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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

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Neill Mohammad: What 'security' really looks like

By Neill Mohammad, Daily Opinion Columnist
Published November 27, 2011

I have no idea when the authoritative history of post-9/11 America, in all its sadness, paranoia and staggering indifference to the human cost of war, will be written. However, I think I know what the jacket art will look like.

Even by the embarrassingly low standards we’ve set over the last 10 years, with 150,000 civilian deaths in Iraq — that’s at least 50 Iraqis for every one American lost on 9/11 — and airport security measures that increasingly resemble systematic molestation, the viral video of the recent police crackdown at the University of California, Davis is chilling. The university administration asked police to break up a peaceful, completely non-violent demonstration under the pretense that the protesters had violated a ban on camping on school grounds. Police officers responded to the scene in full riot gear, and in a calm and orderly fashion, proceeded to douse the protesters in pepper spray as they sat motionless on the ground.

True to form, Chancellor Linda Katehi initially lied about the circumstances of the riot deployment, claiming that the police only resorted to pepper spray after they were surrounded by protesters. Once the video surfaced, Katehi was forced to recant; she later appeared on “Good Morning America” to appeal to the victims to help “start the healing process and move forward.”

Based on their actions, neither Katehi nor any other implicated Davis administrators deserve to be a part of that process, and hopefully they’ll be forced from office soon. However, that leaves another important question unanswered: Why does Davis, a rural town of only 30,000 people or so, have a riot squad in the first place?

The answer, once again, has a lot to do with 9/11. It’s difficult to adequately describe just how much money the United States has spent on the nebulous, ill-defined concept of “homeland security” since 2001. The numbers themselves — at least $30 billion a year in each of the last 10 years — hardly seem adequate. Much of this spending is granted by the Department of Homeland Security to the states, and then from the states to individual counties and towns. From the perspective of local law enforcement, Homeland Security might as well be Scrooge McDuck’s money bin. It’s free money that law enforcement can spend on neat toys without having to suffer the various indignities of the normal budget process. All it takes is a few magic words on a grant application, like “first-responder preparedness,” and anything resembling good sense immediately vanishes from conversation and is replaced by a nice big check from the federal government.

That’s how officials in Keith County in the Nebraska panhandle (population: 8,370) were able to spend $45,000 on diving equipment to help terrorist-proof a local reservoir. That’s why many local police stations’ storage lockers frequently resemble a deleted scene from the “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” series, with surplus M-14 and M-16 rifles showing up in places as remote as Jasper, Fla. (population: 2,000). That’s also why hundreds of small police and sheriff’s departments, including one in Adrian, Mich., now have retro-fitted armored personnel carriers, whose primary uses seem to be tearing up city streets.

Harold Peterson, the director of emergency management in Keith County, told the Los Angeles Times earlier this year that “it’s important to understand the homeland security equipment wasn’t bought to be tucked away for the day there would be some terrorism event.” Of course it wasn’t — not when you could be using it to play soldier and intimidate innocent civilians. This summer, the Department of Education used its militarized police force to execute a no-knock warrant in Stockton, Calif. After three young children had been dragged out of bed and into a waiting patrol car, it turned out that the SWAT team was at the wrong address.

In a way, the student demonstrators in Davis were lucky. The unprovoked pepper spray attack was vicious but certainly preferable to being flattened by an APC. Next time, though, they might not be so lucky. The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to adopt new rules this January that allow civilian agencies to purchase and operate drone aircrafts. The same technology that’s been terrorizing the Afghan countryside will soon be available to every small-town sheriff with a Rambo complex right here at home.

I hope that someone is able to a snap a picture of the first Predator look-alike used to attack protesters from overhead. It would make a heck of a book cover.

Neill Mohammad can be reached at neilla@umich.edu.