It is becoming highly unlikely the civil unrest in Ferguson will provide an opportunity for a serious evaluation of the militarization of America’s police forces. Instead, the commentariat and its associates have tribalized into typical camps regarding the topic of law and order vs. race relations.
Nevertheless, the issue of a militarized police force is still a serious matter and in need of attention. It seems a shame to squander an opportunity where the massive, militarized, intimidating capabilities of America’s police forces are on display for the entire country to see in favor of a replay of predictable partisan fighting.
The issue is represented by some, crudely, as an either/or situation. Either we need police forces that have a jacked-up assault capacity in case there is civil unrest or we have a police force under-assisted and over-powered, forced to watch as havoc is spread among innocent members of society.
But I believe this is a false dichotomy.
There are no serious arguments being made that we should abandon the current militarization in favor of an anorexic or crippled capacity to respond to civil unrest or violence.
The central issue here is: under what circumstances, if at all, should the capacity for force and intimidation be deployed against the public by the state? And this becomes controversial when one wants to answer that the capacity should be preventative rather than responsive.
Responsive force entails responding to a situation where public safety is being threatened.
On the other hand, preventative force and intimidation is far more problematic from a civil liberties perspective because it is the police force itself introducing the element of disruption into the civil equation. When a massive force rolls into Ferguson during a peaceful rally in the middle of the day, can we really say this doesn’t result in intimidation, at the least, and antagonism, at the worst? Does the presence of intimidating MRAPs, military-esque rifles, and costumed-up police force have no effect on the public to which it is directed?
And for those inclined to say “yes” there is no effect, I respond: standard gun safety rules dictate that you DO NOT point your gun at something you are not prepared to shoot. Do you really think you have the right to free speech or free assembly when you are, literally, in the state’s crosshairs?
The consequence of such state action is that the free speech is chilled and the right to free assembly is and will continue to be thwarted whenever the state decides it might need to “prevent” a problem. This is a dangerous position for a free society to find itself in because the citizens have ceded their rights to the discretion of the state with the hope the state will not use that power to quash dissent. Perhaps today it is not your free speech or free assembly immediately at risk, but as long as we agree it falls under the purview of the state to dispatch fantastic displays of force with a view toward the prevention of discord, the possibility one day it will be your rights at risk is imminent.