Homeland Insecurity

From Will Bunch of The Philadelphia Inquirer:

Even in the hazy, flag-waving days surrounding the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attack on the United States [Note: when America had a nervous breakdown], there was something about [our] rush to create a massive state apparatus called the Department of Homeland Security that made some people’s skin crawl — and not just the usual patchouli-scented, granola-sated, leftist suspects.

“The word ‘homeland’ is a strange word,” George W. Bush’s Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told staffers in a memo after some floated the idea of combining federal functions around immigration, customs, domestic intelligence, and law enforcement into one vast department even before 9/11. “‘Homeland’ Defense sounds more German than American.”

The USA had functioned just fine for 226 years without a Department of Homeland Security, and the decision to create DHS was never cast in stone. Even the hawkish Bush administration wasn’t sure it was needed — politically, the pressure came from centrist Democrats . . . eager to show their post-9/11 cojones. Yet once planted in the ground, DHS has grown wildly like choking, invasive kudzu, causing even the libertarian, Koch-Brothers-funded Cato Institute to call it wasteful and declare “Americans are not safer.”

Donald Rumsfeld was very wrong about many, many things . . . but his qualms about a homeland-security state on U.S. soil were right on the money. The bureaucratic waste and the nation’s failure to confront its real threats from stronger hurricanes to a global pandemic have been bad enough. But the real risk of creating a state-security force was that it would follow the beaten-down, jackbooted pathway of every state security force before it and get turned against the American people.

It would be trite and arguably wrong to label as “unthinkable” the scenes out of Portland, Ore., over the last several weeks involving unbadged and anonymous federal agents hiding behind their dark visors and layers of camouflage. They fire choking tear gas at protesters demanding racial justice, or just-barely-less-than-lethal rubber bullets that can fracture skulls. Meanwhile their comrades take activists off the streets in unmarked vans, or arrest them so a judge can order them to avoid protests . . .

These DHS agents from militarized units within Customs and Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have become a kind of secret police accountable only to [the president], some 3,000 miles away, and his appointed lackey now running DHS — even as public officials in Oregon . . . begged them to leave.

. . .  The first wave of serious-but-threat-obsessed Republicans who initially ran Homeland Security for Bush 43 [claimed] to be shocked by the nightly footage out of Portland. “It would be a cold day in hell before I would consent to a unilateral, uninvited intervention into one of my cities,” Tom Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor who was Bush’s initial DHS Secretary, told a radio interviewer. . . . A U.S. government agency waging war on American people was never the idea!

It never is … at first.

“This is an experiment that has failed and needs to be radically rethought,” Elizabeth Goitein told me. She is co-director of the liberty and national security program at the Brennan Center for Justice . . . [She urges Congress] . . . to insist on major reforms, as well as the naming of a permanent secretary after acting chiefs for the last 15 months.

Those of us who warned about a Portland-style scenario in . . . the early 2000s were called alarmists, cranks, dirty [bleeping] hippies and much worse. The November 2002 vote to consolidate 22 federal agencies into the massive, now-240,000-employee DHS passed the Senate 90-9, as few listened to then-Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold . . . warn we were “weakening protections against unwarranted government intrusion into the lives of ordinary Americans.”

To be sure, the 3,000 deaths on 9/11 exposed flaws that required a major tune-up. The CIA and the FBI didn’t talk to each other, NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) was caught flat-footed, and airport security — then close to nonexistent — needed the overhaul that’s been a bumpy success in the 19 years since. But the massive changes wrought by DHS — largely in response to an international terrorism threat that now seems greatly diminished — were just part of a broader “homeland security” mind-set. It saw every problem in America, from desperate refugees on the border to marginalized people demanding jobs and justice, as a nail to be jackhammered by a harsh, militaristic response, powered by armored personnel carriers (APCs) and private prison cells.

Just as Feingold tried to warn us, the homeland-security state began spying on everyday Americans from Day One, first demanding to see your library card and moving up to bulk collection of your emails, enabled by fear-inspired bills like the Patriot Act that seem impossible to get rid of once they’re on the books.

The panic-stricken notion that al-Qaeda would throw America a curveball by attacking some remote town in Idaho or the Pumpkin Festival in Keene, N.H., which obtained one of the Pentagon’s surplus APCs, was the spark that led to the rise of the militarized warrior cop wielding those spare weapons of war. I’m pretty sure it was Chekhov who advised writers never to introduce body armor or rubber bullets in Act One unless someone’s going to use them in Act Three — even if Act Three is Americans marching against systemic racism.

The surge of new, young recruits who signed up to become Border Patrol or ICE agents in post-9/11 America found there weren’t that many al-Qaeda terror plots to thwart — but they fostered an authoritarian culture that found other outlets (no group more enthusiastically backed [the president’s] 2016 election than the union representing Border Patrol agents) and shared a distrust of immigrants, liberals, and dissent.

They’ve been saying this quiet part out loud for years, and it’s getting louder in the George Floyd era. Txxxx’s Pentagon is now training soldiers to see protesters and journalists as “adversaries.” At DHS, it was inevitable that 77 local “fusion centers” that were supposed to help federal, state and local officials cooperate on terrorism would increasingly monitor legitimate dissent like antiwar activists, Occupy Wall Street, or Black Lives Matter. Or that 15 cities, including Philadelphia, would ask the feds for help spying on protests with its high-powered drones.

For everyday Americans who weren’t paying attention as the frog of free speech sat in this pot of boiling water, Txxxx’s immigration crackdown at the southern border should have been the alarm whistle. Again, there were voices back in 2002 that tried to warn us about the militarized, punitive regime that would be created with the formation of ICE, and with viewing immigration not as a social issue but a national security threat.

Goitein told me that some “mission creep” seemed inevitable with DHS, but the arrival of a president without respect for the rule of law has taken things to today’s current dark place. “Customs and Border Patrol — he has let them off the leash, although there’s a culture there that’s predisposed to [his]“strongman” approach.

Bill Ong Hing, now a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, testified back in 2002 against putting ICE under DHS and says today that “Congress created a monster” that conflates immigration and terrorism. Now that monster is putting peaceful protest and legitimate dissent under that same umbrella — and this approach is bleeding down to the local cop on the beat. . . .

Enough already! America had muddled through much of its glorious history without tear gas,or camouflaged robocops — or a massive, now out-of-control Department of Homeland Security . . . one of America’s first great mistakes of the 21st Century.

DHS should be abolished — its component parts rethought, then rebuilt from scratch — not only because the department is wasteful, inefficient, and ineffective against actual threats, but because we’ll be tearing down a neo-fascist mind-set that slowly corrupted America society until it crawled fully formed from the sewers near a Portland courthouse.

It would help in that mission if our policy leaders began to think deeper and realize that DHS wasn’t only one spectacularly bad idea, but symbolic of a militaristic society that can find the directions to send armed forces to Iraq and then to El Paso and finally Portland — yet utterly lacks a moral compass. Yes, even deluded Donald Rumsfeld got one thing right: “Homeland Security” was a dumb concept that sounded worse in the original German.

Question [from a reader]: How can [the president] send troops to Portland without the consent of the governor and mayor?

Answer: Well, that’s the thing. As many of you know, the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 aims to bar the government from deploying soldiers on U.S. soil in many (but not all) scenarios — but those green men with the heavy weaponry in Oregon’s largest city [weren’t] “troops,” not technically. There’s no ban on creating these paramilitary outfits in the Department of Homeland Security.

Unquote.

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America the Extraordinary

“Reddit shut down its popular but controversial forum devoted to supporting President Txxxx on Monday, following years in which the social media company tried but often failed to control the racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, glorification of violence and conspiracy theories that flourished there” (The Washington Post).

“The US is ‘unlikely’ to achieve herd immunity to the coronavirus even with a vaccine, according to the country’s leading public health expert, who warned that a ‘general anti-science, anti-authority, anti-vaccine feeling’ is likely to thwart vaccination efforts. In an interview with CNN, Dr Anthony Fauci also said people not wearing masks was ‘a recipe for disaster’”… (The Guardian).

“The videos are now showing up in your social media feed every hour or two, each one more over-the-top than the one before — viral missives from a world that seems to have gone mad and yet somehow exists right in our backyard. These ‘forgotten Americans’ are at the lectern at your county commission meeting if they’re not yelling at you in the produce aisle — screaming that the elected officials and their so-called scientific experts demanding they wear a mask to prevent the spread of coronavirus are really part of a vast conspiracy to take away their freedoms” (Will Bunch for The Philadelphia Inquirer).

Mr. Bunch continues:

It was another great day for liberty — and yet a horrible one for tens of thousands of Americans who now may die needlessly because so many cling to a warped idea of freedom that apparently means not caring whether others in your community get sick.

The reality is that those devil-worshiping elected officials and their mad scientists are trying to mandate masks in public for the same reasons they don’t let 12-year-olds drive and they close bars at 2 a.m.: They actually want to keep their constituents alive.

There’s a plethora of reasons why countries across Europe — even Boris Johnson’s United Kingdom, for God’s sake — crushed their coronavirus curve while the United States didn’t. Their shutdowns were somewhat longer, their reopenings came with better testing and contact tracing, their leaders set good examples, and their people showed common sense about social distancing and masks. But especially masks.

The most comprehensive study published in the journal Lancet found mask-wearing could reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission from 17% to 3%. No wonder the University of Washington says universal mask-wearing in the United States would reduce the coronavirus death toll between now and October by a whopping 33,000 human beings.

Just think of all the restrictions on freedom and liberty — from the government seeing what you checked out at the library to invasive searches at the airport — to prevent another attack like 9/11 that killed 3,000 people, or less than one-tenth the toll from not wearing masks. But for millions of Americans — not a majority, mind you, but enough to cause a public-health hazard in a pandemic — the idea of masks has been launched into a different orbit where freedom talk is injected with the uniquely American viruses of free-market capitalism and media manipulation, maybe with a dollop of white supremacy….

But … too much of the warped notion of freedom promoted by the aggressively not-mask-wearing President Txxxx and his No. 2, Mike Pence, and their prophets like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity won’t just get you high — to continue with the Sweet analogy — but could also kill you by an overdose. What the radio hucksters, and the wannabe dictators they installed, won’t tell you is that freedom without any social responsibility or empathy for others is ultimately hollow.

But let’s remember that American people — even the damaged souls that you’re laughing at on Twitter today — didn’t pervert the meaning of freedom on their own. The warped modern version of liberty was sold to them, first by right-wing public intellectuals like Ayn Rand, who killed thousands of trees to wrap unbridled selfishness in her endless tomes about freedom, and later by the salesmen of Big Capitalism.

Protecting your freedom became the ideal branding for what these pitchmen really wanted, which was political cover to dramatically lower taxes on millionaires (who, thanks to that, would become billionaires) and to crush unions and their demands for higher pay, freeing up profits to now pay CEOs 350 times what the average worker makes. Talk about finding the cost of freedom! With the help of academics like the Nobel economist James McGill Buchanan, backed by billionaires like the Koch brothers, warped freedom capitalism got a fancy name — free-market libertarianism…..

Confronted with scientific realities like man-made climate change, the forces of conservative libertarianism turned their guns toward expertise, with the goals of thwarting environmentalism and keeping corporate profits high. The bills for global warming are starting to come due, but that has been superseded for the time being by the COVID-19 crisis; the lack of trust for medical expertise from Main Street all the way to an ignorant president whom 62 million Main Streeters installed at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has proved lethal.

No other nation has botched its coronavirus response so badly because no other nation holds science in such low esteem. “Who made you perpetrators over my life?” the self-proclaimed Txxxx Girl demanded of the experts at the Palm Beach County meeting. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Stanford psychiatry prof Keith Humphreys noted that the United States simply can’t impose a coronavirus testing regimen like South Korea or Singapore because we don’t trust the government on public health. “Clusters of gun-toting protesters opposing public health measures are a real — and uniquely American — problem,” he wrote, “but it’s the much more prevalent distrust in government’s role in public health that would curtail the success of any test, trace and isolate program.”

In a functioning society, freedom can flourish when it’s part of a broader social compact, when liberty is not abused because its practitioners also see themselves as part of a community, where they care about others — even, or especially, when it comes to wearing a mask and not spreading germs to your neighbor. But has there ever been a branding campaign as successful as America repackaging selfishness, self-interest, and extreme inequality as personal freedom?

That’s even true of the freedom that’s so central to my work life: the free press that exists under the First Amendment. I’ve seen how that only works well when publishers fuel their press freedom with common sense and an understanding of responsibility to the readers. In the internet age, the promise of an even greater media freedom has been polluted by billionaires from Fox’s Rupert Murdoch to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who made bigger profits off lies and unchecked conspiracy theories than off fact-checking in the public interest. The filth of Zuckerberg’s Facebook is what’s spewing, unmasked, from the self-styled “patriots” of Palm Beach County….

As the global pandemic advanced and as evidence mounted that COVID-19 is most lethal not just for the elderly but also for Black and brown Americans, it seems clear that for some white people, not wearing a mask isn’t just a freedom song but a defiant proclamation of their superiority. That’s validated every day by America’s white-supremacist-in-chief, whose refusal to wear a mask in public is in fact a different kind of mask, one of his deep insecurity. This toxic blend of narcissism and white privilege is Dxxxx Txxxx’s idea of leadership — even as he leads some of his voters to an early grave.

The flip side is that the millions who’ve marched in America’s streets after George Floyd’s murder — many, although not all, from the under-35 generation — are making the case that a better world, built around empathy and compassion for people who don’t look like ourselves, is coming. They are using their freedom of speech and assembly to forge a more perfect union, and I fervently wish that the 33,000 Americans who may be doomed by a lethal injection of phony liberty can somehow live to see it.