A funny thing happened after unidentified federal agents – dressed like storm troopers from a dystopian novel – reportedly grabbed protesters off the streets of Portland, Oregon, and shoved them into unmarked rental vans. My “constitutional conservative” friends, who for years warned about federal overreach and championed states’ rights, sometimes cheered this show of power.

These righties are thrilled that President Trump has vowed to send hundreds of similar, camouflage-wearing agents to Chicago and other mismanaged Democratic-run cities to, presumably, quell gang violence. Anyone who thinks this simply is about halting street crime should be “disappeared” into an unmarked Town Car, driven to an undisclosed location and have the word “naïve” tattooed on his forehead.

Urban looting and disorder undermine civic order and lead to inexcusable property damage. It’s frustrating to watch progressive mayors and City Councils fail to return some semblance of order to their downtown streets. But I’m far more fearful of a federal government that unleashes troops on its own people than I am of craven local officials.

If you don’t see the problem, then you should re-read the Declaration of Independence – in which our founding fathers explained why the 13 colonies were breaking away. Consider its words in the context of Portland: “He (the king) has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance. He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.”

As they did after 9-11, some conservatives argue that “terrorists” don’t deserve the protections that our Constitution provides for American citizens. Those who make this argument obviously don’t understand the purpose of its protections.  Government agents cannot unilaterally deem people as terrorists and then make them disappear. They need to allege acts of terrorism and then prove it in a court. Otherwise – and here’s the key point – the government can do anything it wants to anybody.

The Constitution isn’t a protection for “terrorists,” but for people who might not actually be terrorists, but who happen to be walking home down the street or who might have been in the area peacefully protesting. Federal agents have the right to patrol specific federal buildings, but not to commandeer city streets against the will of the city’s duly elected leaders – even if those leaders are wrongheaded or incompetent.

Recent news reports suggest that someone teargassed Portland’s mayor after he addressed protesters. There are myriad reports of federal and local law enforcement brutalizing peaceful protesters, including a military veteran. This heavy-handed response isn’t calming the situation, but inflaming it. Now – and this seems like a great development – thousands of peaceful Portland residents have created a human chain to block the federal goon squad.

Only a few conservative voices have spoken out against behavior that would have sparked indignation had it occurred under the Obama administration. The hypocrisy isn’t limited to conservatives, of course. How many liberals complained when both parties supported an effort to give federal troops broader domestic detention powers – and paved the way for vast misuses of power by any future administration? How many of them would have complained had federal agents cleared away “reopen” protesters – especially those in the Midwest who showed up armed at Capitol buildings?

“We cannot give up liberty for security,” wrote U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky. “Local law enforcement can and should be handling these situations in our cities but there is no place for federal troops or unidentified federal agents rounding up people at will.” Fox News’ Andrew Napolitano wrote that “sending armed, untrained police into the streets … actually caused more violence.”

That’s obvious, but I’ll take any show of principle in our increasingly partisan age. The federal show of force reminds us of one of the main problems that has received overdue attention following the police-custody death of George Floyd: police militarization. In a free society, police are supposed to behave like community officers who uphold the peace – not like an invading army, dressed in fatigues and driving Humvees while clutching surplus military hardware.

“The real problem with police militarization is not that it brings about more violence or abuse of authority – though that may very well happen – but that it is based on a presumption of the citizen as a threat, while the liberal order is based on precisely the opposite presumption,” wrote Eliav Lieblich and Adam Shinar in the Michigan Journal of Race & Law. Bingo.

Conservatives who support the federal presence in Portland and perhaps soon in Chicago, Oakland and Detroit, should stop pretending that they care about federalism, the Constitution or freedom. Liberals who would use federal troops to enforce their bugaboos should stop claiming that they care about civil liberties. If you don’t want the Constitution to protect your political enemies, then perhaps you don’t really believe in the Constitution.