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The Cops' Military Toys Aren't Just for Catching Terrorists

While the circumstances of the manhunt for Dzhokhar Tsarneav in Boston last week were unique, the military muscle displayed by law enforcement is hardly reserved for responding to rare acts of terrorism. Increasingly, SWAT teams in tanks are the new...

A SWAT tank parked in the Boston Common on April 16, 2013. Photo via Flickr user Vjeran Pavic

On April 19, a million Bostonians stayed locked down in their homes while 9,000 cops combed the metro area for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving suspect in the marathon bombing. In Watertown, cops went door-to-door and removed homeowners at gunpoint before searching their houses. Tsarnaev was found in that town around 8 PM by the owner of the boat sitting in his backyard, where the 19-year-old suspected terrorist had chosen as his hiding place.


The lockdown was something new. Not serial killers, not cop-killing cop Christopher Dorner’s LA rampage, not even 9/11 shut down a city like this. Still, Bostonians seemed fine with staying inside for the most part. Cops found their guy relatively quickly, and the city partied in the streets afterward. During the manhunt, a tough-looking officer even brought two gallons of milk to a family with young children, serving as a perfect meme to refute any accusations of jackbooted thuggery. Even some normally antipolice libertarians urged restraint in reacting to the manhunt.

What shouldn’t go unmentioned, however, is that while the circumstances were unique, the military muscle displayed by law enforcement is hardly reserved for responding to rare acts of terrorism. Videos from the lockdown—particularly this piece of paranoia porn, in which a SWAT team orders a family out of their home at gunpoint and one of the officers screams “Get away from the window!” at the videographer—either look frightening or grimly necessary, according to your views. But haven’t we seen displays like this before?

Those who say that the above high level of police intrusion was due to the unique seriousness of the situation in Boston had better explain what cops are doing with their expensive toys during the other 360 days of the year. A suspected bomb-toting terrorist is cause for specific, serious law-enforcement measures (if not an excuse to impose martial law on an entire metro area). But a visit from cops that look like soldiers is a reality for 150 people per day who are targeted by police raids—mostly on suspicion of possessing or selling narcotics.


Sometimes the body armor, vehicles, weapons, and high-quality spying equipment that make these raids easier are underwritten by the Department of Homeland Security. The DHS has spent $7 billion over the last decade on war toys to be used on America’s streets. (There is no reason why those grants might not be eventually offered for domestic drones as well. Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis has already suggested the city increase the number of surveillance cameras in the city and have drones patrol next year’s marathon.)

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not 9/11 that militarized police. The march toward cops who look and behave like soldiers occupying a hostile country started in the 80s. Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs, but it wasn’t until Ronald Reagan that it was decided that the conflict should involve real weapons of war. In the past 11 years, terrorism has been the excuse for all manner of police and security-state maneuvering, but it’s all part of the same drive toward giving law enforcement broader powers—supposed terrorism-fighting tools like “sneak and peek warrants” are used today to go after drug offenders.

Contrast the above linked video of the Boston house being searched with this footage from a 2008 Columbia, Missouri, marijuana raid. It stars cops busting down a family’s door in the dark, launching five potentially lethal flash-bang grenades, and fatally shooting a pet dog. Or how about this video from 2010, of a Utah SWAT team fatally shooting golf-club-armed homeowner Todd Blair five seconds after kicking in his door? (They were searching for Blair’s allegedly drug-dealing roommate.) Unsurprisingly, some recipients of these types of raids believe they are being robbed. That impression can prove deadly for cops or homeowners.


Those who are confident that the cops did the right thing in Boston are allowed their opinions. But they must remember that SWAT teams are not kept behind a glass that says “Break in Case of Terrorism.” Heavily armed cops are present at G-20 summits and political conventions; they are employed to look for immigrants or raid places where cockfighting or gambling is suspected. And in spite of rumors of the drug war’s demise, cops are still looking to fight that war. The tired phrase “new normal” absolutely applies to the officers seen in the streets (and on the roofs) of Boston in the last week. And if America is always on high alert, always ready to send militarized police after any enemy, then what happened in Boston wasn’t an aberration; it was a look at law enforcement’s new face.

Lucy Steigerwald is a freelance writer and photographer. Read her blog here and follow her on Twitter: @lucystag 

More on the Boston Bombing:

The Boston Bomber Is Not Eric Twardzik

Outside the Bombing Suspects' Home in Boston

Surveying the Chaos at the Boston Marathon Bombing