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.