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Recently, an agent of the Department of Homeland Security called me and started asking questions about a childhood acquaintance being investigated for extremism. I put him off. My feelings about this were, to say the least, complex. As a military spouse of 10 years and someone who has long written about governmental abuses of power, I wanted to cooperate with efforts to root out hate. However, I also feared that my involvement might spark some kind of retaliation.
While I hadn’t seen the person under investigation for years, my memories of him and of some of the things he’d done scared me. For example, when we were young teens, he threatened to bury me alive over a disagreement. He even dug a hole to demonstrate his intent. I knew that if I were to cooperate with this investigation, my testimony would not be anonymous. As a mother of two children living on an isolated farm, that left me with misgivings.
There was also another consideration. A neighbor, herself a retired police officer, suggested that perhaps the investigation could be focused not just on him, but on me, too. “Maybe it’s because of stuff you’ve written,” she suggested, mentioning my deep involvement in Brown University’s Costs of War Project, which I cofounded as a way of dealing with this country’s nightmarish wars of this century.
Indeed, the American version of the 21st century, marked by our government’s devastating decision to respond to the September 11, 2001, attacks with a Global War on Terror—first in Afghanistan, then Iraq, and then in other countries across the Middle East—has had its grim effects at home as well. It’s caused us to turn on one another in confusing ways. After all, terror isn’t a place or a people. You can’t eradicate it with your military. Instead, as we learned over the last couple of decades, you end up turning those you don’t like into enemies in the bloodiest of counterinsurgency wars.
I’ve researched for years how those wars of ours also helped deepen our domestic inequalities and political divisions, but after all this time, the dynamics still seem mysterious to me. Nonetheless, I hope I can at least share a bit of what I’ve noticed happening in the conservative, privileged community I grew up in, as well as in the military community I married into.
Around the time I cofounded the Costs of War Project in the early 2010s, I fell in love with a career military officer. Our multitrillion-dollar wars were then in full swing. At home, the names of young Blacks killed by our police forces, ever more ominously armed off the country’s battlefields, were just seeping into wider public consciousness as was a right-wing political backlash against prosecutions of the police. Anti-government extremist militias like the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, some of whom would storm the Capitol on January 6, 2021, to try to violently block the certification of an elected president, were already seething about the supposed executive overreach of the Obama administration and that Black president’s alleged foreign birth. But back then, those guys all seemed—to me at least—very much a part of America’s fringe.
Back then, I also didn’t imagine that men in uniform would emerge as a central part of the leadership and membership of such extremist groups. Sadly, they did. As journalist Peter Maass pointed out recently, of the 897 individuals indicted so far for their involvement in the January 6 violence, 118 had backgrounds in the US military and a number of them had fought in this country’s war on terror abroad. Nearly 30 police officers from a dozen different departments around the country similarly attended the rally that preceded the Capitol riot and several faced criminal charges.
What also sends chills down my spine is that federal law enforcement agencies turned their backs on the warning signs of all this. Had the FBI acted on information that extremist groups were planning violence on January 6, it might not have happened.
A Nation Rich in Fear
If one thing captured the spirit of the post-9/11 moment for me, in retrospect, it was the creation of a cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which has defined itself as a “whole-of-society endeavor, from every federal department and agency to every American across the nation.” Expenditures for that new department would total more than $1 trillion from 2002 through 2020, more than six times expenditures for similar activities at various government agencies during the previous 20 years.
With its hundreds of thousands of workers, DHS often seems susceptible to overusing its authority and ignoring real threats. Case in point: Of the approximately 450 politically motivated violent attacks taking place on our soil in the past decade, the majority were perpetrated by homegrown far-right extremists. Yet, all too tellingly, the DHS has largely remained focused on foreign terrorist groups—and homegrown jihadist groups inspired by them—as the main threats to this country.
Thanks to the passage of the Patriot Act in 2001, federal authorities were also empowered to obtain the financial and Internet records of Americans, even if they weren’t part of an authorized investigation. In the process, the government violated the privacy of tens of thousands of citizens and noncitizens. Authorities at government agencies ranging from the FBI to the Pentagon secretly monitored the communications and activities of peace groups like the Quakers and Occupy Wall Street activists. Worse yet, in June 2013, Americans learned that the National Security Agency was collecting telephone records from tens of millions of us based on a secret court order.
Such practices only seemed to legitimate vigilantism on the part of Americans who took seriously the DHS’s mantra, “If you see something, say something.” Incidents of racial profiling directed towards people of Muslim and South Asian background spiked early in the post 9/11 war years and again (I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn!) after Donald Trump entered the White House in 2017.
Sometime before that, a relative visiting me noticed a darker-skinned man, a tourist, taking photos of historic buildings in my community, while speaking on his phone in Arabic. To my shame, she began questioning him, based on “a feeling that something was wrong.” In other words, well before the Donald put “fake news” in the contemporary American lexicon, feelings and not facts all too often seemed to rule the day.
“Is that the Russia?” or Dangers Near and Far
Terrorism was at once everywhere and nowhere for those who were supposed to be fighting that war on terror, including members of the military. In 2013, when my husband was on a months-long deployment at sea, another wife, whom I had texted about having a party for the crew on their return, texted me back a warning. I had, she claimed, jeopardized the safety of my husband and other crew members on his boat. After all, what if some foreign enemy intercepted our exchange and learned about the boat’s plans?
Four years later, in the shadow of Donald Trump’s presidency, it only got worse. A stressed-out, combat-traumatized commander, who took over the vessel to which my spouse was next assigned, emailed us wives weekly warnings against sending messages just like the one I had dispatched years earlier. He also ordered us not to email our husbands anything that could be imagined as negative, even if it reflected the realities of our lives: sick children, struggles with depression, financial troubles when we had to miss workdays to single parent. According to him, to upset our spouses in uniform was to jeopardize the security and well-being of the boat and indeed of America. He could read our e-mails and decide which ones made it to our loved ones. It was an extreme atmosphere to find myself in and I started to wonder: Was I an asset or a threat to this country? Could my harmless words endanger lives?
One summer evening toward the end of another long deployment at sea, a fellow spouse tasked with disseminating confidential information about the boat our spouses were on arrived at my home unannounced. I was feeding my older toddler at the time. She whispered to me that our husbands’ boat was returning to port soon and swore me to silence because she didn’t want anyone beyond the command to know about the vessel’s movements. It was, she said, a matter of “operational security.” Then she took a glance out the window as though a foreign spy or terrorist might be listening.
“Oh! That’s great!” I replied to her news. Later, I tried to explain to my bewildered child what “operational security,” or keeping information about daddy’s whereabouts away from our country’s enemies, meant. He promptly pointed toward that same window and said, “Is it the Russia? Does the Russia live there?” (He’d overheard too many conversations at home about nuclear geopolitics.) The next day, pointing to a mischievous-looking ceramic garden gnome in a neighbor’s yard, he asked again, “Is that the Russia?”
It was not Russia, I assured him. But six years later, in a weary and anxious country that only recently gave The Donald a true body blow, I still wonder about the dangers of our American world in a way I once didn’t.
The 2020s and the Biggest Loser in Chief
Eventually, my family and I settled into what will hopefully be our final stint of military life—an office job for my spouse and a home in rural Maryland. But somehow, in those Trump years, the once-distant dangers of our world seemed ever closer at hand.
This was the time, after all, when the president felt comfortable posting a meme of himself beating up a CNN journalist, while his Homeland Security officials detained peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland, Ore. I soon began to wonder whether returning to something approximating normal civilian life was ever going to happen in this disturbed and disturbing land of ours.
Motorcyclists sporting confederate flags drove by on the rural highway in front of my house. Blue Lives Matter flags fluttered in a nearby town after the police murdered George Floyd. Even years after Trump left office, as the polls leading up to the midterm elections seemed to indicate a coming red wave, I wondered if I had been wrong to imagine that our fellow Americans would choose democracy over… well, who knew what?
As part of that election campaign, I wrote nearly 200 letters to Democratic voters in swing states urging them to get to the polls as I was planning to do. Remembering a trend my friends and I had started on social media in 2020, I considered posting a funny photograph of my sweet, excitable rooster, Windy, sitting next to piles of letters, with the caption, “Windy is vigilant about the state of our democracy! Are you?”
Then I thought twice about it, another sign of our times. It occurred to me that if I did participate in an investigation against an angry person in uniform, the one I had once known, I risked retaliation and—yes, I did think this at the time—what better target was there than our strange outdoor pet? On realizing that it was I who was now starting to think like some fear-crazed maniac, I forced myself to dismiss the thought.
Of course, that predicted red wave turned out to be, at worst, a ripple, while election denialism and voter intimidation seemed to collapse in a post-election heap. None of the most extreme MAGA candidates running for top election positions in swing states won. Was it possible that Americans had started to see the irony, not to say danger, of voting for public officials who attack the basic tenets of our democracy?
In the end, I told the guy investigating my childhood acquaintance that I couldn’t help him, feeling that I had nothing new to add for a crew with such sweeping powers of surveillance. To my relief, he simply wished me the best. The normal tenor of that conversation changed something in my thinking about the government and this moment of ours.
I found myself returning to an older (perhaps saner) view of our times, as well as the military and law enforcement. Yes, our disastrous wars of this century had brought home too many unnerved, disturbed, and damaged soldiers and small numbers of them became all too extreme, while over-armed police forces did indeed create problems for us.
However, it was also worth remembering that the military and the police are not monoliths. They aren’t “blue lives” or “the troops,” but individuals. They are part of all our lives, as fallible as they are potentially capable of helping us form a more perfect union instead of the chaos and cruelty that Donald Trump exemplifies. Were Americans—all of us from all walks of life—more willing to stand up to bigotry and extremism, we might still help change what’s happening here for the better.