C. Augustin Dierkes post on the Mexican drug war to me highlighted one of the many downsides to the drug war, one which happens to be among the more distressing changes in American life from the past century: the increasing use of the American military in civilian contexts and settings.
The point of using the war analogy in the war on drugs is to demonstrate that, when it comes to the fight against the trafficking of illegal drugs, “the gloves are off” and all equipment and tactics are on the table. And, while I echo many others in finding a great deal of empty rhetoric in the war on drugs terminology, it is true that the last several decades of American efforts at eliminating drug use has seen the introduction of weaponry and tactics previously unheard of in crime prevention. What’s more, the American military and intelligence apparati have been used regularly to limit the inflow of drugs into the United States, since the great Reaganite expansion of the drug war. The fact that our standard metrics for determining the efficacy of our drug prohibition has shown no consistent or meaningful reduction in the use of illegal drugs would be enough to question this use of military personnel in the drug war. But there are legitimate reasons to oppose this militarization independent of effect.
The founding politicians of our country had a disdain for standing armies that would have them relegated to the status of lunatic peaceniks today. But distrust of standing armies, and the uses of military personnel and equipment on domestic soil, has justifications that have nothing to do with pacifism. The American revolutionaries had seen first hand the chilling effects of military garrisons among domestic populations. We of course have military bases dotted around the United States, but in my experience the military takes pains not to have too obvious a footprint in local communities. More importantly, they don’t have military personnel deployed in official capacity within the population, unlike, say, the British redcoats stationed in American population centers before the revolution. But I’ve noticed in recent years a trend upward in the use of the National Guard, a military organization, on domestic soil– not just in assisting in the war on drugs but in providing security for events deemed high profile targets, such as today’s Inauguration, during which time we’ve seen packs of National Guardsmen wandering around. During Katrina, of course, we talked endlessly about why it took so long for the National Guard to be deployed to help. While I do support the use of the National Guard in that level of emergency, I think we need to take great care when deciding to deploy them.
My fear is that many Americans seem not to understand that the use of military personnel for crime prevention and domestic security, whether fighting against Colombian cartels (directly or by proxy) or providing security at a political event, is a major change from the traditional distrust of the military that has long been a part of the American character. This could, over time, lead to a gradual normalization of the projection of American military power within our borders, a change that I don’t think helps anyone, no matter which party is in power.
At worst, this sort of domestic use of military power can have consequences similar to the one Dierkes describes– a situation that really does deserve the appelation war. You might say that the cartels in Mexico have forced the hand of the Mexican government in provoking a military response. But as Dierkes mentions, the military does a pretty poor job of performing the central mission of any police force, which is balancing enforcement of the law with respect for individual rights and limits on police power. And there can’t help but be a kind of cycle of escalation when more and more military grade hardware is brought onto the scene. Civil rights will inevitably be eroded in this kind of action; the question is whether that tradeoff will actually bring with it the sought increases in security and law enforcement. I don’t know how best to solve the problems in this growing war between the Mexican government and cartels, but I am largely persuaded that drug legalization is the only long-term method to undercut the economic power of the cartels and handicap their ability to wage war.