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Byrd: The new Washington war machine

BY MATTHEW BYRD | APRIL 08, 2014 5:00 AM

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Sometimes the news is just so drearily awful that you have to sit back and almost appreciate the pure comedy induced by it.

Take this item from Washington, Iowa, where the local police have recently acquired an MRAP vehicle (short for Mine Resistance Ambush Protected) through a Defense Department program that donates excess vehicles originally produced for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to local police departments across the United States, including other Iowa towns such as Mason City and Storm Lake.

The MRAP weighs an impressive 49,000 pounds, stands 10-feet tall, and possesses a whopping six-wheel drive. Originally designed to resist landmines and IEDs, it sure seems like the MRAP will come in handy for the notorious war zone otherwise known as Washington County, Iowa.

If you’re having a bad day, I highly recommend watching a video produced by the Des Moines Register in which Washington police officials try to justify the possession of a vehicle it clearly has no use for. The excuses range from school shootings (which are an actual concern but an MRAP seems like overkill) to a terrorist attack happening in central Iowa (because if there’s any place that seems ripe for a high-profile terrorist attack it’s Washington, Iowa, population 7,000).

I mean if the police were realistic, they could come up with actual reasons to use their MRAP/machine of doom. Drunken high-school house parties could be broken up by ramming the MRAP into the side of the building. Clearly, people who have been trying to curtail underage drinking have not seriously considered the serious deterrents to slamming down a few Hamms in your parents’ house caused by a soulless war machine demolishing your kitchen.

In all seriousness however (and it is hard to be serious about a situation so absurd) this little anecdote does highlight several disturbing trends in the American cultural landscape. Most blatantly, the collective paranoia that’s gripped post-9/11 America so tightly that small-town Iowa police officers are convinced that, any minute, the whole state could become engulfed in some Red Dawn-style conflict that would require the use of a device such as the MRAP.

But, a little more subtly, this incident reflects the out-of-control militarization of the police that’s been occurring across small towns and big cities from Los Angeles to Waterville, Maine.

As Radley Balko, the author of the book The Rise of the Warrior Cop, an expose of the police militarization of the last decade, found, in 2006 alone the Pentagon, “distributed vehicles worth $15.4 million, aircraft worth $8.9 million, boats worth $6.7 million, weapons worth $1 million and “other” items worth $110.6 million to local police agencies.”

The effects of cops moving from handguns to assault rifles and being equipped with tanks, bazookas, and Kevlar has been twofold. First, civil liberties have absolutely been eroded, with police-brutality rates skyrocketing in last decade according to the Justice Department. Not only that, but, with the influx of military gear into local police forces, cops begin to view themselves as soldiers whose main job is combat rather than keeping the peace. How else can you explain the rise in police shootings since 9/11?

But hey, the sheriff gets to ride around in a sweet new MRAP and pretend he’s Rambo so, you know, let’s call it a draw.


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