Turning Policemen Into Soldiers, the Culmination of a Long Trend

Another poisoned fruit of the post-9/11 sensibility
Ferguson, Mo. police watching over their city (Reuters)

The images from Missouri of stormtrooper-looking police confronting their citizens naturally raises the question: how the hell did we get to this point? When did the normal cops become Navy SEALs? What country is this, anyway?

There will be more and more mainstream coverage of the modern militarization of the police, a phenomenon mainly of the post-9/11 years. For reference/aggregation purposes, here is a guide to further reading:

1) The Book on this topic: Rise of the Warrior Cop, by Radley Balko. It came out a year ago and is more timely now than ever.

2) "Lockdown Nation," a Peter Moskos review of Balko's book last year in PS magazine.

3) "How the War on Terror Has Militarized the Police," an Atlantic dispatch by Arthur Rizer and Joseph Hartman three years ago. 

4) "Tanks in Small Towns," a web item I did in 2011 on signs of this trend, including this photo of a police force in South Carolina:

And this one from a small town in Virginia:

And this from Florida:

5) Some other Atlantic coverage here, here, here

6) Update: An important and well-illustrated report by Matt Apuzzo in the NYT two months ago, called "War Gear Flows to Police Departments." 

7) Update^2: A new report from Alec MacGillis in TNR on how "anti-terrorist" funding from DHS has equipped police forces with this CENTCOM-style war gear.

This Ferguson, Missouri episode is obviously about race, and is (another) occasion for pointing readers to Ta-Nehisi Coates's powerful "Reparations" article. It is also about how we govern ourselves, and about how far the ramifying self-damage of the post-9/11 era has gone.

"Self-damage"? All the literature about terrorism emphasizes that the harm directly done in an attack is nothing compared with the self-destructive reactions it can induce. From Fallujah to Ferguson, that is part of what we're seeing now.

I won't belabor that theme for the moment but will say: Perhaps these incredible police-state-like images will have some attention-focusing or "enough!" effect, like their counterparts from another era (below). Meanwhile, check out Balko's book. 

 

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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