When I look at the chronology of the program that provides military weapons to police forces, I understand the collective national freakout that inspired it:
Faced with a bloated military and what it perceived as a worsening drug crisis, the 101st Congress in 1990 enacted the National Defense Authorization Act. Section 1208 of the NDAA allowed the Secretary of Defense to "transfer to Federal and State agencies personal property of the Department of Defense, including small arms and ammunition, that the Secretary determines is-- (A) suitable for use by such agencies in counter-drug activities; and (B) excess to the needs of the Department of Defense." It was called the 1208 Program. In 1996, Congress replaced Section 1208 with Section 1033.The now-notorious 1033 program started in the mid-1990s, but its precursor program started -- as a means of fighting the War on Drugs -- in 1990.
As a New Yorker, I remember 1990. It was (and remains) our worst year for murder since modern record-keeping began -- we'd had 2,246 murders in 1989, then had 2,605 in 1990, which happened to be the first year in the term of our one and only African-American mayor, David Dinkins, who would go on to lose a reelection bid (to tough-talking Rudy Giuliani) despite presiding over declines in crime in the subsequent years of his term. The trials of the Central Park Five -- young men wrongly charged with raping a jogger and beating her nearly to death -- also took place in 1990.
The violent crime rate hit all-time records in the U.S. and in Washington, D.C., in 1990, although crime wouldn't peak nationwide until the following year (in the capital, crime peaked in 1993).
President George H.W. Bush launched the invasion of Panama in December 1989; Noriega was seized in January 1990, then brought to America to face charges of drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering. A couple of months before the invasion, in September 1989, Bush waved a bag of drugs at a national TV auhdience during a speech:
"This is crack cocaine," Bush solemnly announced, holding up a plastic bag filled with a white chunky substance in his Sept. 5 speech on drug policy. It was "seized a few days ago in a park across the street from the White House.... It could easily have been heroin or PCP."Heartland America saw it as one big overwhelming problem: crime, drugs, black criminals. Pop culture didn't do much to soothe the heartland -- N.W.A's Straight Outta Compton had been released in 1988, and while that wasn't exactly Top 40 material, a sanitized version of rap music topped the charts in 1990, in the form of M.C. Hammer's "U Can't Touch This." That was the first time a black rapper -- not the Beastie Boys, not Blondie -- had gone pop in such a big way. (It's hard to believe that innocuous song could strike fear into anyone, but I remember that a lot of white people hated rap, and hated that song in particular, feeling that rap was the death of music and it was all the fault of ignorant, talentless urban blacks. Rap was clearly the biggest threat to the hegemony of rock since the disco era; a lot of whites had really come to believe that the permanent enshrinement of rock as America's dominant form of music was part of the natural order of things.)
Maybe it's a step too far to bring Hammer into this. But in any case, scary black males were what haunted the heartland's dreams the year after the Berlin Wall fell. So it's not surprising that the weapons of the Cold War were brought home.
(First link via Balloon Juice.)