Tyranny Comes Home: The Domestic Fate of U.S. Militarism

“The great Randolph Bourne realized that ‘war is the health of the State.’ It is in war that the State really comes into its own: swelling in power, in number, in pride, in absolute dominion over the economy and the society.” — Murray Rothbard

In Tyranny Comes Home professors Christopher Coyne and Abigail Hall methodically connect the dots between centuries of American imperialism abroad and the concentration and consolidation of power within domestic law enforcement agencies at home. Both Coyne and Hall are economists, and that’s worth mentioning at the outset given that a common theme of their book was a refrain that many of us familiar with the economic way of thinking find ourselves thinking: incentives matter. People respond to incentives, and that is just as true for consumers weighing purchasing decisions at the supermarket as it is for former military personnel returning home to pursue careers in law enforcement.

Tyranny Comes Home is an excellent blending of history, politics, and economics, which traces the lineage of police militarization. The militarization of police in the U.S. is a topic of concern whose time has come as dramatic and disturbing images surface of police officers in military fatigues and uniforms, equipped with fully-automatic assault rifles, surveillance equipment (for the sole purpose of spying on U.S. citizens), armored vehicles (including mine-resistant personnel carriers, or MRAPs), and even grenade launchers and aircrafts.

Coyne and Hall point specifically to the police reaction in Ferguson, Missouri following protests that were sparked by officer Darren Wilson killing Michael Brown and then reignited by the grand jury’s decision not to indict Wilson for the murder, as well as the police presence surrounding protests of the murders of Eric Garner in New York City and Freddie Grey in Baltimore. While these are some of the more recent and prominent examples of local police departments flexing their militarized muscles, Coyne and Hall show that the policies that enabled this show of force were implemented nearly a century earlier during the United States’ occupation of the Philippines during the Spanish-American War in the late 19th century.

Coyne and Hall take great care to show how the military gear and tactics that were developed to more effectively control a foreign populace inevitably made it home in a sort of “boomerang effect” that resulted in domestic police departments applying both those tactics and the same “us vs. them” mentality that foreign conflict breeds, against the domestic population. In particular Coyne and Hall note the relevance and importance of “human capital,” a concept that may be somewhat foreign to political scientists or historians who aren’t as familiar with the economic way of thinking.

About halfway through the book the authors note that “According to a survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 86 percent of police leaders stated they currently employ veterans who had been deployed in the last five years.” This centuries-old trend basically ensures that military weapons and tactics will be transplanted to domestic law enforcement agencies over time. The most glaring example of this has to be the development of the first SWAT teams in Los Angeles in the 70s by servicemen returning from the war in Vietnam. Coyne and Hall note that when Daryl Gates, one of the founders of the first SWAT team, originally proposed that name “Special Weapons and Attack Team” but was eventually overruled, and thus the name “Special Weapons and Tactics” was born.

The most interesting aspect of the book has to be the history of the piecemeal adoption of military weapons and tactics by local domestic law enforcement agencies. For much of the United States’ history, the federal government wasn’t involved in law enforcement since police departments were funded and equipped by local and state governments. That began to change, however, with the emergence of the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. Coyne and Hall note that these “wars” aren’t limited in scope like more traditional wars. There’s no geographic boundary or even a temporal boundary to the War on Drugs or Terror. Who signs the peace treaty or the ceasefire in the government’s War on Drugs? With these “wars” police departments had to shift their tactics, and suddenly U.S. citizens became possible suspects or even “enemy combatants.” Police officers shifted from a mindset of “protect and serve” to “enforce the law.”

These trends were then exacerbated in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the passage of the PATRIOT Act just a few weeks later. The authors note that the PATRIOT Act was the most significant restructuring of the U.S. federal government in its history. It created several new federal agencies including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Transportation and Security Administration (TSA), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), all of which were housed under the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a cabinet department described by Coyne and Hall as “a domestic Department of Defense.”

The War on Terror saw the ramping up of the now-notorious Program 1033 which acts as a way to pipeline military-grade equipment from the Pentagon directly to police departments. This would be a bad enough threat to domestic liberties on its own, but Coyne and Hall note that, rather than carrying any oversight or regulations on the use of this equipment, the 1033 program stipulates that police departments who receive military gear are actually required to use the equipment within a year or return it to the Pentagon. This creates profound incentives for police departments to use this gear and equipment originally developed for war zones on domestic soil, against domestic populations.

Coyne and Hall go on to focus on a range of specific tactics and hardware and the growing trend of importing them home. These include the use of drones, surveillance equipment like Stingray devices (initially developed by and for the U.S. military in Iraq) that simulate cell phone towers in order to track suspects, and even torture. This book comes at an opportune time given the federal government’s current state of affairs under the Trump Administration, though it’s important to note that most, if not all, of these policies were either implemented, or had their precedents set, under previous administrations.

Ultimately the book is pretty pessimistic. There are practically no constraints that could effectively stem the tide of police militarization as it is the inevitable result of military adventurism abroad. Coyne and Hall repeatedly note what they call the paradox of government: a government empowered with the means to protect liberty has the power to undermine it as well. However, while the U.S. has somewhat robust constraints on government power at home, there are virtually no constraints on how the U.S. government must conduct itself abroad, so foreign interventions become a sort of testing ground for innovative ways of social control. One of the few prescriptions the authors make is for the American people to oppose rampant militarism abroad. The authors note in the book’s conclusion that “the U.S. government’s ability to act in a militaristic manner requires Americans to go along either directly–by actively supporting such a foreign policy–or indirectly–through indifference.”

After reading this book one is left with the impression that police militarization like what was seen in reaction to protests in Ferguson, Missouri, or Baltimore, Maryland, or New York City, or in scores of small towns across the United States, is here to stay and will only get worse as long as the U.S. government continues to play the role of the world’s police. Foreign intervention abroad all but guarantees domestic subjugation at home. Since Program 1033 is not accessible to civilians, we have to arm ourselves with knowledge. The New York Times developed a handy tool so we can look up what sort of military-grade equipment our local police departments have acquired. Let’s all take the time to learn what kinds of heat our local police officers may be packing and then make an effort to educate our communities and maybe even contact elected representatives to impose some constraints on their use.

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