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The Boomerang Effect


Tyranny Comes Home: The Domestic Fate of U.S. Militarism by Christopher J. Coyne and Abigail R. Hall (Stanford University Press, 2018); 264 pages.

On the evening of July 7, 2016, Micah Xavier Johnson turned a protest against police brutality into a bloodbath. Angry at police killings of black men nationwide, the Army reservist and Afghan war veteran decided to take matters into his own hands. Across four and a half hours, Johnson terrorized downtown Dallas, murdering five officers and injuring nine more and two civilians. Dallas Police Chief David Brown saw no other option, and in the early morning hours of July 8, 2016, something unprecedented happened: an American police force killed an armed suspect with an explosive-rigged robot.

The use of the bomb robot to kill Johnson once again raised questions about the continuing militarization of American policing. As Peter Singer, a fellow at the New America Foundation, told the Guardian, the only other time he remembers something similar happening was overseas sometime in the early days of the “war on terrorism.” A soldier he interviewed had turned a MARC-bot into a weaponized unmanned ground vehicle — in other words, a weaponized drone. “They duct-taped an explosive and you can figure out the rest. You can see the parallels here,” Singer said, referring to Johnson’s extraordinary demise.

What happened in Dallas that summer night in 2016 is a perfect illustration of what Christopher J. Coyne of George Mason University and Abigail R. Hall of the University of Tampa call “the boomerang effect” in their disturbing book, Tyranny Comes Home: The Domestic Fate of U.S. Militarism. According to Coyne and Hall, the boomerang effect is how U.S. militarism abroad returns home to infect domestic politics and policy.

For the boomerang effect to occur, argue Coyne and Hall, several domestic factors must be in place. When a country such as the United States is perpetually at war, the national government centralizes power to the detriment of state and local government, since foreign policy is the national government’s domain. Bureaucracy grows — just think of the formation of the national-security state after World War II or its expansion after 9/11, particularly in the form of the Department of Homeland Security, the largest cabinet department after Defense and Veterans Affairs.

A toxic mixture of fear and nationalism gains a stranglehold over many citizens, who are willing to pay any price to be kept safe from the hordes — fascists, communists, terrorists — who want to destroy our way of life. The separation of powers breaks down as judges defer to the state on national-security grounds and legislators worry about seeming unpatriotic, particularly with service members’ lives on the line overseas, if they question the jingoism emanating from the White House or their colleagues in Congress.

“With the door open for the expansion of government power,” write Coyne and Hall, “the methods of social control originally developed for use abroad are able to be imported for domestic use.” They argue that this happens through three complementary, if over-academically named, channels.

Social control

The first is the “human-capital channel,” which means that intervention requires certain kinds of people to carry it out. They must be social engineers, think the neoconservatives of the Bush administration in Iraq, believing they can manipulate an entire society and push them toward the intervenors’ goals. They must have a sense of superiority, generally a belief that they know what’s right for other societies. This arrogance, combined with a lack of compassion for the target population, allows the interventionists to engage in horrifying deeds — surveillance, incarceration, torture, mass killings — in the belief that the ends justify the means. Finally there is the belief in state control as the only proven method of civilizing people.

The bureaucrats and service members then come home from their imperial missions, which Coyne and Hall describe as the “organizational dynamics channel,” and find jobs in the defense sector or law enforcement, where they can ply their unique tradecraft. As Coyne and Hall note, “[Of] the 108 three- and four-star generals who retired between 2009 and 2011, 70 percent accepted jobs with private defense contractors or consultants.” Police departments and other law- enforcement organizations often provide preference points to applicants with military service. Currently one out of five police officers is a veteran, according to the Marshall Project,  a disconcerting fact, considering service members are taught to be killing machines, not peace officers.

The last related channel is the “physical-capital channel,” which is an academic way of saying war breeds technological innovations that make it easier to control and kill people. The innovations are then imported home for use against the domestic population. Examples abound, but nothing highlights it better than the iconic photo from the Ferguson protests in August 2014, where a police sniper, perched on a mine-resistant vehicle, trained his rifle sights on a protester.

Coyne and Hall round out the book by showing how the boomerang effect explains how dragnet surveillance, militarized policing, drones, and torture have all found their way back home to the United States. In each section, Coyne and Hall connect the dots, unearthing the fascinating history that gives their theory explanatory power.

The U.S. surveillance state, according to Coyne and Hall, is a direct outgrowth of the United States’ criminal war against the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century. In 1900, the Division of Military Information, under Capt. Ralph Van Deman, was established to produce actionable intelligence on Filipino insurgents to destroy the resistance to U.S. occupation. In 1917, Deman would helm the Military Intelligence Service (MIS), which operated domestically to protect the U.S. government from German spies and saboteurs during World War I. The MIS would expand, becoming the Military Intelligence Division (MID).

One MID unit, known as MI-8, partnered with Western Union to surveil communications coming over the telegram company’s domestic cables. In 1929, Secretary of State Henry Simpson shut down MI-8 because of Republican outrage over the government’s surveillance apparatus. But its capabilities would live on through different organizations, such as the Signal Intelligence Service and the Armed Forces Security Agency, culminating in the creation of the National Security Agency in 1952.


The rest of Coyne and Hall’s cases of domestic liberty lost revolve around police. It is not surprising that, like the creation of the U.S. surveillance state, the militarization of police can also be traced back to the U.S. occupation of the Philippines. To pacify the islands, the U.S. government created the Philippine Constabulary to police the population. Many of the veterans returned home and went into law enforcement, including August Volmer, who is known as the “father of modern policing.” Volmer, note Coyne and Hall, believed police departments should be run like the Army.

Another veteran of the Philippine occupation was famed anti-war activist Gen. Smedley Butler. In 1924, Butler became Philadelphia’s newest police chief, and he immediately used what he had learned to raid speakeasies and other “‘vice’ enterprises” during Prohibition. His “methods and tactics honed abroad,” write Coyne and Hall, “were brought home and employed to combat black markets resulting from alcohol prohibition, with U.S. citizens as the primary enemy.”

Throughout the rest of the book, Coyne and Hall convincingly document how U.S. militarism has affected domestic law enforcement. There is the creation of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1967, the brainchild of former marine John Nelson, who modeled them on the Marine Corps’ ultra-aggressive elite Force Recon unit to subdue rioters. Then there’s the Pentagon’s 1033 program, which supplies military-grade gear and weaponry to local police departments free of charge. The program, initially started in 1990 under another name to help law enforcement fight the war on drugs, has evolved to supply law enforcement with the tools they supposedly need to fight the jihadist next door as the war on terrorism blurs the boundaries between where the battlefield begins and ends.

Finally, there are the military veterans who come home and become cops. While a good portion of these men and women can distinguish between warfare and domestic policing, Coyne and Hall note that even the International Association of Chiefs of Police is concerned that returning veterans use the tactics they learned overseas on American citizens and civilians. A battlefield mentality, as displayed by police in Ferguson four years ago, is a recipe for catastrophe as race relations in America continue to deteriorate.


Aside from chronicling the deleterious consequences of American imperialism on the home front, Coyne and Hall’s big contribution is demonstrating how anti-imperialism and civil libertarianism are mutually reinforcing ideologies that need each other. Their thesis shows that civil libertarians don’t have to worry only about wartime repression. The methods and technologies developed and perfected overseas to subdue foreign populations will eventually return to our shores, as if almost to restore karmic balance.

Coyne and Hall naturally try to sketch a way out of the boomerang effect. If Americans want to break the boomerang in two, they believe, we must rediscover or revitalize the country’s proud anti-militarist tradition. They are no doubt correct, but I have no confidence that such a movement will arise any time soon.

Many, if not most, Americans believe that the U.S. military fights “them” over “there” so that “we” don’t have to fight them “here” on American shores, even though that belief doesn’t withstand a shred of scrutiny. The belief, however, is the founding myth of Pax Americana, the laughable assertion that the United States does only what’s necessary in defense of liberal norms and our very freedom. Recent events explode such fairy tales and clearly show why Americans aren’t anywhere near giving up on empire.

Currently, the U.S. government supplies arms and intelligence to Saudi Arabia, which uses them to wage a criminal war against Yemen’s civilian population. As I write this, the Saudi-United Arab Emirates coalition is planning to attack Hodeida, a critical port city in Yemen, where the majority of international aid enters the country. This will only make the world’s worst “humanitarian crisis” into an even worse horror show. As the National Catholic Reporter reports,

Eighty percent of Yemen’s 29 million citizens rely on humanitarian assistance to survive. Eighteen million people have no reliable access to food. Eight and a half million people have no idea where their next meal will come from. One and a half million people are living on the brink of famine. Sixteen million people have no access to basic water or sanitation. The same number lack access to basic health care. In April, the country had nearly 1 million cases of cholera. Measles and malnutrition are devastating a generation of children.

If the attack goes as planned with American complicity, can we not expect a new generation of young Yemenis who want revenge against the United States for its financing of war crimes? And if a Yemeni terrorist were to successfully attack the United States, can we not expect a more direct U.S. intervention in Yemen, cheered on by an American population also intent on revenge?  Will this or other fronts in America’s war on terrorism not produce a new generation of bureaucrats and service members dedicated to the discipline of social control, who will eventually come home and look for work in the national-security state or local law enforcement?

Unless America changes direction, blowback, the term coined by Chalmers Johnson for what happens when U.S. covert and illegal actions overseas detonate in our faces, combined with the boomerang effect, the concept described in the Coyne-Hall book, will continue to militarize our society until our civil liberties, already seriously eroded, are nothing more than parchment rights, and anti-imperialists and civil libertarians will continue to be sneered at as un-American and unpatriotic. Modern-day Americans have sold their soul for empire, and we are all reaping what they have sown, as Coyne and Hall show in Tyranny Comes Home.

Changing course is difficult, especially in a society in which so many people adore militarism and empire and believe that the U.S. government has a messianic duty to dominate and rule the world. But while difficult, moving in a different, more positive direction certainly isn’t impossible.

This article was originally published in the September 2019 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    Matthew Harwood is a writer living in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. His work has appeared at The American Conservative, the Guardian, Reason, TomDispatch, and others. He is managing editor at the American Civil Liberties Union.