Budgets are moral documents, a fact that the current pandemic and economic crisis is making clearer than usual. Legislators have to make difficult decisions that will amount to some truly historic choices.

On the one hand, there are last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. The multi-racial, intergenerational, nationwide protests were the largest in American history. They demanded a reckoning with the grotesque violence of the present order. With one twentieth of global population, the United States cages a quarter of the world’s prisoners. American police kill around 1,000 people a year, a number beyond comparison.  Murals, sloganeering and statements aren’t enough. The demand is to defund the police, to stop governing through crime and start meeting basic needs.

On the other hand, we have the U.S. Capitol attack, when different protesters – egged on by the outgoing president’s feverish conspiracies of stolen elections – sought to prevent the peaceful transition of power. In response, there are now proposals for new counterterrorism laws. A renewed domestic war on terror, however, will not address the long-festering rot in American politics that burst forth in these odious events.

Consider the results of the “global war on terror.” The costs of war are grim: not just the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq but also untold military operations in at least 76 countries, $7.6 trillion spent on foreign war and the Department of Homeland Security in the first decade after 9/11, nearly a million dead and over 10 million more displaced in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, to say nothing of other affected regions.

Has it made us safer? No. The world is more unstable than it was 20 years ago. American politics is careening into uncertain territory without clear historical parallels. The sprawling security apparatus created to stop terrorism has failed. Repeatedly.

In 2009, Daryl Johnson, DHS’ lead domestic terrorism analyst, forecast increased violence from the far right, noting, among other factors, that foreign wars historically fueled hate at home. The report was leaked. Under pressure from the right, the Obama administration disbanded Johnson’s unit. Similar “intelligence failures” had immediate consequences. Before the Boston Marathon bombing, federal agencies neglected to share information about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the primary suspect, with the Boston Regional Intelligence Center. Even if they had, Boston’s spy center was too busy monitoring Occupy Boston.


These problems also plague Maine. Last May, a whistleblower complaint alleged that Maine’s post-9/11 spy center, the Maine Information Analysis Center, illegally kept information on gun owners and from license plate readers. In June, BlueLeaks – hacked police data published by a transparency collective – proved that the spy center monitored BLM and anti-Central Maine Power protests and laundered right-wing conspiracies about “pre-staged bricks” for BLM protests as “intelligence.”  It also showed that the spy center is preoccupied with minor crimes and monitoring those unfortunate souls struggling in the margins while managing addiction, mental illness and homelessness. This is called “criminal intelligence.”

It would be a tragedy to repeat the mistakes of the post-9/11 period, when the response to failure was to further empower the very agencies at fault. Instead, we should rise to the challenge of last summer’s protests and understand that there is much to do in Maine.

In 2011, the Department of Public Safety’s budget was $30 million. It is $52.5 million today. Currently, we spend about $200 million to imprison some 2,000 people, to say nothing of the costs of jail incarceration. All told, Maine spends $700 million every two years on police, prisons and jails.

This money could be better spent to meet the real needs of Mainers for housing, health care, mental health and drug treatment. In recent years, politicians, policy advocates, social movement organizations and affected communities have put forward legislation to for a housing first policy for homelessness; the decriminalization of addiction and the creation of supervised injection facilities, and the closing of Long Creek youth detention center, among other proposals.

The answers are there. The question is not whether it is possible to stop governing through crime and start governing with care but whether we have the will to lead and make moral choices.

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