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Drones in Texas and Tanks in Tampa: Inside the Out-Of-Control Weaponized Homeland Security State

Government budgets at every level now include allocations aimed at fighting an ephemeral “War on Terror” in the United States.

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Farewell to Peaceful Private Life

We’re not just talking money eagerly squandered.  That may prove the least of it. More importantly, the fundamental values of American democracy -- particularly the right to lead an autonomous private life -- have been compromised with grim efficiency. The weaponry and tactics now routinely employed by police are visible evidence of this. 

Yes, it’s true that Montgomery County, Texas, has purchased a weapons-capable drone.  (They say they’ll only arm it with tasers, if necessary.) Yes, it’s true that the Tampa police have beefed the force up with an eight-ton armored personnel carrier, augmenting two older tanks the department already owns. Yes, the Fargo police are ready with bomb detection robots, and Chicago boasts a network of at least 15,000 interlinked surveillance cameras. 

New York City’s 34,000-member police force is now the ground zero of a growing outcry over rampant secret spying on Muslim students and communities up and down the East coast.  It has been a big beneficiary of federal security largess.  Between 2003 and 2010, the city received more than $1.1 billion through Homeland Security’s Urban Areas Security Initiative grant program. And that’s only one of the grant programs funneling such money to New York.

The Obama White House itself has directly funded part of the New York Police Department’s anti-Muslim surveillance program. Top officials of New York’s finest have, however, repeatedly refused to disclose just how much anti-terrorism money it has been spending, citing, of course, security.

Can New York City ever be “secure”? Mayor Michael Bloomberg boasted recently with obvious satisfaction: “I have my own army in the NYPD, which is the seventh largest army in the world.”  That would be the Vietnamese army actually, but accuracy isn’t the point.  The smugness of the boast is. And meanwhile the money keeps pouring in and the “security” activities only multiply.

Why, for instance, are New York cops traveling to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and Newark, New Jersey, to spy on ordinary Muslim citizens, who have nothing to do with New York and are not suspected of doing anything? For what conceivable purpose does Tampa want an eight-ton armored vehicle? Why do Texas sheriffs north of Houston believe one drone -- or a dozen, for that matter -- will make Montgomery County a better place? What manner of thinking conjures up a future that requires such hardware? We have entered a dark world that demands an inescapable battery of closed-circuit, networked video cameras trained on ordinary citizens strolling Michigan Avenue.

This is not simply a police issue. Law enforcement agencies may acquire the equipment and deploy it, but city legislators and executives must approve the expenditures and the uses. State legislators and bureaucrats refine the local grant requests. Federal officials, with endless input from national security and defense vendors and lobbyists, appropriate the funds.

Doubters are simply swept aside (while legions of security and terrorism pundits spin dread-inducing fantasies), and ultimately, the American people accept and live with the results. We get what we pay for -- Mayor Bloomberg’s “army,” replicated coast to coast.

Budgets Tell the Story

Militarized thinking is made manifest through budgets, which daily reshape political and bureaucratic life in large and small ways. Not long after the 9/11 attacks, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, used this formula to define the new American environment and so the thinking that went with it: “Terrorist operatives infiltrate our communities -- plotting, planning, and waiting to kill again.”  To counter that, the government had urgently embarked on “a wartime reorganization,” he said, and was “forging new relationships of cooperation with state and local law enforcement.”