Wars on Everything
This year marks half a century since Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty. The rhetoric of war harkened back to Franklin Roosevelt’s declaration of war against the Great Depression, in which he demanded all the executive power the president would have against a foreign foe. Johnson’s Great Society inaugurated many billions of dollars worth of social infrastructure. Neighborhoods were torn down and rebuilt. People were forced out of their homes by eminent domain. Trillions of dollars have been spent, mostly on bureaucracies staffed by middle class employees. A fortune has been diverted to favored corporate interests. And crushing poverty persists, inequality has increased, the war on poverty has not succeeded.
This year marks a century since the federal government first got significantly involved in prohibiting drugs. It targeted heroin and cocaine in the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914. Under the Nixon and Reagan administrations, federal drug policy became a war on drugs. This domestic war has not been metaphorical. Militarized police break down doors every day. The government has taken prisoner millions of people, people who have not committed violence against person or property, and the US now boasts the largest incarceration rate in the world. Prohibition has corrupted police departments, clogged the courts, and fueled most gang violence in the United States. Tens of thousands have died on the Mexican border, and the US can’t even keep drugs out of its prisons. If the goal was to curb addiction, the war on drugs has failed.
This year marks half a decade since Obama first declared that the war on terror was over—but most of the policies have remained. This US government has invaded and occupied two countries and bombed several more. It has institutionalized torture and detentions without due process and created a mass surveillance state. Every time you go to the airport, you are treated as a criminal suspect. The militarization of law enforcement has accelerated since 9/11. If the war on terror protects American freedom, it has certainly failed.
Politicians love war rhetoric, because it facilitates the dramatic expansion of state power, typically at the expense of liberties. America’s been in a state of perpetual foreign war, with domestic counterparts, for generations, and the results are generally not pretty.
Last year we saw some reasons for hope when Obama tried to start a US war with Syria and the public shouted him down. Let’s hope this trend continues. Next time a politician declares a war on something—anything—let’s hope the public demands that instead, we give peace a chance.