Watching the Occupy Wall Street protests lately, I’ve seen something that concerns me quite a bit more than even the wealth disparity being protested–although that disparity is possibly an indirect cause of it.
The trend I’m talking about is the increasing militarization of the police force. Over and over, we’ve seen squads of riot-gear clad police move in, using force to break up the protests. Protests which are, in well over 99% of cases, peaceful, well-organized, and law abiding.
The separation of the Police and Military, while not enshrined in the Constitution, is an old problem–Hamilton discussed it indirectly in the Federalist Papers–and was expressly set down in law with the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. The law was originally an “election fairness” force–preventing the military from having an undue influence on elections. What it does is make illegal the use of the military for execution of law enforcement.
When everything is going as planned, this makes good sense. The two are geared for different things: the police are there to enforce laws, ensure civil liberties, and keep the peace. The military, on the other hand, is designed to fight and win wars. The police work for the state or local political structure–the mayor or governor, who is elected locally by the people. Therefore, the police work for the people. The military derives its authority from the Executive Branch–the President–and does its work (generally) outside of U.S. territory. Most importantly, where the military is trained to use overwhelming lethal force, the police are (or should be) trained to use the minimum force necessary.
(Credit where credit is due: A chunk of the above is derived from Preach What You Practice, a publication of the Washington Office on Latin America)
The problem is that we have, especially since 9/11, been providing the police with military-style equipment, and training them in military-style tactics. It’s not a bit step to realize that they’re going to use them, even in situations where such equipment and tactics are unwarranted. As the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail; this time, however, you’re just itching to use that shiny new hammer that you got with money from the Department of Homeland Security…
As Matt Taibbi points out in The Rolling Stone, an important question that these police aren’t asking, is: what exactly are we defending (when we are breaking up these protests)? Taibbi said it better than I can, so I’ll quote him:
The original answer, ostensibly, was, “We are defending the peaceful and law-abiding citizens of the United States, their principles, and everything America stands for.”
Then after a while it became, “We’re defending the current population of the country, but we can’t defend the principles so much anymore, because they weigh us down in the fight against a ruthless enemy who must be stopped at all costs.”
Then finally it became this: “We are defending ourselves, against the citizens who insist on keeping their rights and their principles.”
I’m afraid that this doesn’t sound much like the America I grew up in, any more. If that is how things are going to go, then the Long Decline may be headed in a dark direction, indeed.
(The Guardian’s Naomi Wolf has an article about this, as well. It seems that a nerve has been touched…)
Do I think that we are necessarily headed that way, complete with brownshirts, goose-stepping thugs marching in parades, and so on, to end with labor camps and mass graves? In a word, no. I’m reasonably certain that things aren’t going to be all roses and sunshine, but the optimist in me likes to believe that we won’t end up in some modern version of 1942 Germany (although the Britain of 1984 is entirely possible). I’ll keep prepping, all the same.