If all you've got is a hammer, then everything starts to look like a nail. And if police and prosecutors are your only tool, sooner or later everything and everyone will be treated as criminal. This is increasingly the American way of life, a path that involves "solving" social problems (and even some non-problems) by throwing cops at them, with generally disastrous results. Wall-to-wall criminal law encroaches ever more on everyday life as police power is applied in ways that would have been unthinkable just a generation ago.
By now, the militarization of the police has advanced to the point where "the War on Crime" and "the War on Drugs" are no longer metaphors but bland understatements. There is the proliferation of heavily armed SWAT teams, even in small towns; the use of shock-and-awe tactics to bust small-time bookies; the no-knock raids to recover trace amounts of drugs that often result in the killing of family dogs, if not family members; and in communities where drug treatment programs once were key, the waging of a drug version of counterinsurgency war. (All of this is ably reported on journalist Radley Balko's blog and in his book, The Rise of the Warrior Cop.) But American over-policing involves far more than the widely reported up-armoring of your local precinct. It's also the way police power has entered the DNA of social policy, turning just about every sphere of American life into a police matter.
These are the opening paragraphs of a powerful article that first appeared on the TomDispatch website and then appeared in Mother Jones. It's appropriately titled "How Every Part of American Life Became a Police Matter." The author is attorney Chase Madar. I had not heard of him but from now on I will look out for his other pieces.
Here's the last paragraph:
A hammer is necessary to any toolkit. But you don't use a hammer to turn a screw, chop a tomato, or brush your teeth. And yet the hammer remains our instrument of choice, both in the conduct of our foreign policy and in our domestic order. The result is not peace, justice, or prosperity but rather a state that harasses and imprisons its own people while shouting ever less intelligibly about freedom.
It's interesting how widely recognized, even if only implicitly, Madar's point is. Two stories:
1. In the first month or two of Barack Obama's presidency, some of the commentators on ESPN were joking about things. One of them was, I believe, guest commentator Bobby Knight. If I recall correctly, one of them said something slightly negative, but totally in fun, about Obama. Knight said that the guy should watch it because Obama could "squash him like a bug." They all laughed but it seemed that they all had a sense of the modern U.S. president's incredible, and often arbitrary, powers over us.
2. I was at a Hoover Institution dinner a few weeks ago with some Hoover fellows and some journalists. One of the people I hit it off with was Hoover fellow Jim Mattis, recently a Marine Corps general. He told me about being caught in a bar at the the tender age of 19. He was ready to fess up and go along with the cop but then the cop jabbed Mattis hard in the back with his club. Mattis reacted and decked the cop. He went to jail for 21 days. The next morning in class, I told my students, all of whom are officers in the U.S. military, the Australian military, or the U.S. Coast Guard, the story. One of the students said, "If he did that today, there would be a good chance he'd be shot." I looked around the room and noticed a number of the students nodding sadly.