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SWAT Nation

If the events in Boston elicit horror, if the left-wing response occasions disgust, there are other things that, I think, spark justifiable fear. The increasing militarization of the police in this country has provided grounds for concern for many years. Almost four years ago, Glenn Reynolds wrote an excellent piece on the subject for Popular Mechanics called "SWAT Overkill: The Danger of a Paramilitary Police Force." More and more police forces, it seems, are like that wacko character on Hill Street Blues who liked nothing better than dressing up in combat gear and assaulting a local malefactor with bazookas.

The so-called “voluntary lock-down” in Watertown — a more appropriate phrase might be “martial law” — offered a chilling spectacle for anyone who cherishes his personal freedom. Remember the Fourth Amendment? That guaranteed that “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” Yet in Watertown, platoons of heavily armed police in combat gear went from house to house, guns drawn, banging down doors, screaming at people to come out of their own houses with their hands on their head. There were “a lot of big guns pointed at us,” said one Watertown resident. Several news outlets  used the word “surreal” to describe this concentrated display of the coercive power of the state. What worries me is not that it is “surreal” but that it is, increasingly, all too real. And to what end? As Matthew Feeeney of Reason pointed out, Dzhokar Tsarnaev was caught after the lockdown was lifted and a homeowner stepped outside for a cigarette and noticed blood on his boat. The shock and awe show of intimidating police force might have made for dramatic TV, but it didn't get the bad guy. An alert private citizen was the instrument of that coup.

But let me backtrack from fear to disgust for a moment. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has never met a freedom he didn’t wish to violate, has said that we need to change our interpretation of the Constitution in light of the the Boston terrorist attacks. I think we need to change our interpretation of the sorts of politicians we elect to safeguard our liberty. I recently wrote an introduction to a new edition of Richard Weaver’s classic Ideas Have Consequences. I began the essay with this epigraph from Weaver:

The past shows unvaryingly that when a people's freedom disappears, it goes not with a bang, but in silence amid the comfort of being cared for. That is the dire peril in the present trend toward statism.  If freedom is not found accompanied by a willingness to resist, and to reject favors, rather than to give up what is intangible but precarious, it will not long be found at all.

The horrible events in Boston last week doubtless have many lessons for us. One of those lessons concerns the “willingness to resist” that Weaver talks about here. Do we, I wonder, still have it?