Posted by: erichosemann | August 24, 2011

Militias and Militarized Law Enforcement

The bogeyman of right-wing militias figures prominently in the political imaginations of progressive politicians and pundits. The supposed phenomenon of anti-government groups, “sovereign citizen’s councils” and neo-Nazi gangs arming themselves to wreak havoc on the innocent, diverse partakers of the American dream often appears in the run-up to national elections—and shortly afterward depending on who wins. It is debatable whether these groups exist in numbers greater than those police could collect at drunken redneck bacchanalia in secluded hayfields or ad hoc gun expos underneath state park barbecue shelters. Most likely their numbers are inversely proportional to the breathlessness with which the mainstream media reports their violent intentions. For the record, I am one hundred percent against right-wing hate group violence used on anyone. Whether or not—and to whatever paltry degree—it might exist. Just for the record.

I’m against violence of any kind, as a matter of fact, except that violence marshaled to protect one’s self and property. This does not include pre-emptive strikes on neighborhood bullies or drug dealers, however big the neighborhood or powerful the drug. It does include the kind of violence perpetrated by the government using overwhelming force and military armor on people officially presumed innocent, such as that featured in this discussion of the no-knock raid ending in the death of Jose Guerena.

As Radley Balko points out, the official version of the cause of the raid on Jose Guerena’s home changed repeatedly after it was botched, which suggests the directive to carry it out wasn’t air tight. Judging by his name—unless it’s a carefully crafted, right-wing extremist nom de plume—Guerena wasn’t a member of a paramilitary, right-wing hate group, yet the firepower arrayed against him that morning suggests someone thought he was, or at least that he was armed as if he was. Guerena was a peaceful working class fellow only tangentially related, if that, to people the police suspected of committing crimes. In this era of increasing suspicion of hateful phantom militias, our local law enforcement has drastically changed the way they interact with people who are—all together, folks—presumed innocent.

Events like the Guerena raid are not isolated incidents, as this Reason.com archive shows. Peruse the archive and you will find evidence that local constabularies have been arming themselves at Uncle Sam’s behest, and at discount rates. You will find too that the number of raids like that on the Guerena home has increased more than ten-fold since the early 80s, to some 50,000 a year. 50,000 a year. That’s 137 such raids a day. I’m not sure that many drunken redneck bacchanalia occur as frequently, much less that many legally sanctioned, bring-grandma-and-the-kids style gun expos.

So the media and the federal government periodically froth over right-wing will’o’the wisps supposedly armed and ready to rock, but virtually clam up when local law enforcement suits up and actually rocks out all over innocent people, their homes and pets.

This apparent hypocrisy seems easy to explain, from a libertarian’s point of view at least. It is not the guns, or the flash bang grenades, or the turreted armored personnel carriers—it never really was. It is all about who has them. For the most part, progressives and conservatives are okay with a government monopoly on force. The late actor Ron Silver, a self-described liberal led to neo-conservatism by 9/11, related his visceral reaction to an Air Force flyover during the Clinton inaugural. At first disgusted with the blatant show of force, he calmed down once he realized “These jets are ours now.” Before his death, Silver trotted out this anecdote to highlight the supposed hypocrisy of modern liberals, implying that only conservatives are capable of appreciating and correctly using government force. This is not the case.

Progressives and conservatives alike claim special powers of restraint and wisdom when it comes to waging war, whether on their fellow citizens or foreign peoples. Bi-partisan rhetoric identifying as “war” the kind of force necessary to shrink everything from drug use to waist lines has transformed the once localized phenomenon of SWAT teams to a nation spanning epidemic. Both progressives and conservatives are to blame for this because both categorically condone government monopoly of the use of force, and each election cycle they vie for the opportunity to show us all how qualified they are to manage that monopoly.

I’m not against having a police force, or even the use of paramilitary tactics to fight certain kinds of crime. I am an agnostic about claims that government monopoly of force is the best way to assure domestic peace, and I am unimpressed by claims that we should blindly trust the judgment of law enforcement officers simply because they serve that monopoly. It is not unreasonable to question that monopoly, or to suggest alternatives. It is unreasonable to blindly assert that paramilitary groups of one ideology are amassed against us while ignoring the bipartisan paramilitary groups already finding ways to abridge our rights and more efficiently kill and imprison us.

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