The Democratic Party is missing a golden opportunity to beat the GOP on homeland security issues. Although the 2004 election hinged on Americans’ concerns about domestic terrorism, the Democrats typically give the subject unimaginative or predictable responses: Spend more money for first responders, roll back the USA Patriot Act and plug the holes in America’s very holey defenses against evildoers. There is a much more attractive option: Seize upon homeland security to reshape social and economic priorities.
The Bush Administration strategy for homeland security that has gradually emerged from the trauma of 9/11 emphasizes preventive deterrence against Muslim communities in the United States, protection of dangerous facilities and enhanced capacity for police, firefighters and health professionals to respond to a terrorist attack. President Bush has consistently opted for “hardening” American society and its economy, the domestic counterpart of his antiterrorism campaign worldwide. The costs–in dollars, values and vulnerabilities–are very high, however, and the actual protection bought is uncertain.
The hardening of society began with a crackdown on Muslims in America. Terrorist-related prosecutions, harassment of Muslims and other Arab-Americans and surveillance and disruption in these communities has included at least 200,000 FBI interviews, “special registration” for thousands of Muslim men, as well as hundreds of deportations. All of this has produced no evidence of a domestic terrorist threat lurking in American society. In fact, the 9/11 Commission report could uncover no such plot, and the nearly 400 indictments by the Justice Department are a parade of inconsequential misdemeanors or actions unrelated to Al Qaeda. This is not just about civil liberties–there is a larger danger that Muslims are being targeted by federal authorities as a permanent internal threat. We are witnessing the re-emergence of a cold war culture in a new US security apparatus and compliant social and political institutions.
This is not to say there is no threat, of course. America still faces a risk of attacks by Al Qaeda from abroad, and the danger is growing as a result of the Iraq War.
The anti-Muslim juggernaut also twists the role of society itself in protecting ourselves from terrorism. Alienating and isolating Muslims, Arab-Americans, South Asians and other immigrant communities is foolish on moral grounds and as a means to achieve antiterrorism goals. What we should be fostering from these communities is cooperation, not alienation.
But the Bush Administration is intentionally fostering mistrust and anxiety. Through the endless stream of higher alerts and its alarmist rhetoric, it is nurturing an ethos of fear as civic virtue. It sponsors, for example, programs in schools and civic education that emphasize being alert to the possibility of terrorists in one’s community. As Steven Heydemann and Amaney Jamal point out in a new study for the Social Science Research Council, “Through such initiatives, the Corporation for National and Community Service and other government agencies, as well as nonprofit organizations linked to these agencies, are integrating norms of homeland security as a defining element in the broader relationship between citizens and government. It is being used to reframe commitments to civic education, with a special focus on bringing homeland security themes into K-12 curricula in public schools. It is also becoming more prominent in the governance of other activities long associated with the vitality of civic life in the United States, including volunteering, community service, and charitable giving.”