Not long after 9/11, U.S. Marshals put canvas bags on all the parking meters outside the courthouse on Federal Street in Portland.

It was for security. If a terrorist wanted to attack the building with a truck bomb, he would have to park on the other side of Pearl Street.

I asked one of the marshals back then when the parking spaces would be back in commission. He shrugged and said, “When the war’s over.”

That was nearly 20 years ago and you won’t see parking meters with bags on them these days because the meters themselves have been permanently removed. The “war” isn’t over. The “war” will never be over.

We got off easy. The loss of a few downtown parking spaces is just one of the many ways that the policies designed to fight international terrorism affect our daily lives. If you are looking for a scarier example, go 3,000 miles west to the other Portland, where federal agents in camouflage gear are beating down protesters, stuffing some into unmarked vans, taking them into custody without probable cause.

They don’t identify themselves, but we have learned that they are members of Customs and Border Patrol and other agencies in the Department of Homeland Security. Created after 9/11, the department is now the largest law enforcement organization in the country, with 60,000 officers. That means it’s no longer the Attorney General of the United States who’s the nation’s top cop – it’s some guy named Chad.

Chad Wolf is a former lobbyist whose contribution to American governance so far has been designing the family separation program that put immigrant children in cages. He is the acting director of the agency, which means he was not confirmed by the Senate and is accountable only to his boss, President Trump.

Wolf says that the authority the agents have to come to Portland and crack heads comes from an executive order issued by Trump that protects “monuments, memorials and statues” from being desecrated. But the roots of this go back to the formation of the department after 9/11.

Back then, experts identified a lack of coordination within law enforcement as a key vulnerability, so several of these agencies were concentrated in one department with Cabinet-level leadership. The mission was to prevent terrorism in the homeland – catching terrorists before they did anything. That violates about half the amendments in the Bill of Rights, but given the circumstances, most Americans seemed to be OK with that.

But now, we see that doctrine applied on the streets of Portland, Oregon – not to prevent terrorism but to prevent graffiti. Are we still OK with that?

Let’s come back to Maine. Another creature of the post-9/11 restructuring were “fusion centers,” where federal, state and local law enforcement agencies share information. Originally, this too was a tool to fight international terrorism, but we don’t get much of that around here. It didn’t take long for law enforcement in Maine to find other uses for all that fancy cop equipment.

The fusion center started by keeping track of outlaw motorcycle gangs, but according to a cache of documents stolen from a national fusion center information hub,  the Maine center has been gathering information used to fight ordinary crime like low-level drug offenses. And as alleged in a whistleblower’s lawsuit, the center takes pictures of people gathered at lawful demonstrations – everything from gun-owners’ rights rallies to Black Lives Matter protests. Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck has acknowledged that the fusion center uses facial recognition scanners to identify people in photos, but would not say under what circumstances.

Sauschuck did tell legislators that the unit monitors the social media accounts of people who have not been accused of any crime, looking for information about future events.

This may not be as bad as secret police attacking civilians the way they have been in Oregon, but it comes from the same post-9/11 idea about security – that you spread a wide surveillance net and use intelligence to stop the bad guys before they act.

Civil libertarians predicted that these terrorism-fighting powers would be turned on the rest of us in time, but most people back then were so afraid of al-Qaida that they let it go.

Now, almost 20 years later, we’re like the drivers circling the federal courthouse looking for a parking space. This war is never going to be over.


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