Note: This column was written as a part of one of the Gazette Writers Circle projects; in this case, the militarization of local police in Iowa and across the country. I saw the issues as merely a sub-set of those raised by "the militarization of America," and best understood and addressed within that context.
Having done so, it is useful to make clear by way of this note that I fully recognize: (a) the United States needs a military, (b) there are occasions when our national interests do require that it be used (such as World War II), and (c) that those who volunteer to serve, and do so with skill and honor, deserve our respect, thanks, and far more GI-Bill-style practical support on their return than we seem willing to provide. At a minimum, they should not be blamed for the foolish decisions of our elected officials. One way of honoring them is to discuss and question those decisions, as I attempt to do, below.
Text below [in brackets] was submitted to The Gazette, included in its online version, but omitted from its hard copy edition. -- Nicholas Johnson
The Militarization of America
The Gazette, Gazette Writers Circle, July 5, 2015, p. C3
Philadelphia police crowd control 30 years ago? Dropping a bomb from a helicopter; 60 homes burned.
Not the typical response of the thousands who do “protect and serve.” But today’s militarization of local police with hand-me-down Army equipment is worth examining — in context.
Because it’s only a small part of the militarization of America.
We are the world’s pre-eminent military power. Of the top ten military nations we spend more than the other nine combined. With our military presence in over 150 countries, and provision of weapons to others, we have militarized the world.
Expenditures reflect values. There is little political objection to the trillions of debt from credit card military adventures. We accept the opportunity costs as we reject universal, single-payer health care, starve our public schools, cut programs for the poor, and watch our infrastructure crumble. “We’re number one!” we cry, notwithstanding low international rankings for test scores, infant mortality, and life expectancy.
We have militarized our homes and ourselves. Our children play with video games that train them as military sharpshooters and drone operators. Roughly 40 percent are living in homes with guns. The U.N. reports America’s gun death risk per 100,000 population is 20 times the average for other countries.
There are 50,000 suicides and homicides each year; 60 percent involve guns. (Homicide is the second leading cause of death of 15-25 year olds.) Some estimate guns in homes are 16 times more likely to harm occupants than intruders.
Given those odds, Americans must really love their guns a lot — a love that surpasses all understanding.
It’s natural such a nation would have a National Rifle Association (NRA) opposing virtually every form of gun regulation, including restrictions on owning assault weapons, retention of databases of gun purchases, background checks on purchasers at gun shows and changes in the registration of firearms.
With the expansion of permits to carry, we see the militarization of other institutions as well. There are guns on college campuses, in schools, malls, movie theaters, bars and even churches. And there are the all-too-regular reports of deaths — genuinely grieved, but all too quickly forgotten.
We have militarized our politics and governing. Few elected officials are defeated for supporting increased defense appropriations or the NRA’s agenda. Many have military bases or defense contractors in their districts. Coupled with the NRA’s campaign contributions, large membership, and ability to defeat its opponents, military-industrial complex and NRA victories are not surprising.
We’ve already militarized law enforcement.
The 1878 posse comitatus act makes it a federal crime to use “any part of the Army ... to execute the laws.” However, with many exceptions, plus the Insurrection Act, it’s a low hurdle.
In 1932, President Hoover ordered Army General Douglas MacArthur and Major Dwight Eisenhower to use the infantry to disburse the WWI Bonus March veterans from their Mall encampments. President Eisenhower used the Army’s 101st Airborne Division to integrate the Little Rock schools in 1957. When riots followed Dr. King’s 1968 assassination, President Johnson ordered 2,000 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers flown to Washington.
Sometimes Army intervention aids big business. In the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, President Harding ordered the Army to support mine owners against 10,000 miners. Since the 1890s union organizing and strikes have often yielded to government force — including the Army.
In October 2002, the activation of USNORTHCOM marked the first time since George Washington that a military commander’s mission is our own homeland.
Militarized nations need blanket surveillance of their civilians. We have that, too. The NSA plus 15 other spy agencies we know about.
That’s the context. Now let’s talk about the militarization of police.
• Nicholas Johnson, as U.S. Maritime Administrator, had responsibility for military sealift to Vietnam. www.nicholasjohnson.org, FromDC2Iowa.blogspot.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
The two photos, above, were taken in Kinnick stadium in Iowa City during the Iowa-Ohio State football game, November 20, 2010.
The flyover demonstrated America's militarization by blending the Star Spangled Banner, being played at the time, with the low, swooping flyover of the stadium by four T-38 fighter jets.
For the most part, the crowd seemed to love it: "The military flyover came at the end of the 'Star Spangled Banner' and was followed by loud cheering and a standing ovation by many Hawkeye football fans."
Although I've not thoroughly research the matter, I am unaware of any writing at the time (beyond my own) questioning the propriety of an institution of higher education promoting militarization. "UI spokesman Tom Moore [chose to specifically acknowledge that] 'The purpose of the flyover was to honor all of our military personnel."
Haley Bruce, "Officials Say Kinnick Flyover Too Low," The Daily Iowan, December 13, 2010 ("Officials said a flyover at Kinnick Stadium during the Iowa-Ohio State football game last month may have violated Air Force regulations by being hundreds of feet too low, the Associated Press has reported"). [Photo credit: Rob Johnson, The Daily Iowan; "Four T-38 jets fly over during the national anthem at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2010."] And see the follow up, "Pilot in Low Kinnick Flyover Blamed Other Air Traffic," Associated Press, The Gazette, March 31, 2014.
James Edward Johnson, Comment on Facebook, July 5, 2015, 10:11 a.m.
Generally, I agree, but with one exception. Allowing people to privately possess the tools of self-defense is an acknowledgement that total control (through mass surveillance, overwhelming force, and general denial of our Constitutional rights) by the police is an undesirable goal. This is the heart of the values represented by the Second Amendment - particularly as extended thought the 14th. We should not have standing armies or a militarized police force. But, to secure the rights that may be protected by state power, the people should be directly enabled to secure those rights.
Since moving to Chicago, it has become clearer that disadvantaged people are, too often, both unprotected or threatened by the police, and at risk from a small number of criminals who terrorize their communities. The individual right to self defense, and the ancillary right to retain the tools for that purpose, exist so that people are not dependent on forces that threaten their liberty just as much as they promise to protect the people from other threats.
As a society, we should work to improve the integrity of our police, repeal laws against victimless crimes that enable police harassment of the people, and ensure educational and work opportunities that strengthen communities against such state and criminal threats.
However, the people hurt by these systemic problems should not have to wait on the rest of us to take remedial action. I support the Huey P. Newton Gun Club because I believe they take these rights seriously. We should not conflate their actions with the actions of a militarized police that acts offensively.