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Are we heading toward a police state?

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Saturday, March 30, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Christopher Coyne is the F.A. Harper Professor of Economics at George Mason University. Abigail R. Hall is a Mercatus Graduate Fellow in George Mason University's Economics Department. They spoke to the Trib regarding their recent article in The Independent Review on the increasing militarization of U.S. domestic police forces.

Q: How do you believe domestic policing has become more militarized over the last few generations?

A: Coyne: In the paper, we contrast the idea of police protecting and serving versus the idea of the military abroad who are tasked with annihilating an enemy. It's been a creeping process over time, really starting with the war on drugs. But over time, the domestic police have taken on more of the characteristics of the military in terms of their weaponry, their tactics and also pursuing enemies on the domestic turf of the United States.

Q: Can you trace the evolution of that process?

A: Hall: The Founding Fathers and others at least attempted to separate the function of the police and the military, historically. After the Civil War, you had the Posse Comitatus Act, which (stated) the military was not allowed to participate in the enforcement of domestic law. When you start getting to the war on drugs and these large national crises, that's when you start to see the erosion of these initial separations that were put in place.

Q: You're obviously referring to 9/11 and the war on terrorism. Isn't it natural for the government to have a strong, forceful reaction to terrorist attacks and to have people go along with that?

A: Hall: Absolutely, it's a typical reaction. The function that crises serve for the government is that there is a crisis like a national terror attack, and then there's this public outcry for the government to do something. This provides an avenue for the government and different bureaucratic agencies to expand the types of operations in which they engage, including the military and the police. So if the military are fighting terrorists, it becomes a way for the police to expand their activities by saying that they are fighting terrorism, too. What you see is that even after the crisis no longer is of paramount concern, you may see a scaling back of some of these activities but they don't completely go away.

Q: But isn't there always some degree of friction between the government and its citizens regarding the government's powers?

A: Coyne: That tension is unavoidable. There are checks and balances, (but) if citizens are passive in allowing government to do more and more things, that check is removed. In response to the Patriot Act, you hear people say they have nothing to hide. And if you've got nothing to hide, then it shouldn't matter that they can look at your emails and bank accounts. Well, that's true on one hand, (but) that's a slippery slope. You start doing that, and it very quickly leads to other things and people become comfortable with these intrusions into their lives. All of a sudden, the liberties and freedoms that people took for granted 10, 20, 30 years ago are gone.

Q: So you believe America is closer to becoming a sort of police state than most people think?

A: Coyne: Right, yes. You know, that's a very harsh statement. In some sense it's shocking to people. But just think about the world today compared to five to 10 years ago in terms of things like airport security, pat-downs, random police stops. Those types of things we couldn't have imagined 15 years ago. And people would say, “Well, times have changed.” Well, yes, of course they have. But the issue we need to constantly wrestle with is: Are we willing to trade off these liberties for supposed security? What does that mean for the long term? That's hard for a lot of people to think through and grasp, but that's ultimately the crucial issue.

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media (412-320-7857 or

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