Today, in the context of the Black Lives Matter protests, TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich considers the all-American version of "extreme materialism" that Martin Luther King called out more than half a century ago. And when it comes to the overwhelming urge to get one's hands on the goods, among the looters of this moment two groups are almost never mentioned: the Pentagon and the police.
Yet, in 1997, the Department of Defense set up the 1033 program as part of the National Defense Authorization Act to provide thousands of domestic police forces with "surplus" equipment of almost every imaginable militarized kind. Since then, thanks to your tax dollars, it has given away $7.4 billion of such equipment, some of it directly off the battlefields of this country's forlorn "forever wars." For items like grenade launchers, mine-resistant armored vehicles, military rifles, bayonets, body armor, night-vision goggles, and helicopters, all that police departments have to fork over is the price of delivery. The Pentagon has, in fact, been so eager to become the Macy's of militarized hardware that, in 2017, it was even willing to "give $1.2 million worth of rifles, pipe bombs, and night vision goggles to a fake police department," no questions asked. That "department" proved to be part of a sting operation run by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). "It was like getting stuff off of eBay," a GAO official would say. Only, of course, for free.
The militarization (or, thought of another way, the commercialization) of the police has been remarkably on pace these last 23 years, while the Pentagon's ever-soaring budgets for its ever-sinking wars could be thought of as the great American commercial success story of this century. With more and more taxpayer dollars in its wallet, it's been on a remarkable looting spree. Ask yourself: has there been a weapons system it couldn't have, a military base it couldn't establish, a war expense Congress wouldn't fund even while cutting back on crucial aspects of the domestic budget like infrastructure programs or disease-prevention spending? No wonder the Pentagon could supply all those police departments with a cornucopia of goods with which to turn themselves into over-armed occupying forces in this country.
It's never thought of that way, but the Pentagon and the police have essentially been looting the coffers of the American taxpayer for a long time now and, in the Trump era, the process has only intensified. Nonetheless, as Bacevich points out, even with protests over racism filling the streets of America, protests over defunding the Pentagon have yet to surface in any significant way. Perhaps it's finally time. Tom
Martin Luther King's Giant Triplets
Racism, Yes, But What About Militarism and Materialism?
By Andrew Bacevich
In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, Americans are finally -- or is it once again? -- confronting the racism that afflicts this country and extends into just about every corner of our national life. Something fundamental just might be happening.
Yet to state the obvious, we've been here before. Mass protests in response to racial inequality and discrimination, including police brutality, have been anything but unknown in the United States. Much the same can be said of riots targeting black Americans, fomented and exploited by white racists, often actively or passively abetted by local law enforcement officials. If Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, formerly known as H. Rap Brown, was correct in calling violence "as American as cherry pie," then race-related urban unrest is the apple-filled equivalent.
The optimists among us believe that "this time is different." I hope events will prove them right. Yet recalling expectations that Barack Obama's election in 2008 signaled the dawn of a "post-racial America," I see no reason to expect it to be so. A yawning gap, I fear, separates hope from reality.
Let me suggest, however, that the nation's current preoccupation with race, as honorable and necessary as it may be, falls well short of adequately responding to the situation confronting Americans as they enter the third decade of the twenty-first century. Racism is a massive problem, but hardly our only one. Indeed, as Martin Luther King sought to remind us many years ago, there are at least two others of comparable magnitude.
MLK Defines the Problem
In April 1967, at New York City's Riverside Church, Dr. King delivered a sermon that offered a profound diagnosis of the illnesses afflicting the nation. His analysis remains as timely today as it was then, perhaps more so.
Americans remember King primarily as a great civil rights leader and indeed he was that. In his Riverside Church address, however, he turned to matters that went far beyond race. In an immediate sense, his focus was the ongoing Vietnam War, which he denounced as "madness" that "must cease." Yet King also used the occasion to summon the nation to "undergo a radical revolution of values" that would transform the United States "from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society." Only through such a revolution, he declared, would we be able to overcome "the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism."
The challenge confronting Americans was to dismantle what King referred to as the "edifice" that produced and sustained each of those giant triplets. Today's protesters, crusading journalists, and engaged intellectuals make no bones about their determination to eliminate the first of those giant triplets. Yet they generally treat the other two as, at best, mere afterthoughts, while the edifice itself, resting on a perverse understanding of freedom, goes almost entirely ignored.
I'm not suggesting that members of the grand coalition of Americans today fervently campaigning against racism favor extreme materialism. Many of them merely accept its reality and move on. Nor am I suggesting that they consciously endorse militarism, although in confusing "support" for the troops with genuine patriotism some of them do so implicitly. What I am suggesting is that those calling for fundamental change will go badly astray if they ignore Dr. King's insistence that each of the giant triplets is intimately tied to the other two.
Defund the Pentagon?
(Note: You can view every article as one long page if you sign up as an Advocate Member, or higher).