Opportunism knocks in Missouri

Add Rand Paul’s name to the list of opportunists seeking to exploit for political purposes the tragic shooting of young Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The race-hustlers populate the list, of course. So does President Obama, who sees a topic in his supposed wheelhouse (but in reality a local matter) through which he can distract attention from his disastrous foreign policy.

Writing in Time Magazine, Paul sees the opportunity to score libertarian points while showing sympathy for the black community, to which he has been pandering for some time. Let’s start with the race pandering.

Paul uses the occasion of the Brown tragedy to say that “given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them.” But Paul makes no attempt to show that the disparities in question — presumably pertaining to conviction rates — are the result of “government targeting,” as opposed to disparities in the commission of crimes. Blacks may feel targeted, but U.S. Senators shouldn’t lend credibility to that feeling by disparaging our justice system unless they provide meaningful analysis to back it up.

It is particularly unfortunate that Paul uses Brown’s death to peddle the “government targeting blacks” narrative. Brown wasn’t killed due to government targeting. He was killed, from all that appears, by a bad cop.

If a pattern of government targeting blacks is relevant to this episode, then we would expect to find frequent instances of what happened to Brown. We don’t. Paul is just blowing smoke.

His main focus is, though, is not on race but on police “militarization.” There’s plenty of room for legitimate debate about this subject. Paul, however, contributes little of substance.

He writes:

Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies—where police departments compete to acquire military gear that goes far beyond what most of Americans think of as law enforcement. . . usually done in the name of fighting the war on drugs or terrorism.

It may well be true that many police forces have heavier arms than they are ever likely to need. Naturally, the police want the newest, fanciest, and most lethal weaponry, and the feds became quite willing to accommodate this desire after 9/11 when it was feared that armed terrorist cells might pop up in random communities.

But has the existence of an over-armed police force produced actual abuses that wouldn’t otherwise have occurred? Perhaps, but Paul makes no effort to demonstrate that it has.

He does cite a 2009 Glenn Reynolds article in which Glenn describes a few instances of overly aggressive SWAT team raids over the years. Read the article and judge for yourself whether the raids in question would likely have gone down in essentially the same form if the police had lethal but less sophisticated weapons.

To me, it seems likely that they would have. The problem was the nature of the police’s attitude, not the nature of its weapons.

Ultimately, Paul relies on the optics of heavily armed police confronting citizens protesting the killing of Brown, and in some cases overreacting to the protesters. For example, the police reportedly fired tear gas at someone standing in his own yard.

In the context of looting and protests that could turn violent, it doesn’t seem unreasonable for the police to have its most powerful and lethal weapons at the ready. And even Paul, I hope, would allow the police to have tear gas available.

This is not to deny what may well be instances of overzealousness by the police, and not just in its use of tear gas. But again, this seems to be the product of fear and perhaps some loathing, not of “militarization.”

The tendency of police to overreact predates the current trend towards heavy armament, and the police could have acted as it is said to have acted in Missouri — e.g., banning walking in the street, intimidating journalists, etc. — in any scenario in which it has more available force than the citizenry. If Paul believes the police should not have more available force than the citizenry, he should say so.

Rand Paul seldom misses an opportunity to tie racial politics to his libertarianism. The result is never pretty. In this case, given the tragedy at issue, it seems ugly indeed.

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