“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” – Abraham Maslow
As one who is frequently involved in cases dealing with civil rights—those Constitutional rights of free speech and personal integrity that are the basis of so much of our law—I have been shocked by the recent developments in Ferguson, Missouri. I’m sure there’s little need to recap all that has occurred, suffice to say that protests over the shooting of a young, unarmed African-American man by a Caucasian police officer have caused tensions to boil over. Whether or not the shooting was justified is not the point of this post. The nature of the police response is.
Since the protests began, the local police have rolled out a variety of military hardware the likes of which are rarely seen here. Body armor, tear gas, machine guns, and armored vehicles have become the order of the day. According to a lot of people who should know—veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars—some of this stuff wasn’t even that frequently seen in those hot spots. Add to this the confrontational, violent approach of the police forces, and it seems only to have escalated the situation. A no-fly zone with a media blackout (complete with reporters being arrested) completes the ugly, ugly picture.
So where did all this come from? Well, the equipment is military surplus. The tools of combat that were intended for use overseas are now staying here. As the Department of Defense tries to stuff the genie back in the bottle, the hardware gets shipped to local police departments. And when you’re talking about city police departments trying to control drug cartels and heavily armed gangs, this might make some sense. But it’s a whole different thing when you’re talking about a crowd of citizens armed with nothing but outrage. Guns don’t quell feelings of injustice.
But the bigger question to me is not the source of the weapons, but the source of the will to use them. When did the streets of Ferguson, Missouri become the streets of Baghdad? And is there a connection? Because I think there is. In the days following the World Trade Center attack, drawing the sword became more important than figuring out the proper target. The rights of anyone and everyone took a backseat to drawing blood. Congress passed the Patriot Act, which gave the government all new powers to monitor its own citizens. A callousness toward rights anywhere creates a callousness toward rights everywhere. It’s an unintended consequence, and it’s happened before. Sending military-grade weapons to police forces that don’t need them blurs the lines between soldiers and cops; between those in real combat and those who are supposed to protect and serve.
In the modern era, the role of the soldier has certainly changed. Given the “peacekeeping” aspect of so much military action these days—making war, not on nations, but on particular figureheads—soldiers may wind up acting more like policemen these days. But the converse should not be so. We don’t need soldiers on the streets of our cities. We need respect for the rule of law—including those individual rights—and we need it from those wearing the badges as much as from anyone.