In December 2012, when Washington’s press corps was peering over the “fiscal cliff,” Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn released a report that looked and sounded too goofy to be real. The cover of “Safety at Any Price: Assessing the Impact of Homeland Security Spending on U.S. Cities” portrayed a child-size drone flying near the Capitol; over ATV-driving Lego men; and, for some reason, over R2D2.
“If in the days after 9/11 lawmakers were able to cast their gaze forward ten years,” wrote Coburn, “I imagine they would be surprised to see how a counter-terrorism initiative aimed at protecting our largest cities has transformed into another parochial grant program.”
His researchers had dug up dozens of examples and told the story of how local police forces started to look like occupying armies, thanks to $35 billion in Department of Homeland Security grants. Seattle had spent $80,000 on a drone, which it insisted was not a drone. Pittsburgh had spent $90,000 on a sonic cannon, and used it to break up G-20 protests, though a SWAT officer assured a reporter that the device was just “a speaker that delivers an intended message to an intended group of people to disperse.”
And then there were the armored vehicles. Police departments in less-than-bustling towns suddenly needed $250,000 armored BearCats. “Because Fontana, California considers itself a ‘top 100 terrorist target,’ ” wrote Coburn’s researchers, “it needed a BearCat.” In New Hampshire, the libertarians of Keene had been fighting, unsuccessfully, a police department that wanted a BearCat to guard an annual harvest celebration. “Do I think al-Qaida is going to target Pumpkin Fest?” Keene’s police chief asked, rhetorically. “No, but are there fringe groups that want to make a statement? Yes.”
There were no attacks, and there was little coverage of Coburn’s report. Gene Healy, a vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute, publicized Coburn’s findings in a column. Radley Balko, a former Huffington Post reporter who’d worked with Healy at Cato (and, full disclosure, with me at Reason), praised the report, which touched on stories he’d covered, like the BearCat fight in Keene. Coburn appeared on Neil Cavuto’s Fox Business show (not to be confused with the more widely watched Fox News shows), where the discussion quickly veered from the report’s highlights (“zombie apocalypse training”) to the more exciting fiscal cliff. Attacking the military buildup of local police, on its own, was just too kooky.
What a difference Ferguson makes. This week, when Sen. Rand Paul published a brief op-ed denouncing “Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars,” he conquered the headlines. The New York Times, which had just published an epic story about libertarians, offered that “conservatives tend to be fairly consistent” on law and order, and Paul was acting as a disrupter. “Rand Paul is right,” argued Al Sharpton, who is more familiar with being labeled an “outside agitator” by conservatives than with complimenting them.
But libertarians and libertarian-leaning Republicans have been attacking the militarization of police forces for the better part of a decade. They come at the issue from a stronger ideological position than the left does, or can. Decades of tough-on-crime policies have made the right (and libertarians are part of the right) less vulnerable to charges of softness and thug-coddling. And the libertarian answer to crime has never been about empowering the police. In the ideal liberal scenario—call it “Japan” or “any part of Europe”— civilians have as much access to firearms as they have to rocket launchers and ICBMs. In the libertarian ideal, the state has no more firepower to control civilians than the civilians have to police themselves, or to fight back.
It’s hard to date when the backlash began, or when it became mainstream, but 1989 is a good time to start. That was a hot year for the crack wars, not long before Washington Mayor Marion Barry was arrested with a pipe in the room, and the year Congress’ National Defense Authorization Act added Section 1208. The new NDAA language authorized the transfer of excess military equipment “suitable for use” in “counter-drug activities.”
In 1989, that meant almost anything. The first time many Americans realized that was in August 1992, when the ATF, FBI, Border Patrol, U.S. Marshals, Idaho National Guard, Idaho state police, and local police laid siege to Randy Weaver’s home in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, with assault weapons and night-vision goggles. The siege started with the deaths of Weaver’s son and one of the dogs, and the Weaver family would eventually settle for more than $3 million. But less than a year later, some of the same agencies (and some of the same agents, as Radley Balko points out in Rise of the Warrior Cop) raided David Koresh’s compound outside Waco, Texas, smashing the walls with tanks and shooting 350 rounds of tear gas inside.
Seventy-six people died. But Bill Clinton was in the White House. The gun control lobby was experiencing what would be, in retrospect, its finest hour—the passage of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which banned the sale of “assault weapons” until 2004.