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BALKO: Politicians paint cross hairs on Americans
Government’s martial rhetoric unleashes weapons of war on U.S. citizens Declaring war on us
At 12:30 a.m. on Jan. 5, just three days before Jared Lee Loughner opened fire at a Tucson gathering hosted by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Arizona Democrat, a SWAT team in Framingham, Mass., conducted a drug raid on the home of 68-year-old Eurie Stamps. The unarmed Mr. Stamps wasn’t the target of the raid. In fact, police already had found and arrested their suspects outside the home. Police went ahead with the raid anyway. Mr. Stamps‘ death was the result.
On Jan. 12, four days after the Tucson massacre, Sal and Anita Culosi settled a lawsuit against Fairfax County, Va., police Detective Deval Bullock. Five years earlier, Detective Bullock had fatally shot their son, 38-year-old optometrist Sal Culosi, during a SWAT raid on his home. The reason for the raid: Culosi was suspected of wagering on college football.
Later the same month, Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo settled his civil rights lawsuit against Prince George’s County, Md., and its police department. In 2008, a SWAT team from that department raided Mr. Calvo’s home after intercepting a package of marijuana that had been sent there. Police broke down Mr. Calvo’s door, fatally shot his two Labrador retrievers and held Mr. Calvo and his mother-in-law handcuffed and at gunpoint for hours before realizing they were innocent. The drugs were supposed to have been intercepted by drug smugglers before they arrived at the mayor’s home.
Within hours of the Tucson massacre, pundits and politicians were denouncing anti-government rhetoric, falsely suggesting that the use of terms such as “targets,” “cross hairs” and other gun imagery in political campaigning, along with strong denunciations of public officials, mostly on the Tea Party right, were responsible for the tragedy. Yet before, during and after the massacre, they remained oblivious to the violent imagery deployed to back the “war on drugs” and to the significant increase in the government’s use of violent tactics against its own citizens. Indeed, the policies that led to the violence that claimed the lives of Stamps, Culosi and scores of other innocents in recent years are supported by nearly all of the pundits and politicians who took to blogs, op-edAP has changed its style on this pages and the airwaves to condemn those who condemn the government.
What happened in Tucson was an atrocity. But such actual as opposed to rhetorical attacks on public officials are rare. The last sitting congressman to be assassinated was Rep. Leo J. Ryan, California Democrat, killed in 1978 by members of Jim Jones‘ cult in Guyana.
Official government violence against nonviolent Americans and residents, by contrast, occurs daily. And for the past 30 years, it has been increasing at an alarming rate. From the early 1980s to the mid-2000s, University of Eastern Kentucky criminologist Peter Kraska has conducted an annual survey on the use of SWAT teams in the United States. Until the late 1970s, SWAT teams generally were used in emergency situations, but beginning in the early 1980s, that changed. Police departments began using SWAT teams to serve drug warrants.
Mr. Kraska found that the number of SWAT deployments in America increased from 3,000 per year in the early 1980s to about 50,000 by the mid-2000s. That’s about 135 SWAT raids per day. The vast majority were for drug warrants.
In May 2010, the Columbia, Mo., police department released a video of a SWAT raid on a suspected marijuana offender. The video made its way to the Internet, where it immediately went viral. It shows police breaking down a door after nightfall, immediately shooting and killing one of the family’s dogs, then charging through the house, rounding up the suspect, his wife and their young son at gunpoint.
The violent raid depicted in that video which sparked outrage across the country was not a rogue operation. It was typical. The only thing unusual was that a recording went public. The fevered response to the video was telling. It was as if Americans were being confronted for the first time with how literal the metaphorical “drug war” has become.
The massive increase in SWAT tactics during the past 30 years has been driven by several factors. The first, probably most pertinent to the Loughner discussion, is the martial rhetoric of the “drug war,” which public officials utter daily. Unlike the “targets” and “cross hairs” that ultimately had nothing to do with the Tucson shootings, the willingness of politicians to define drug prohibition policies in terms of war has had real consequences namely, cops who approach drug law enforcement as if American streets were battlefields. Ronald Reagan once compared the drug war to the World War I battle of Verdun. Drug warriors have described the narco-carnage in Mexico as a positive sign. One Georgia sheriff recently likened his own anti-drug efforts to the invasion of Normandy.
The second factor driving the increasing use of SWAT teams is a federal policy that allows local police departments to procure surplus equipment from the Pentagon for free or at a fraction of its cost. Millions of pieces of equipment designed for war are now deployed to crack down on neighborhood poker games, illicit massage parlors, even businesses operating on outdated permits. Doctors accused of overprescribing pain medication have faced SWAT teams, as have Buddhist monks who overstayed their visas.
Other factors contribute to the promiscuous use of SWAT teams, including federal anti-drug grants and asset-forfeiture policies that specifically reward drug arrests and seizures to the exclusion of other crimes all passed, funded and expanded with bipartisan support.
In my own research, I’ve found 46 examples over the past quarter-century in which a SWAT raid led to the death of a person who hadn’t committed any crime, much less a violent one. These include people killed when a SWAT team raided the wrong house and bystanders caught in the crossfire when a SWAT team raided the right house. I’ve found another 25 cases in which a nonviolent offender someone suspected of violating laws against gambling, marijuana or the like was killed.
To date, there has been little outcry from the press, and not a single national politician from either the Democratic or Republican parties has condemned or even questioned the increasing use of government violence against Americans.
It will be a welcome day when America’s political and media figures get as indignant about innocent Americans killed by their own government as they do on those thankfully rare occasions when deranged people carry out attacks on government officials.
Radley Balko is a senior editor for Reason magazine. A longer version of this article apeared in the April issue of Reason magazine at reason.com.
Declaring war on us:
“Drug abuse is one of the most vicious and corrosive forces attacking the foundations of American society today. … We must fight it with all of the resources at our command.
This administration has declared all-out, global war on the drug menace.”
- President Nixon, 1973
“America needs drug wars more than star wars.”
- Rep. Richard J. Durbin, 1989
“The detection and countering of the production, trafficking and use of illegal drugs is a high priority national security mission of the Department of Defense.”
- Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, 1989
“The DEA has not been effective at controlling the war on drugs. We need to win it.”
- Rep. Steve Cohen, 2007
“Our law enforcement and National Guard personnel must be given the tools they need to carry on this battle.”
- Sen. Mike Johanns, 2010
“The solution to the drug crisis is to hit it on all fronts. … It’s like World War II, when we were in a war with the Japanese, the Germans and the Italians. We didn’t just hit the Pacific; we hit them on all fronts. … We’ve got to win the war!”
- Rep. Charles B. Rangel, 1989
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