Is this really necessary? Photographer: Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images
Is this really necessary? Photographer: Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images

That police forces shouldn't be "overmilitarized" has been a dominant theme of commentary on the recent social unrest in Ferguson, Missouri -- among liberals, libertarians and conservatives alike.

The case against militarized policing -- local cops outfitted with body armor, assault rifles, combat fatigues and so on -- seems strong to me. For one thing, as Ross Douthat of the New York Times points out, its rise hasn't had much to do with falling crime rates.

At the same time, though, it isn't clear how much relevance this critique has to the events in Ferguson, where angry demonstrations and nights of violence and looting have followed the killing of an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown by a police officer on Aug. 9.

Rich Lowry, the editor of the National Review (one of my employers), had me nodding along to this post:

When Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, the officer was presumably wearing a typical police uniform and driving a typical police car. He either acted in entirely justifiable self-defense, made a catastrophic misjudgment after an altercation, or (in the extreme version of the protestors) shot Brown because he wanted to execute a black teenager. None of these possibilities have anything to do with the militarization of police one way or the other.

We've seen some witless heavy-handedness on the part of the cops, for instance the arrests of a couple of reporters at the McDonald's last week. But some perspective: Cops were perfectly capable of being heavy-handed long before anyone gave them surplus military equipment. The scenario in that McDonald's would probably have been exactly the same whether or not there were armored vehicles outside on the street or not.

Finally, there's the argument that the militarized police were inciting the crowd. This wasn't entirely implausible, although it seemed unlikely because it should be possible for lawful, well-intentioned people to restrain themselves from throwing things at cops whose uniforms and vehicles they don't like. Sure enough, after a night of calm in the wake of the "demilitarization" of the police response and the insertion of Captain Ron Johnson, the lawlessness started right up again.

The federal government -- through grant programs and the distribution of surplus military equipment -- has encouraged local police forces to equip themselves like occupying armies. If the violence in Ferguson helps reverse this trend, it will be a good thing. But the trend itself has little to do with what happened there.

Incidentally, concern about police excess on the right is not a novel development. Many conservatives thought federal law enforcement agents had moved with excessive force in the Waco and Ruby Ridge standoffs of the early 1990s, and conservatives in Congress resisted some anti-crime measures backed by the Bill Clinton administration around the same time.

A strain of right-wing skepticism about federal law enforcement goes back even further. Readers of a certain age may remember the John Birch Society's most successful bumper sticker: "Support Your Local Police." The adjective was intentional.

To contact the writer of this article: Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net.