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If there is any doubt at all that the terrorists have won — that they have managed with a single day’s freakish hits to revamp the most open society on earth into an emerging police state where suspicion and secrecy are the twin watch-towers of government and cowering and conforming the prevailing instincts of an allegedly free press or an even more alleged political opposition — then last week’s creation of the Department of Homeland Security should put all such doubts to rest.
The New Deal was a “reorganization” or an “expansion” of government. The creation of the Homeland Security Department is a coup within the government. What Ollie North once did illegally in a White House basement — free-lancing policy with public money and accountability to no one — a $37 billion department with 170,000 employees will now do legally in what is sure to be a high-rise of basements and metaphorical windows on Washington’s Bureaucracy Row. Like a Wall Street firm beholden only to its board room, the second-largest government department is now a proprietary arm of the presidency. It operates beyond congressional scrutiny and public accountability, and guarantees secrecy to its own machinations or to those of any private business with which it deals.
Let’s say Kafka Inc. were a company that made surveillance cameras the government was installing at a few thousand intersections. Kafka’s products happen to be pathetically faulty, as such devices commonly are. The public would be outraged if it knew. But all Kafka would have to do to keep its products’ evaluations from becoming public is submit them to the Department of Homeland Security, where everything is to be kept secret by law. What Kafka does, every other company or hospital or airline or even local sheriff’s department can do with any proposal, any budget item, any safety plan made part of the homeland security racket. The department, in other words, is a black hole to the Freedom of Information Act everything goes in, nothing gets out.
Secrecy is national security’s favored fraud. With rare exceptions, it harms the public interest more than it protects it. Keeping America’s atom bomb secret may have been a good idea, but even that failed. Keeping the Pentagon Papers secret, the government’s own most damning evidence that the Vietnam War was a known failure even in the early 1960s, needlessly prolonged a needless war at the cost of thousands of American lives (and perhaps a million Vietnamese). Designed around the same principle of prescribing what Americans should and should not know, the new department will incubate just such secrets, covering up what should be known at the risk of prolonging what shouldn’t be happening. Substitute Main Street for rice paddies and what’s ahead is less reassuring because of the department’s existence.
Warranted neither by necessity nor security, the department is a business venture without risk, a portal to corporate subsidies that has poured $30 billion in tax dollars into the security-industrial complex already, and is projected to pump upwards of $100 billion a year in public and private money from here out. Most of it is money spent on the kind of specious technologies that had fattened up the stock market of the late 1990s before the market bubble finally burst. That artificial bubble is being replaced with another, this time at taxpayers’ expense. As always, war pays dividends to its lucky shareholders.
Those dividends will rise in direct proportion to the loss of openness and civil liberties. We’ve been there before, most recently and most dramatically during the 1940s’ and 50s’ raving campaign on communism. The USA Patriot Act’s contempt for liberties had its equivalent in the Internal Security Act of 1950. The Pentagon’s office for “Total Information Awareness,” the ultimate electronic snoop on every American’s activities, had its genesis in the House Committee on Un-American Activities’ endless and endlessly fabricated dossiers on Americans. The Homeland Security Department’s cult of secrecy had its miniature version in the Atomic Energy Commission, which exerted similar authority on industry and the dissemination of information. The overreaction to communism then was as delirious as the overreaction to terrorism today. By the time Joseph McCarthy made a fool of himself at his Red Menace hearings the country had been under anti-communism’s debilitating spell for almost a decade. McCarthy was only the summation of a parody of liberty, a belated wake-up call to a nation that had been had by its own government’s fictions.
Osama bin Laden isn’t any more of a fiction than Stalin was. But the threat Stalin posed to the United States was as fictive then as the threat Osama bin Laden poses today. Freak attacks don’t make a war, and they certainly don’t mark a victory. The victory has been handed to bin Laden subsequently, in spades, because the nation has let itself be had again. It took 10 years for anti-communism to be shown to be “itself a heresy against the basic principles of American life,” as the late Walter Millis, a long-time editorial writer for the New York Herald Tribune, wrote in 1968. If America’s richly redeeming history is any guide, it will similarly be a matter of time for anti-terrorism to be proven an equally lethal heresy and for the Homeland Security Department to be the ugliest parody of a lawless and imperious age.
PIERRE TRISTAM is a Daytona Beach News-Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.