There’s a notion, popular among self-avowed “libertarians,” that among the largest threats facing our nation is that of “the militarization” of the police. This idea has been expressed quite a bit as of late, particularly in the wake of the police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
In a recent article of mine, I argued against it.
I am profoundly sympathetic to libertarianism. Indeed, I consider myself a libertarian of a sort, a conservative libertarian, as it were, a libertarian who recognizes the need to emancipate libertarianism from the abstract, rationalistic excesses with which it is all too often saddled.
It is because of, not in spite of, my affection for libertarianism that I felt the need to take to task those who insist upon peddling this “militarization” of the police bit. For purposes of clarity, I recapitulate my argument here.
(1)While it makes perfectly good sense to speak of the phenomenon of militarization, it makes zero sense to identify this with the mere possession of weaponry, or of weaponry of a specific sort. Rather, the idea of militarization is inseparable from the ideas of purpose and coercion. To be more exact, militarization occurs when moral agents are coerced into pursuing purposes—e.g. “victory”—that they may have otherwise chosen not to pursue.
To conclude that a police force is “militarized” because of the tools with which officers are equipped is like concluding that a person is a writer (“writer-ized”) because he is equipped with a computer and a creative imagination, or a mechanic (“mechanic-ized”) because he possesses a carjack and a sophisticated miscellany of tools.
It is the manner and purposes for the sake of which a person deploys his resources, and not the resources themselves, that determines what he is.
Similarly, it is the manner and purposes for the sake of which the police deploy their resources—their weaponry—and not their resources themselves that determine whether or not the police are “militarized.”
And this means that if the police are using their fierce weaponry to, not corral decent citizens into parting with their blood, sweat, and treasure to serve some visionary project of the government, but ward off fierce barbarians who are threatening to undo law and order, then it is simply inaccurate to say of the police that they are “militarized.”
(2)Since the “militarization” of the police is all about the weapons, things, the relevant question is: At what place should the line be drawn between police equipment that is morally acceptable and that which is unacceptable because it results in “militarization?” Should police not be permitted to wear helmets and bullet-proof vests? Should they not be allowed to carry guns at all? What about armored vehicles with bullet-proof windows?
My contention is that, as long as we continue to identify “militarization” with the weapons with which police are armed, there is no non-arbitrary point at which to say: “Ah ha! The police are ‘militarized’!!”
(3)Libertarians above and beyond anyone else champion (at least in theory) the right to bear arms, the right of any law-abiding (adult) citizen to arm himself with, and carry, weaponry of all sorts.
Why is it permissible for private actors to bear such an arsenal but impermissible—“militaristic”—for the police to do so?
There is no rational answer to this question if one is a libertarian. That private actors are not permitted to arm themselves to the extent that police officers are permitted to do so is a separate issue entirely, one that has absolutely no relevance to the topic at hand.
(4)Finally, as my former student, Tony Laudicina, military man and former military advisor to police, says, police are armed to the extent that they are because “the criminal threat” has become such that local law enforcement agencies simply wouldn’t be equipped to adequately resist it otherwise.
Tony writes: “I can tell you [that] it [the so-called “militarization” of the police] has everything to do with the criminal threat…LE [Law enforcement] agencies were ill trained and equipped to handle a criminal threat which was better armed and willing to use tactics that the police were vulnerable to.”
He adds: “We helped balance that by providing training and equipment to meet these evolving threats.”
In short, in just those areas—like Ferguson, Missouri—where police have exhibited the weaponry that have given rise to howls of “militarization,” Officer Friendly wouldn’t last a second. Libertarians, then, who have a problem with these exertions of force on the part of besieged police in these bastions of violent crime should consider spending a fraction of the time that they reserve for blasting the police—or, more accurately (and more ludicrously), the “militarized” weapons of police—for blasting the outlaw thugs that made these weapons a necessity.
The latter is more politically incorrect, and certainly more dangerous to one’s reputation, but it’s also more truthful.