Foreign Policy

The War on Terror Comes Home

The foreign policy lesson in the struggle for police reform

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Our country's systemic need for criminal justice reform is inescapable once again. This round of the conversation is occasioned by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers last month. It is advanced by the dozens of protests nationwide demanding for Floyd the inadequate court justice that cannot restore his life but may still duly punish those who stole it. And it is miserably complicated by rioting which seems at least as much produced by discontent over coronavirus-related lockdowns as by misdirected anger over police brutality.

Criminal justice reform is primarily a domestic issue. From policing to trials and plea deals to sentencing to prison conditions to the rampant overcriminalization that invites too much state scrutiny of our lives, there is much to be done here at home—locally, in fact, since many crucial policy changes must be made state by state, city by city. But there is a foreign policy dimension of policing issues, too, and our present moment should be a warning against reckless habits of threat inflation and endless war that helped bring us to this point.

The two primary intersections of foreign policy and our criminal justice system are the Pentagon's 1033 program and the war on terror. The former is the primary modern means of police militarization in America; it transfers castoff military gearincluding armored vehicles, bayonets, grenade launchers, and surveillance drones—to local police departments. The 1033 program as we know it now began in the 1990s, but equipment transfers started markedly accelerating in the final years of the George W. Bush administration and up through today.

Though ostensibly intended to equip officers to fight the wars on drugs and terror, this gear has found much wider application. American police patrol peaceful protests, execute search warrants, and destroy backyard chicken coops looking (and acting) more like an aggressive occupying army than fellow citizens employed to protect and serve the public. The psychological result of dressing police like soldiers is that they behave accordingly.

Police officers are supposed to keep the peace, while the Soldier's Creed of the U.S. Army announces readiness "to deploy, engage, and destroy" the enemy. If police trainings explicitly tell the American cop to believe he "works a battlefield every day he patrols his sector"—as a police sergeant who trains SWAT teams wrote on an industry news site—they implicitly tell him the American people are his enemy.

Nearly two decades after the 9/11 attacks, we tend to think of the global war on terror with emphasis on the "global" part. It is, as the Bush administration mantra said, the policy to "fight [the terrorists] over there so we do not have to face them in the United States of America." But the global war on terror has never been entirely a matter of foreign affairs. On the contrary, perhaps excepting the deceptively premised and ultimately disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq, the most controversial aspects of the war on terror in its early years (and again following NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden's revelations in 2013) concerned infringements of Americans' civil liberties on the homefront.

The invasive body scans and pat-downs of the Transportation Security Administration, the arcane bureaucracy of the terrorist watchlistPATRIOT Act-authorized domestic spying including warrantless mass surveillancereligious profiling, indefinite detention, and other trial rights violations—all this was (and mostly still is) the homefront of the war on terror. This conveniently malleable approach to counterterrorism has been unconstitutional, costly, counterproductive, and inhumane at home just as it has abroad.

The chief justification for all this, of course, is safety. If the government "can search everywhere, break and enter our homes, get all of our emails, all of our telecommunications, conversations, then aren't we safer? Because the more information government agents have, the greater the likelihood that sometime, someplace, they will stumble upon some information relevant to thwarting terrorism," said constitutional lawyer Bruce Fein in 2007, when global war on terror breaches of our civil liberties were less thoroughly normalized. "Certainly there is something to that idea," Fein continued. "If you have a police state, you can get more information. If you throw everybody in prison, no one is going to commit a crime."

But what you lose in the process is a free society with a government constrained by the will of the people and tasked with defending our rights.

Drift from that ideal is difficult to reverse in domestic and foreign policy alike. And even if by some miracle President Donald Trump or some successor finally makes good on his occasional expressions of interest in ending our "endless wars," winding down two decades of mistakes and mission creep abroad will do exactly nothing to undo the global war on terror's deleterious effects on our constitutional rights at home. If every U.S. military intervention ended tomorrow, homefront civil liberties violations—including militarized policing and police misuse of federal surveillance data—would be utterly unaffected. It's even possible to imagine arguments, at the nexus of frugality and fearmongering, for further militarizing local police by distributing to them additional military gear newly freed up from conflicts in the Middle East.

This is the great caution for foreign policy we should take away from the country's anti-police brutality protests: It is always easier to begin a bad policy or program than to end it once entrenched.

There is a direct connection between launching misguided counterterrorism policies abroad and initiating their domestic counterparts. There is no such direct connection between ending the global war on terror overseas and restoring Americans' civil liberties at home. Decades of work are likely needed to unmake the post-9/11 surveillance state and militarized policing we live with today, if indeed it ever happens. We should remember this the next time Washington tries to lead us down a path of constitutional abrogation and war without end.

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  1. A lot of work needs to be done but its all down to racism and nothing else will be done or resolved because its not about racism thats just a way to hijack the real problems in this nation

    1. You bitter clinger. You have no right to comment on this unless you can prove you are a minority. Or trans.

      1. Okay everyone that is not a minority or trans quit commenting on Reason as the good Reverend has so decreed.
        I believe we all have free speech, according to the US Constitution. Maybe Reverend, you should try the HuffPO. There is no free speech there, and opposing opinions are shut down immediately. You won’t find a conservative or libertarian troll in sight.

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  2. >>systemic

    ay gevalt this fucking word.

    1. Funny enough the people with absolute control of the system and thus power to do something are the ones who use it. Weird how that works.

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  3. As is, it is impossible to reel in the worst of domestic policy when both major parties support it, and there is no chance for a third party to make meaningful advancement.

    And the best oversight that can be offered is token elections now and then, but even those are mostly for lobbyist to promote their concerns because hey, money is speech.

    As the idea of citizen oversight has proven effective at combating corruption, it is damnable that it isn’t utilized more in everything from policing issues to the legislature.

    Even well meaning but disastrous bills could be curbed if the public had more say in their drafting. It is the information problem of markets writ large towards legislation.

  4. there is much to be done here at home—locally, in fact, since many crucial policy changes must be made state by state, city by city.

    This article is a breath of fresh air.

  5. “Qualified Immunity” may have come down from SCOTUS in 1980, but when fed on the Cop-worpship that was everywhere after 9/11, it has grown into the disaster that we have today: cops can do no wrong (in their own mind) and every cop is a hero.

    1. Qualified Immunity was a disaster long before 9/11.

      1. It was a disaster almost from the get-go. Basically it was the police version of the Chevron defense (“the agency that made up the regulations is free to interpret them however they want”)

  6. Remember? Ayn Rand suggested “Ask yourself what competition in the forcible restraint of men would have to mean.” Now the initiation-of-force kleptocracy is providing a demonstration as communist anarchists line up to infiltrate and pose as “libertarian” candidates. As Grace Slick once said: “It’s a new Don!”

  7. War on drugs, war on terror, then a war on a virus. Wash , rinse, repeat. Unless you stop these three wars, eliminate qualified immunity, disband police and government unions and have the police be bonded it will never change.

  8. “The psychological result of dressing police like soldiers is that they behave accordingly.”

    This is an insult to soldiers. Soldiers adhere to much stricter rules of engagement than cowardly cops that panic, act unreasonably, and then try to cover their asses by using phrases like: feared for my life, he was resisting, he reached for his pocket, etc.

    The Breonna Taylor case is great illustration of cops wanting to play army man in the middle of the night. There was no reason for a no knock raid at one in the morning with no body cameras, and apparently nothing indicating they were police. Cops THINK they’re soldiers, but they’re mostly fucking cowards when confronted with any real danger.

    1. Thank you for this.

      As a veteran I could NEVER put on the blue or wear a badge.

      To do so, I would have to renounce my oath.

    2. “Cops THINK they’re soldiers, but they’re mostly fucking cowards when confronted with any real danger.”

      I wouldn’t be surprised if these police were ex-soldiers and trained by ex-soldiers. And American soldiers have long lived with the reputation of being trigger happy. I know British troops who had served in Ireland being shocked at the unrestrained viciousness of their American counterparts in Iraq.

  9. “inescapable once again” — there’s a nice chuckle. How did it escape notice before?

  10. I can almost see a need for an APC (almost but still disagree), but a fucking bayonet? Hell, as a medic I wasn’t even allowed to be issued a bayonet, being technically a non-combatant!

  11. Here in Boston over 80% of new police hires are veterans of the foreign wars in the mideast.

    So the vast majority of new police officers spend several years or more in military training and in combat zones if not on the battlefield. Then they become cops after 6 months of training.

    I suspect that the one of the primary drivers of the military machine with its 900 offshore bases is to harden the domestic police force for more ruthless police oppression of the US population. Whether intentional or not, it’s definitely happening. When you spend all your money on war and weapons you become a martial society.

    1. It’s intentional. The root cause of all our problems goes back to the military elite – cia, nsa, dia, etc. They set the tone for our domestic policing like the fbi and local. It’s hard to separate “our boys” from the military elite because no one thinks that our boys would allow a police state, thus most people would never even think to point a finger at the military – it’s taboo, unpatriotic.

      This global lockdown is testament to how far our military has gone in its saturation throughout the world. No one thinks that a global psyop is possible – they’ll say: at least some countries are independent of our influence, right? At least our enemies aren’t infiltrated right?

      1. “The root cause of all our problems goes back to the military elite – cia, nsa, dia, etc.”

        The civilian leadership is still responsible for domestic policing, as well as these agencies, and it’s the civilian leadership you should hold accountable.

  12. You have militarized police because these cities aren’t far removed from Africa or the shittiest parts of Latin America. Race is real, and there is no such thing as magic soil. When you ethnically cleanse and replace the populations (Europeans) who built these cities and replace them with other races from these other countries, this is what you get. The same patterns as you see in their home countries.

    1. When you allow militaries to destroy nations and then influence other nations to open their borders, you get what we have here. None of this is accidental.

      1. Are you seriously saying that the problems in Afghanistan and Iraq (which are ‘what we have here’) stem from America forcing them to open their borders?

    2. “You have militarized police because these cities aren’t far removed from Africa or the shittiest parts of Latin America. ”

      Minneapolis is far removed from Africa and the shittiest part of Latin America. A quick visit to these places will convince anyone. You have a militarized police because the police draw their staff from those with military experience.

  13. “it transfers castoff military gear—including armored vehicles, bayonets, grenade launchers, and surveillance drones—to local police departments. ”

    I don’t see any gases or sprays listed above despite their use against American demonstrators by American police. I understand that the Geneva convention prohibits the use of poison gas, and, as far as I know, such weapons are not used by the military.

    It’s a little surprising that I’ve heard calls for defunding the police, ending legal protections etc, but not banning the weapons that international (and US) law denies the military.

  14. ” Well, these white guys would sometimes take the dog-tag chain and fill that up with ears. For different reasons. They would take the ear off to make sure the VC was dead. And to confirm that they had a kill. And to put some notches on they guns. If we were movin’ through the jungle, they’d just put the bloody ear on the chain and stick the ear in their pocket and keep on going. Wouldn’t take time to dry it off. Then when we get back, they would nail ’em up on the walls to our hootch, you know, as a trophy. They was rotten and stinkin’ after awhile, and finally we make ’em take ’em down.”

    Here’s one tradition of the US military that hasn’t found its way back home. We should be thankful that George Floyd wasn’t scalped or otherwise dismembered.

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