The Deadliest Rhetoric

Critics who link anti-government speech to violence ignore the violence committed by a government at "war."


At 12:30 a.m. on January 5, just three days before Jared Lee Loughner opened fire at a Tucson gathering hosted by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), a SWAT team in Framingham, Massachusetts, conducted a drug raid on the home of 68-year-old Eurie Stamps. Stamps wasn't the target of the raid. Nor was he armed when the police shot him. In fact, police had found their suspects, Joseph Bushfan—the 20-year-old son of Stamps' girlfriend—and Devon Talbert, also 20. The two were arrested outside the home. They still went ahead with the raid, which ended with Stamps' death.

On January 12, four days after the Tucson massacre, Sal and Anita Culosi settled a lawsuit against Fairfax County, Virginia, police Detective Deval Bullock. Five years earlier, Bullock shot and killed their son, 38-year-old optometrist Sal Culosi, during a SWAT raid on his home. The reason for the raid: Culosi was suspected of wagering on college football games with friends.

Later the same month, Berwyn Heights, Maryland, Mayor Cheye Calvo settled his civil rights lawsuit against Prince George's County, Maryland, and its police department. In 2008 a SWAT team from that department raided Calvo's home after intercepting a package of marijuana that had been sent there. Police broke down Calvo's door, immediately shot and killed his two Labrador retrievers, and held him and his mother-in-law handcuffed and at gunpoint for hours before realizing they were innocent. The package had been randomly sent to Calvo's address as part of a drug smuggling scheme; a plant at the delivery service was supposed to intercept it before it was delivered. To this day, officials in Prince George's County say that if they could do it all again, they would conduct the raid the same way.

Within hours of the Tucson massacre, pundits and politicians were denouncing anti-government rhetoric, falsely suggesting that the use of targets, crosshairs, and other gun imagery in political campaigning, along with strong denunciations of public officials, mostly from the Tea Party right, was responsible for the tragedy. But before, during, and after the massacre, they remained oblivious to an actual, measurable, and significant increase in the government's use of violent tactics against its own citizens. Indeed, the policies that led to the violence that claimed the lives of Stamps, Culosi, and scores of other innocents in recent years are supported by nearly all of the pundits and politicians who took to blogs, op-ed pages, and the airwaves to condemn those who condemn the government.

Who Is More Violent?

What happened in Tucson was an atrocity. But such actual, as opposed to rhetorical, attacks on public officials are rare. The last sitting congressman to be assassinated was Rep. Leo J. Ryan (D-Calif.), killed in 1978 by members of Jim Jones' cult in Guyana. Despite a flurry of unsourced media reports about a dramatic increase in threats against members of Congress, Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer told Politico shortly after the Tucson shootings that the  number of threats against members is "very low." Gainer added, "I think we have to keep this in some perspective."

Official government violence against nonviolent Americans and residents, by contrast, occurs daily. And for the last 30 years it has been increasing at an alarming rate. From the early 1980s to the mid-2000s, University of Eastern Kentucky criminologist Peter Kraska conducted an annual survey on the use of SWAT teams in the United States. Until the late 1970s, SWAT teams were generally used in emergency situations to defuse conflicts with people who presented an immediate threat to others, such as hostage takers, bank robbers, or mass shooters. But beginning in the early 1980s, police departments across the country began using SWAT teams to serve drug warrants.

Kraska found that the number of SWAT deployments in America increased from 3,000 per year in the early 1980s to around 50,000 by the mid-2000s. That's about 135 SWAT raids per day. The vast majority of those are for drug warrants.

In May 2010, after an open records request from local newspapers, the Columbia, Missouri, police department released video of a SWAT raid on a suspected marijuana offender. The video eventually made its way to the Internet, where it immediately went viral. It shows police breaking down a door after nightfall, immediately shooting and killing one of the family's dogs (while wounding the other one), then charging through the house, rounding up the suspect, his wife, and their young son at gunpoint. The hard-to-watch video provoked outrage all over the country, including threats against Columbia police.

 But the raid depicted in that video, with all its gratuitous violence, was not a rogue operation. It was typical. The only thing unusual about it was that a recording of it went public. The fevered response to the video was telling. It was as if Americans were being confronted for the first time with how literal the metaphorical "drug war" has become.

The massive increase in SWAT tactics during the last 30 years has been driven by several factors. The first, probably most pertinent to the Loughner discussion, is the martial rhetoric of the "drug war," which public officials utter daily. Unlike the targets and crosshairs that ultimately had nothing to do with the Tucson shootings, the willingness of politicians to define drug prohibition policies in terms of war has had real consequences—namely, cops who approach drug law enforcement as if American streets were battlefields. Ronald Reagan once compared the drug war to the World War I battle of Verdun. Drug warriors have described the narco-carnage in Mexico as a positive sign. One Georgia sheriff recently likened his own anti-drug efforts to the invasion of Normandy.

The second factor driving the increasing use of SWAT teams is a federal policy that allows local police departments to procure surplus equipment from the Pentagon for free or at a fraction of its cost. During the last 20 years, millions of pieces of equipment designed for war with a foreign enemy—including tanks, armored personnel carriers, machine guns, and body armor—have been transferred to civilian police departments for use in American neighborhoods.

After two decades of equipment transfers from the U.S. military to local police departments, SWAT raids are increasingly being used to crack down on all sorts of nonviolent activities: neighborhood poker games, illicit massage parlors, even businesses operating on outdated permits. Doctors accused of overprescribing pain medication have faced SWAT teams. A few years ago, a police department in Iowa sent a SWAT team to apprehend a group of Buddhist monks who had overstayed their visas on a peace mission.

Other factors contribute to the promiscuous use of SWAT teams, including federal anti-drug grants and asset forfeiture policies that specifically reward drug arrests and seizures to the exclusion of other crimes. All of these policies have been passed, funded, and expanded with bipartisan support. There has been very little criticism of them outside of libertarian organizations and drug policy activists.

In my own research, I've found 46 examples over the past quarter century in which a SWAT raid led to the death of a person who hadn't committed any crime at all, much less a violent one. These include people killed when a SWAT team raided the wrong house and bystanders caught in the crossfire when a SWAT team raided the right house. I've found another 25 cases where a nonviolent offender—someone suspected of violating laws against gambling, marijuana, or the like—was killed in a SWAT raid. There have been hundreds of wrong-door raids. My research, part of a 2006 paper I wrote for the Cato Institute, was based on media reports and records of lawsuits filed against police departments; I almost certainly didn't find every example.

The larger problem is that the government is using these extraordinarily violent tactics against its own citizens at a rapidly increasing rate, and finding more and more contexts in which to use them. To date, not a single national politician has made a major issue of this trend or any of the policies behind it. And while the media will sometimes report on particularly egregious mistakes, such as the 2006 raid in Atlanta in which police shot and killed 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston, they too have largely ignored the broader problem.

In Defense of Protest

Former President Bill Clinton was among those who used the Tucson murders to attack anti-government sentiment. "We cannot be unaware of the fact that—particularly with the Internet—there's this huge echo chamber out there," Clinton told the BBC shortly after the shootings. He cautioned not to let "disagreement degenerate into demonization." Criticizing anti-government rhetoric has long been a Clinton hobbyhorse. Four days after the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Clinton gave a speech in Minneapolis in which he warned, "We hear so many loud and angry voices in America today whose sole goal seems to be to try to keep some people as paranoid as possible and the rest of us all torn up and upset with each other," he said.  "They spread hate. They leave the impression that, by their very words, that violence is acceptable."

In April 2010, on the 15th anniversary of the bombing, he returned to the theme, writing a New York Times op-ed that linked criticism of the government to violence against the government. But while Clinton and others were quick to blame talk radio hosts and Tea Party activists for the senseless acts of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and Tucson gunman Jared Lee Loughner, McVeigh himself said two high-profile incidents of government violence motivated his mayhem: the 1992 shootout with Randy Weaver and his family at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. Those attacks, which like Oklahoma City occurred on April 19, merited only a passing mention in Clinton's essay.

It will be a welcome day when America's political and media figures get as indignant about innocent Americans killed by their own government as they do on those thankfully rare occasions when deranged people carry out attacks on government officials. What happened in Tucson is no reason to shunt anti-government protest, even angry anti-government protest, out of the sphere of acceptable debate. The government still engages in plenty of acts and policies—including one-sided violence against its own citizens—that are well worth our protest, anger, and condemnation.