“We’re going to have our own tank.”
That’s what Keene, N.H., Mayor Kendall Lane whispered to Councilman Mitch Greenwald during a December city council meeting.
It’s not quite a tank. But the quaint town of 23,000 — scene of just two murders since 1999 — had just accepted a $285,933 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to purchase a Bearcat, an eight-ton armored personnel vehicle made by Lenco Industries Inc.
A local critic of the deal got it placed on hold. But, in town after town, this is spreading.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the war on terror has accelerated the trend toward militarization. Homeland Security hands out anti-terrorism grants to cities and towns, many specifically to buy military-grade equipment from companies like Lenco. In December, the Center for Investigative Reporting reported that Homeland Security grants totalled $34 billion, and went to such unlikely terrorism targets as Fargo, N.D.; Fon du Lac, Wisc.; and Canyon County, Idaho. The report noted that because of the grants, defense contractors that long served the Pentagon exclusively have increasingly turned looked to police departments, hoping to tap a “homeland security market” expected to reach $19 billion by 2014.
Until only recently, public and press reaction to these grants and the gear purchased with them has been positive or non-existent. Most towns obtain and use the grants without much discussion or news coverage. At most, the local paper might run a supportive story touting the police department’s new acquisition, usually without controversy. But it has been different in Keene, in part because Clark and a group of libertarian activists have made the Bearcat an issue.
This is why every county needs a blog site that monitors these sorts of things.
Local officials don’t like such criticism.
Jim Massery, the government sales manager for Pittsfield, Mass.-based Lenco, dismissed critics who wonder why a town with almost no crime would need a $300,000 armored truck. “I don’t think there’s any place in the country where you can say, ‘That isn’t a likely terrorist target,'” Massery said. “How would you know? We don’ t know what the terrorists are thinking. No one predicted that terrorists would take over airplanes on Sept. 11. If a group of terrorists decide to shoot up a shopping mall in a town like Keene, wouldn’t you rather be prepared?”
This is not some isolated event.
Many towns have purchased vehicles like the Bearcat, or obtained tanks or armored vehicles from the Pentagon, saying they need to be prepared for terror attacks or school shootings. When the University of North Carolina-Charlotte recently formed a SWAT team, for example, a police spokesman told the campus newspaper that the paramilitary gear and tactics were necessary to prevent another Columbine or Virginia Tech. Despite the heavy media coverage of campus shootings, they’re extremely rare. University of Virginia Professor Dewey Cornell, who studies violence prevention and school safety, has estimated that a typical school campus can expect to see a homicide about once every 12,000 years. So, since terror attacks and school shootings are rare, police agencies tend to use their armored vehicles for more mundane police work, like serving drug warrants.
Because America is moving in the wrong direction. We are headed for domestic controls in crisis.