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At the height of the Occupy Wall Street evictions, it seemed as though some diminutive version of “shock and awe” had stumbled from Baghdad, Iraq, to Oakland, California. American police forces had been “militarized,” many commentators worried, as though the firepower and callous tactics on display were anomalies, surprises bursting upon us from nowhere.
There should have been no surprise. Those flash grenades exploding in Oakland and the sound cannons on New York’s streets simply opened small windows onto a national policing landscape long in the process of militarization—a bleak domestic no man’s land marked by tanks and drones, robot bomb detectors, grenade launchers, tasers and most of all, interlinked video surveillance cameras and information databases growing quietly on unobtrusive server farms everywhere.
The ubiquitous fantasy of “homeland security,” pushed hard by the federal government in the wake of 9/11, has been widely embraced by the public. It has also excited intense weapons- and techno-envy among police departments and municipalities vying for the latest in armor and spy equipment.
In such a world, deadly gadgetry is just a grant request away, so why shouldn’t the 14,000 at-risk souls in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, have a closed-circuit-digital-camera-and-monitor system (cost: $180,000, courtesy of the Homeland Security Department) identical to the one up and running in New York’s Times Square?
So much money has gone into armoring and arming local law-enforcement since 9/11 that the federal government could have rebuilt post-Katrina New Orleans five times over and had enough money left in the kitty to provide job training and housing for every one of the record 41,000-plus homeless people in New York City. It could have added in the growing population of 15,000 homeless in Philadelphia, my hometown, and still have had money to spare. Add disintegrating Detroit, Newark and Camden to the list. Throw in some crumbling bridges and roads, too.
But why drone on? We all know that addressing acute social and economic issues here in the homeland was the road not taken. Since 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security alone has doled out somewhere between $30 billion and $40 billion in direct grants to state and local law enforcement, as well as other first responders. At the same time, defense contractors have proven endlessly inventive in adapting sales pitches originally honed for the military on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan to the desires of police on the streets of San Francisco and Lower Manhattan. Oakland may not be Basra but (as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld liked to say) there are always the unknown unknowns: best be prepared.