THE "OBAMA-BUSH" POLICE STATE?

I think it's pretty silly for Andrew Sullivan to refer to the "Obama-Bush police state." The beginnings of modern acquiescence to excesses in law enforcement and incarceration begins with Richard Nixon's "Law and Order" campaign of 1968, and has been nurtured by both parties and several administrations since. A more accurate title might be the "Nixon-Ford-Carter-Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama police state."

More important, both Obama and Bush recognized that the ballooning incarceration rate was something that needed to be dealt with. Bush stuck his toe in the water by supporting the Second Chance Act, and Obama has gone further by supporting a repeal of the crack/powder disparity, putting millions in Justice Department grants for re-entry programs, and picking a drug czar who wants to de-escalate the war on drugs. Personally, I'd like to see the president do a lot more, like bring an end to fusion centers and paramilitary raids on nonviolent drug dealers. Still, this administration is already a welcome change from tradition.

The roots of excesses in law enforcement and incarceration however, have almost the same impetus as those that created our modern surveillance state: fear of the other. Nixon's 1968 campaign was implicitly premised in large part on his ability to protect the silent majority from black criminality and radicalism, just like Bush's imperial presidency was meant to protect us from scary Muslim terrorists. It's only now, that fully 1 in 31 Americans is in prison, on probation or parole, that the public is beginning to recognize the problem, because the police state has gone beyond its mandate to protect "us" from "them." It's now locking "us" up too. The surveillance state will likewise only be met with sufficient skepticism once people realize it can be turned on "us" as well as "them."

This is part of the reason that I don't mind Obama not using the "bully pulpit" on issues of criminal justice, because ironically, to deal with the problem--including the vast disparities in imprisonment for black men--the entire issue needs to be decoupled from race at the national level, and dealt with as an "American problem" not a "race problem." Leave the bully pulpit to Jim Webb--whose efforts are sincere and whose allegiances won't be questioned.

-- A. Serwer

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