- 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 email@example.com.