Barney Fife Meets Delta Force

by Charles C. W. Cooke
Hypermilitarized police departments are more dangerous than whatever they fight.

Nestled awkwardly among the usual guff, the outrage website Salon this week took a welcome flyer and accorded space to something genuinely alarming. “A SWAT team,” the headline screamed, “blew a hole in my 2-year-old son.” For once, this wasn’t hyperbole.

The piece’s author, Alecia Phonesavanh, described what it felt like to be on the business end of an attack that was launched in error by police who believed a drug dealer to be living and operating in her house. They “threw a flashbang grenade inside,” she reported. It “landed in my son’s crib.” Now, her son is “covered in burns” and has “a hole in his chest that exposes his ribs.” So badly injured was he by the raid that he was “placed into a medically induced coma.” “They searched for drugs,” Phonesavanh confirmed, but they “never found any.” Nor, for that matter, did they find the person they were looking for. He doesn’t live there. “All of this,” she asks, “to find a small amount of drugs?”

Historians looking back at this period in America’s development will consider it to be profoundly odd that at the exact moment when violent crime hit a 50-year low, the nation’s police departments began to gear up as if the country were expecting invasion — and, on occasion, to behave as if one were underway. The ACLU reported recently that SWAT teams in the United States conduct around 45,000 raids each year, only 7 percent of which have anything whatsoever to do with the hostage situations with which those teams were assembled to contend. Paramilitary operations, the ACLU concluded, are “happening in about 124 homes every day — or more likely every night” — and four in five of those are performed in order that authorities might “search homes, usually for drugs.” Such raids routinely involve “armored personnel carriers,” “military equipment like battering rams,” and “flashbang grenades.”

Were the military being used in such a manner, we would be rightly outraged. Why not here? Certainly this is not a legal matter. The principle of posse comitatus draws a valuable distinction between the national armed forces and parochial law enforcement, and one that all free people should greatly cherish. Still, it seems plain that the potential threat posed by a domestic standing army is not entirely blunted just because its units are controlled locally. To add the prefix “para” to a problem is not to make it go away, nor do legal distinctions change the nature of power. Over the past two decades, the federal government has happily sent weapons of war to local law enforcement, with nary a squeak from anyone involved with either political party. Are we comfortable with this?

The Right’s silence on the issue is vexing indeed, the admirable attempts of a few libertarians notwithstanding. Here, conservatives seem to be conflicted between their rightful predilection for law and order — an instinct that is based upon an accurate comprehension of human nature and an acknowledgment of the existence of evil — and a well-developed and wholly sensible fear of state power, predicated upon precisely the same thing. As of now, the former is rather dramatically winning out, leading conservatives to indulge — or at least tacitly to permit — excuses that they typically reject elsewhere. Much as the teachers’ unions invariably attempt to justify their “anything goes” contracts by pointing to the ends that they ostensibly serve (“Well you do want schools for the children or don’t you? Sign here”), the increasingly muscular behavior of local police departments is often shrugged off as a by-product of the need to fight crime. This, if left unchecked, is a recipe for precisely the sort of carte blanche that conservatives claim to fear.

Leaving aside the central moral question of the War on Drugs — which is whether the state should be responding to peaceful transactions and consensual behavior with violence — there is, it seems, considerable room between law enforcement’s turning a blind eye to the law and its aping the military in its attempt to uphold it. The cartels of Mexico and drug lords of America’s larger cities are one thing; but two-bit dealers and consumers of illicit substances are quite another. In the instance that Salon recorded, the person that authorities “were looking for, wasn’t there.” “He doesn’t even live in that house,” Phonesavanh confirmed. But suppose that he had, and that he’d been dealing drugs as charged? Does this alone make the case for the tactics? I suspect not. Instead, attempting to catch a violator in the act by releasing military vehicles full of machine-gun-wielding men, storming a home in the dead of night, and performing a no-knock raid that results in a two-year-old’s being pushed into a coma might, one suspects, be overkill — in many similar cases, literally so. The question for conservatives should be this: If cowboy poetry is no justification for federal intrusion, can drug dealing be said to serve as an open invitation for the deployment of the ersatz 101st?

In the more febrile of the Right’s quarters, the sight of MRAPs being delivered to the chief of police in Westington, Mont., has given rise to all forms of regrettable silliness — to visions of black helicopters and reeducation camps and an America on the verge of being taken by force by the gun-toting rangers of the Fish and Wildlife Service. Nevertheless, a small amount of latent paranoia has served America well, and Chekhov’s advice that “one must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it” should be applied to governments as rigorously as to aspiring playwrights. Once the holders of the monopoly on violence are accorded the latest weaponry, there will always be the temptation to use it. Likewise, once one has taken the mental and linguistic leap of ascribing to domestic law enforcement the imprimatur of “war,” one may be inclined to reach for the trigger that little bit more quickly. The disaster at Waco, Texas, was, it seems, more cock-up than conspiracy. But the recognition in the aftermath that the whole bloody mess could have been avoided if local officers had taken the time to chat with the victims should haunt us to this day. Rushing in at 100 miles per hour rarely works out, whatever the ill that one is attempting to resolve.

The Left’s current inclination is to spin offenses out of straw — having no major battles left to fight, it seeks to detect microaggressions; with overt bigotry so thin on the ground, the dog whistles have come out; and with the barriers to the Declaration’s maxim having been largely removed, the focus has shifted to the structural and the invisible. But first-degree burns and holes in the chest are different things altogether — not to be dismissed or downplayed — and that the issue is being raised by an outlet known for its absurdity should not dull its impact. Will the Right acknowledge the scale of the threat, applying its usual mistrust of power to a favored group, or will its usually alert advocates leave themselves willfully in the dark until, one day, a flashbang with their name on it is tossed through the window to wake them up with a start?

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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