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Dissecting the Word “Homeland” — and Why We Only Used It After 9/11

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Once upon a time, “homeland” was a word of little significance in the American context.  What American before 9/11 would have called the United States his or her “homeland” rather than “country”?  Who sang “My homeland, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty”?  Between my birth in 1944, as World War II was drawing to a close, and September 11, 2001, I doubt I ever heard the word in reference to the U.S.

There was a reason: “homeland” had a certain ring to it and anyone would have known at once just what that ring, that resonance, was.  Not to put too fine a point on it, we’re talking about the ring of evil.  It sounded like the sort of word the Nazis or maybe Stalin would have used as the terrible totalitarians of the previous century mobilized their people for horrific wars and heinous crimes.

It’s true that, in the run-up to September 11th, somewhere in the corridors of Washington, there were right-wingers already pushing to homeland-ize this country.  The word, along with the idea of creating a future Office of Homeland Security, was then gestating like the monster baby in the movie Alien, awaiting its moment to burst forth.

Today, there’s nothing alien about that most un-American of terms.  It has slipped so smoothly into our lives that “Homeland” is the name of a popular TV show, and college students looking for a good livelihood can now get a BA or an MA coast to coast in... yep, homeland security.  (“You can build a career helping to protect our nation by earning your Bachelor of Science Degree in Homeland and Corporate Security at St. John’s University.”)  And if you happen to be into securing the homeland, you can even join the “corporate and homeland security club” on campus.  After college, given the money pouring into the “field,” the sky’s the limit.

Perhaps Booz Allen will hire you to consult for firms on -- you guessed it -- homeland security. (“Booz Allen is able to serve the Department of Homeland Security and our other clients because we make their mission our mission. We therefore understand what is needed to react quickly to rapidly changing events.”)  Or perhaps you’ll be taken on by the Homeland Security Research Corporation in Washington to provide “premium market, technology, and industry expertise that enables our global clients to gain critical insight into the business opportunities that exist within the Homeland Security & Homeland Defense market. Government clients include the US, UK, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Israel, Canada, Germany, Australia, Sweden, Finland, and Singapore. US Congress, DHS, US Army, US Navy, DOD, DOT, GAO, NATO, and the EU are among others. HSRC serves over 600 private sector clients, including all major defense contractors and many Fortune 500 companies.”

Or what about the Chertoff Group, headed by Michael Chertoff, the former secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, or the Ashcroft Group, headed by former Attorney General John Ashcroft, or for that matter Good Harbor Security Management, led by former National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-terrorism Richard Clarke.

And that only scratches the surface.  By 2006, only three years after the Department of Homeland Security had been set up, the New York Times was already reporting that “at least 90 officials” who worked there or at the White House office that preceded it had zipped through the revolving door into the private sector and were “executives, consultants, or lobbyists for companies that collectively do billions of dollars' worth of domestic security business.”

What makes all of this remarkable is how quietly, how easily, how securely that most alien of words and the organization that goes with it have entered American life (and changed it).  Which is why, thanks to Mattea Kramer and Chris Hellman from the invaluable National Priorities Project, TomDispatch.com is doing something rare these days: putting a spotlight on that modern cash cow and giant boondoggle lurking in the shadows of our world, the Department of Homeland Security.

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