the worst elements of society.
That’s the problem.
The point of a police officer’s responsibilities is to improve a community by enforcing laws. It is a public service, and the result ought to be that the public benefits from their service. But somewhere along the line, the understanding of the responsibilities of the police shifted; now, their role is perceived as protecting good people from the bad guys.
Many Americans view crime through the lens of war, and police officers are considered the last line of defense, and suddenly, suspects are no longer regarded as members of the community—they’re enemy combatants, bite-size personifications of the scourge of crime. They’re paper targets. This belief is dangerous enough on its own; add military hardware to the equation, and it further cements the notion of Us vs. Them. But “Them” doesn’t just refer to criminals.
As the countless unjustified shootings of innocent people (particularly people of color) continue to demonstrate, any citizen can become one of Them without warning; more often than not, the result is tragic. And the last thing we need is more police officers with grenade launchers.
Naturally, the Trump administration and Attorney General Jeff Sessions disagree. In fact, they think we need more military weapons in the hands of police officers. How else is a doughy 38-year-old who fancies himself a modern-day Harry Callahan supposed to feel that he’s in power? Why kill a 12-year-old child with a pistol when you can do it with a bayonet?
There is no reasonable argument for equipping a small-town police force with military hardware. If a situation arose where they did need it, odds are the circumstances would be so dire that the town would require military assistance anyway. What’s more likely to happen is the local police force will start searching for reasons, valid or otherwise, to use this equipment.
Following the events in Ferguson, President Obama rightly noted that “militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like they're an occupying force.” In response, Sessions announced that the Trump administration “will not put superficial concerns above public safety.” Such “superficial concerns” presumably include wrongful death at the hands of the police and the eventual deployment of SCUD missiles to break up a high-school party.
The continued militarization of local police is in keeping with the overall theme of the Trump administration: might makes right. Force is preferable to dialogue. When all else fails, blame the Obama administration and stoke irrational fears in your constituents.
After all, if you’re not winning the war on crime, you’re losing it. And what better way to win a war than to be better-armed than the opposition?