The Punitive Turn in American Life: How the United States Learned to Fight Crime Like a War

Guest blog post by Michael S. Sherry, author of The Punitive Turn in American Life: How the United States Learned to Fight Crime Like a War

Advertisements urging civilians to buy guns captured how the punitive turn had played out by the 2010s. “As Close as You Can Get [to war] without Enlisting” ran one rifle ad, while another promoted a semi-automatic shotgun with the slogan, “Iraq, Afghanistan, Your Livingroom,” and a handgun ad pictured an infantryman above the words, “Built For Them… Built For You.” The message: Americans at home could carry the same weapons of war that soldiers carried in battle. Many Americans believed, or at least were asked to imagine, that the line between war-fighting and crime-fighting had almost disappeared. The Punitive Turn in American Life: How the United States Learned to Fight Crime Like a War is about how that happened.

The book uncovers the sweeping process starting in the 1960s that moved punishment and surveillance to the center of American life and imbued them with militarized language and practices. Its obvious forms were mass incarceration, as the United States became the world’s foremost jailer, and “the militarization of policing,” as critics called it. But the punitive turn also encompassed other practices–public schools entered through metal detectors and patrolled by police, gated communities shooing away the unwanted, cameras peering to catch red-light offenders, armies of private police, familiar rituals of airport screening, and fads like the child-spanking movement. Scholars often refer to “the carceral state.” The “punitive turn in American life” signals a broader historical process that included but went beyond what the state did.

The punitive turn faced countercurrents–it did not move forward inexorably and uniformly. But while those countercurrents churned the waters, they did not halt the onrushing tide, at least until the 2010s. The punitive turn made America a meaner, punishment-obsessed nation, with vengeance at home and abroad its ruling impulse. And it made the U.S. a more distinctive nation, as it departed from norms in comparable nations by practicing racialized policing and incarceration on a huge scale, by sanctioning torture at home and abroad, by pouring military weapons and training into police forces, and above all by calling the whole effort a “war on crime.” This book traces why that language, and all that went with it, came to the fore, moving from the presidency of Lyndon Johnson through Donald Trump’s administration. More and more in that half-century, the war on crime cannibalized the state and came to assume its responsibilities as other instruments of the state floundered and retreated. 

Insofar as Americans saw war-fighting as a model for crime-fighting, not just as a breezy metaphor, their adoption of that model implied a shrugging acceptance of the risks that war entails: collateral damage to bystanders; danger to warriors as well as their targets; erosion of civil liberties and constitutional procedures; secrecy and deception; wasteful expenditures; abuse of enemies; distrust of those who resist the cause. Americans entered their war on crime having experienced such risks in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, and in the threat of nuclear war. They were accustomed to such risks, in part because they fell heaviest on others beyond their shores. They were so woven into the fabric of their historical experience that few questioned their reappearance in a war on crime, especially since those risks were less obvious than in real war, creeping into consciousness and practice without the terrifying suddenness of Pearl Harbor or the 9/11 attacks. It was easy to analogize crime-fighting to war-fighting.

Michael S. Sherry is the Richard W. Leopold Professor of History Emeritus at Northwestern University.