Televised scenes of police decked out in full metal military gear on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri have alarmed more than a few folks. The “militarization” of local law enforcement has cracked the public consciousness like a billy club, as programs designed to channel surplus military hardware to police departments have been coming to light.
The way this issue’s been framed by the media, it would be easy to think that what we have here is a rampant case of police overreach — that cops in Ferguson have unwittingly crossed an invisible line separating police work from soldiering. But this version of events misses a larger point. It’s not just the police who are being militarized. It’s our society.
The United States has been on a war footing since at least September 11, 2001. That’s when the so-called “War on Terror” officially began.
Some would argue our militarization goes back even farther than that, to the Reagan years, when massive defense spending was used as a lever to boost the country’s economy out of a severe recession.
In any event, there’s no secret that our country sports the largest military budget in the world. Indeed, we spend so much on warfare — what we prefer to call Defense — no one knows for sure what the numbers actually are. As former Republican senator Tom Coburn wrote last May in the Washington Times: “More than 20 years ago, Congress passed a law that requires the Department of Defense to pass a financial audit. An even older document, the Constitution, demands a ‘regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money.’ Yet the Department of Defense has never passed a single audit. In fact, the Pentagon is the only agency in the entire federal government that cannot produce auditable financial statements in accordance with the law.”
Our military budget amounts to guesswork. The number for FY 2015 is listed at $765.4 billion. Compare this with Health and Human Services ($73.1 billion), Education ($68.6 billion) or Housing and Urban Development ($32.6 billion), and you get a stark picture of this country’s priorities.
For all our collective lip service about the virtues of capitalism, our government-subsidized military has become the dominant engine in our economy. Since 2010, more than 1100 Indiana companies received defense-related contracts amounting to over $4 billion; since 2001, the annual number of unique contracts awarded here has increased nearly five-fold.
Little wonder, then, that the Pentagon has more war stuff than it knows what to do with. Combine this with the highest rate of private gun ownership in the world and it stands to reason that police departments, our designated “peace-keepers,” might see themselves as domestic warriors.
The grim irony in this is that for all our supposed strength, the record of this country’s ability to actually effect positive change through military might is really pretty dismal. We haven’t truly won a war since the 1940’s. And the cops in Ferguson, for all their shock-and-awe regalia, showed the world they couldn’t win the peace.