Michael Brown Shooting

Ferguson, Iraq, and the Legacy of 9/11

|

Over the past two weeks, two events have consumed the national news: the authorization of renewed American strikes in Iraq, and the heavily militarized police response to protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after a police officer shot and killed an unarmed teenager.

The two events, a domestic story about municipal law enforcement in a St. Louis suburb and an international conflict on the other side of the world, might not seem related. But they both stem at least in part from America's response to 9/11, and they parallel each other in a variety of revealing ways.  

In a brief response last week to the situation in Ferguson, which has featured nightly showdowns between local activists and cops in armored vehicles, Obama made no mention of the militarized police presence. But over the weekend, in a memo to Congress, he would quietly indicate where he did want to see weapons of war: in Iraq—again, still, and more—as part of an escalation of the recently authorized strikes against Islamic State militants.

Obama's original Iraq operation, announced the prior week in a primetime speech, had been pitched to the nation on narrow terms, as support for a humanitarian objective that was necessary to prevent genocide. There were helpless people trapped on a mountain; authorization for strikes was necessary to ensure safe delivery of food, water, and other aid.

But mission creep set in almost immediately. "I don't think we're going to solve this problem in weeks," Obama said a few days after the initial announcement. "This is going to be a long term project." Administration officials then said they were considering sending in ground troops, absurdly claiming that they would merely be there for protective services, but not be in a combat role. And starting this week, according to Obama's memo to Congress, American airpower will be used to support the Iraqi Security Force to "retake and establish control" over a large local dam that had been captured by militants.

The humanitarian pretext lasted less than two weeks. Cover for aid-drops has turned into strikes in support of a regional military force. The defensive mission now has an offensive objective.

In 2008, President Obama campaigned vehemently against President George W. Bush's decision to go to war in the Middle East, and against his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton's more hawkish approach. He would be different. "Since before this war in Iraq began, I have made different judgments, I have a different vision, and I will offer a clean break from the failed policies and politics of the past," he said. "Nowhere is that break more badly needed than in Iraq."

Obama was supposed to end the war in Iraq, not continue it. Yet this was how he had eventually chosen to conduct foreign policy in the country: by selling a long-term military project as a limited-scope mission, by claiming that troops in a combat zone would somehow not be engaged in combat, by starting a war and then pretending that it is not really a war at all.

That unacknowledged, unended war is the legacy of America's expansive, extended response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the global war on terror that followed. So too is the police response in Ferguson.

As President Bush took the nation to war in Iraq, the nation's police departments were preparing for it at home. The arming of cops that began decades earlier with the drug war was given a massive federal boost. A federal program began transferring large military grade equipment from the Pentagon to local law enforcement—giving away almost $450 million worth of equipment originally intended for conducting war last year alone. Since 2002, a separate program run by the Department of Homeland Security has provided $35 billion in grants to law enforcement around the country, funding the purchase of tactical gear, storm-trooper-style armor, and mine-resistant vehicles.

These programs were supposed to be limited in scope, intended to help local law enforcement fight the extraordinary threats many believed were looming after 9/11. But there were no restrictions placed on how the equipment could be used, and so the scope was rapidly widened.

That's what led to the sort of martial images we've seen this week in Ferguson, in which clashes between heavily armored cops and upset protestors look eerily like scenes from a war. Police arrive in armored vehicles, post snipers on rooftops, and have shot tear gas and rubber bullets at the crowd. Change a few of the background details, and some of the scenes could be mistaken for Iraq.

The programs that helped supply cops in Ferguson and elsewhere with military equipment were intended to help fight terror at the local level. Instead they have helped create it.

What we're seeing in Ferguson also represents a kind of quiet escalation of wars that never seem to be won, and that we do not like to acknowledge: the war on drugs and the war on terror, which in Ferguson combined into a frightening show of militarized force—the ugly result of endless, unwinnable wars turned inward.

These are just some of the ripple effects and consequences of our bungled responses to 9/11: weapons of war pointed at citizens and escalating tensions on our own streets, and an overseas conflict that even an anti-war president refuses to end.

Obviously there are ways in which the two stories diverge, and of course, both can be traced back to events prior 9/11. But combined and juxtaposed, these two seemingly unrelated events offer a reminder of the way that political choices made years in the past continue to weigh on the present. And they illustrate, among other things, how hard it is to reverse complex policies even when they are widely regarded as failures, how easily initiatives intended to be narrow in scope and purpose can expand when left unchecked, how program objectives can shift subtly over time, and how years of simmering tensions can suddenly boil over in response to a single unexpected incident, resulting in unintended and unforseeable consequences.

Which is to say that they offer a sprawling and practically comprehensive lesson in the perils of government gone wrong. And they suggest that in so many parts of government, local and federal, and so many policies, foreign and domestic, we are still in need of what Obama promised in 2008 but, like so many government officials, has struggled to deliver: different judgments, a different vision, and a clean break from the past, both at home and abroad.  

NEXT: Why Do 36 Percent of Americans Have No Retirement Savings?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. As England, Germany, and Japan have demonstrated, losing a war is not the end of the world. But the American government’s bullheaded insistence on continuing to wage wars that it lost decades ago will eventually be its downfall.

    1. *As England, Germany, and Japan have demonstrated, losing a war is not the end of the world.*

      Yeah, all you have to do is lose a war and get the USA to pay for your reconstruction and defense for the next 80 years.

      So who’ll pay us to sit around on the dole for the rest of the 21st Century?

      1. Losing in Iraq is going to destroy our infrastructure?

        1. Given enough time, yes. “Infrastructure” isn’t permanent. Eventually it wears out, and if you’ve spent all the money on foreign adventures…

      2. If you look at the war as having been fought to gain control over European markets, you realize that the whole operation has been a profitable one. Nobody’s on the dole – except the government and those they serve.

  2. I blame Bush.

    1. Bush is at least partially to blame.

      Without question.

      1. are Bush’s policies sort of like the “Ring of Power”, corrupting anyone who takes office with their pernicious influence? Obama can’t help it! He must wage war in Iraq, his precious Iraq!

        *Vote Baggins/Gamgee 2016

        1. One does not simply end war in Iraq.

          1. No, but his policies are deadly to everyone except “the enemy”.

            He is also instrumental in stripping all your liberties from you (hello Patriot Act!)

            He and Obama should be bitch-slapped into submission for their crimes against the American people. Then thrown into prison for 500 years.

            1. I guess you missed the reference. As far as stripping me of my liberties goes, I’ll thank the entirety of the US government for that.

          2. We can’t end war in Iraq, but we can refuse to participate… the Islamic State isn’t even a proto-nation at this point. Let the neighborhood deal with it’s own problems. These conflagrations burn out, unless fueled from the outside.

            Gee, that applies to Ferguson, too!

            1. Yea, because what could possibly go wrong with sitting back and letting a massive group of radical islamist consolidate power and take over an entire region rich in resources and recruits?

              1. Well, is it worse than sitting back and letting a massive group of radical neoliberals consolidate power and take over an entire region rich in resources and recruits?

  3. “the authorization of renewed American strikes in Iraq”

    Is that what that was?

    I thought it was just something Obama did while congress was on vacation, and thought he could justify by claiming there were lots of refugees hiding somewhere they really weren’t

    But much credit to the news media for reporting about this “Operation: Limited Focus… with Open-Ended Timetable and Objectives” thing without ever remarking on the inherent contradictory nature of it all.

    1. Probably a better second-link

      The other one there keeps open the idea (now debunked) that the ‘thousands remaining’ on the mountain were trying to escape… when its now clear, about half of them *lived there*

      the above makes it a little clearer why this ‘urgent issue’ was suddenly downgraded last weds to ‘no big deal’ when they actually got some eyes on the ground.

  4. Local Democrats and Friends are starting to take credit for raising the issue of militarization of the fuzz….

  5. To paraphrase Fred Bear,

    If some of these Ferguson PD thrill seekers really want to get a thrill, let em go into Iraq and tangle with Sunni Jihadi, Shiite Jihadi, ISIS fanatic. They will get their kicks and it will cleanse their souls.

    1. Not a bad idea. Any cop caught wearing fatigues can be sent to some desert shit hole that the US insists on keeping a presence in.

  6. While we absolutely need a discussion of the militarization of the local cops, Ferguson is really not the best starting point. Had the original incident involved a kid who was walking home from bible study, then we might somewhere, but it looks like the young Mr. Brown may have not been as pure as the driven snow.

    1. GroundTruth|8.18.14 @ 3:36PM|#
      “While we absolutely need a discussion of the militarization of the local cops, Ferguson is really not the best starting point. Had the original incident involved a kid who was walking home from bible study, then we might somewhere, but it looks like the young Mr. Brown may have not been as pure as the driven snow.”

      Disagreed.
      This is *exactly* the circumstance that needs correction. Sort of like the language that needs protection is the stuff you don’t like.
      It’s easy to protect angels.

    2. Hi, would you like the criteria for who gets shot in the back by a cop to be based upon their purity of essence?

      1. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m talking about making the political case to end the overarming of cops. As far as I’m concerned, the whole Ferguson PD should loose every toy more dangerous than a starter pistol, but I’m not the one that you need to convince.

    3. ” it looks like the young Mr. Brown may have not been as pure as the driven snow.”

      Whether any changes come out of this affair is less to do with the purity of the victim than the resolve of the protesters. There have been a lot of innocents killed by police, yet as far as I know, only the residents of Ferguson have had the gumption to kick up a fuss about the killing of one of their own. Rather than supporting them, much of the comment here seems to resent their uppity nigger attitude.

    4. @GroundTruth. No. Just no.

      An unarmed teenager was shot 6x and killed by a police officer at 35 feet.

      PERIOD.

      Do not pass go. F**k your $200.

      “Yeah he’s no angel, he was ASKIN’ for it…just like that ho over there with the low cut blouse.”

  7. As much as I object to the militarization of police, giving the cops tanks is not the problem in Feguson. The problem is lack of training and accountability.

    1. The problem is with the government. The police are an extension of the government.

      There is your lack of accountability.

    2. Let’s get this out in the open, exactly how much training is enough? After every fucking failure the common call is for more training. Sensitivity training, procedural training, training on how not to shoot dogs, training on how not to shoot mentally disabled… How much is enough to make it stop?

      1. Agreed. Where I work there are some people who have been fucking up for twenty years. Management keeps saying they just need more training. I keep saying “No. You need to get rid of the fuckups.” If they don’t know their job after twenty years they’ll never get it.

      2. “training” is something they use as a stopgap to avoid ‘responsibility’

        See how this works in corporate compliance =

        its not about ‘limiting the actual violations’, or reducing the actual frequency of violations, so much as ensuring that Corporate, when they are *sued* can point to their training programs and thusly avoid culpability, and paint individuals as ‘bad actors’.

        The training by default takes on a completely superficial, bare-minimum aspect, because everyone involved knows the point isn’t to actually ‘stop’ anything or there be anything to ‘learn’, but that it is in fact all a process of deflection of culpability.

        The real thing being avoided is *penalties*

        Because if a cop faced jail every time he shot an unarmed person?

        You’d be damn sure they’d hold fire.

    3. I guess you’ve never driven a tank. It’s VERY empowering.

  8. Hi Steve,

    Do you see differences between 1.) a prolonged war involving hundreds of thousands of ground troops with no conceivable pretext against a pan-Arabist socialist and 2.) a limited number of air strikes against an Al Queda linked group which has specifically threatened to kill thousands of refugees?

    1. american socialist|8.18.14 @ 4:10PM|#
      …”Do you see differences between”…

      Yeah, this one is based on obvious lies, commie kid:
      “For weeks, as many as 40,000 Iraqi civilians were reportedly stranded on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq after fleeing the brutality of the Islamic State’s steady advance.
      […]
      After inserting a small military reconnaissance team atop the mountain, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said late Wednesday that the situation was no longer as bad as anyone thought. There are now only about 5,000 civilians on the mountain, and they are in “better condition than previously believed,” according to Hagel’s statement.”
      http://complex.foreignpolicy.c…..on_in_iraq

    2. Hi Joe,

      Which of those two options necessitates US action?

      1. If you’re the federal government then everything necessitates US government military action.

    3. The Democrats, formerly known as “anti-war”, are now arguing that the new lingo is “better than” …which is like, totally still *way* morally superior and shit.

      because they’re no longer ‘anti-war’ so much as, “This is Better Than something something something Bush”

      So, shut your mouth, you ‘anti-war’ types, because this is BETTER THAN

    4. “an Al Queda linked group”

      American Socialist has problems keeping talking points straight

      It really is amazing how quickly you will find the people who were SO vehemently opposed to invading Iraq quickly use exactly the same claims (and as easily debunked), and feel absolutely zero sense of hypocrisy

      Self-Awareness is hard

      1. …”and feel absolutely zero sense of hypocrisy”…

        Hypocricy! It’s what the left’s about!

        1. Do left and right have something to do with it? Or do you get a nickel for every time you dis the “left”?

      2. I think military action should be rare, but I’m not a pacifist. I see nothing inconsistent with vehemently opposing a ground war with 100s of thousands of u.s. Troops with no exit strategy in a war based upon neocon lies and a humanitarian mission involving a couple hundred u.s. Troops and a few air strikes. To equate the two is just right-wing desperation.

        1. american socialist|8.19.14 @ 3:31AM|#
          …”To equate the two is just right-wing desperation.”

          I suppose you can’t read, either.
          To claim a difference is leftwing bullshit.

  9. I have to admit that both of these two issues have me questioning my initial reactions. At first I believed the Feguson shooting to be simply another act of trigger happy LEO’s covering each others asses, but now I think it is entirely possible (even likely) that Michael Brown also assaulted the cop. I also was previously against any action in Iraq against ISIS but after seeing images of beheaded children, I think they have committed serious crimes against humanity and should be eradicated from the planet (prefereably by a multinational syndicate after a formal declaration of war). The pope even wants to eliminate them. Strange days…..

    1. “they have committed serious crimes against humanity and should be eradicated from the planet” If you’re American, you’ve just argued for eradicating yourself from the planet.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.