News & Politics

Security the Progressive Way

The lockdown strategy has made America less safe. There's a better approach.
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 anti-terrorism 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 U.S. 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."

A recent example is the expensive "public discourse project" of a new organization promoted by 9/11 Commission co-chairs Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton: the America Prepared Campaign, which pushes an urgent, family regimen to "be ready" for terrorist attacks.

So Bush's version of homeland security – defined as a need to be watchful, suspicious and defensive – is the core value being promoted in federal education and other social initiatives. It seeps into popular culture, most notably in the odious television hit 24, and combines neatly with right-wing religious ideologies. This is, to be sure, consistent: Bush is spending a colossal amount of money to toughen airport security, harden targets like the Washington Monument and intimidate the Arab world with military force, measures that might produce marginally more security. But along the way, he is insinuating values that breed mistrust of others at home and abroad.

Democrats have largely bought into the Bush policy, though in a lighter version. The sum of John Kerry's domestic security proposals last year was to plug holes in defenses (air cargo, ports, nuclear plants, etc.) and spend more money on first responders. But there is a much more attractive and assertive set of policies available that match up well with progressive priorities. American society could be activated in ways that integrate security with a new provision of social goods, providing tangible benefits for Americans while minimizing the nation's vulnerabilities to al Qaeda and its successors.

Progressives are caught in a bind because no one knows whether the threat of terrorism is potentially catastrophic. How to respond? Instead of advocating the endless social and physical hardening that gains us little and incurs enormous costs – and looks like parroting of the White House – we could pursue policies that minimize risk and maximize the ability to respond. Along the way, other benefits would accrue, benefits that fulfill progressive goals of equity, community and sustainability.

Consider the nation's energy system. Today it is a complex of petroleum-based technologies and nuclear power plants, all of which are vulnerable in some way – equally true for the petrochemicals that are overused in manufacturing and agriculture. The conventional answer to these vulnerabilities is hardening: literally, as with cement barricades and containers, or via stepped-up surveillance and other security measures. Few if any political leaders ask if the system itself needs rethinking. A large-scale investment in renewable energy and conservation, for example, would yield results that might be more expensive than fossil fuels are currently, but would bring many safety and security benefits, and less pollution. (According to reports of the testimony of the captured al Qaeda leader Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, one of his strategies was to steal gasoline delivery trucks and blow them up.) It would also address the petroleum dependency that is a root of the terrorism threat.

The most hazardous energy facilities are located in places where poor and working-class people live: They are most vulnerable, and they are least well protected. Vulnerabilities are not evenly distributed in society. When catastrophes strike, the poor suffer most. Eric Klinenberg's recent book Heat Wave shows graphically how a heat wave in Chicago most severely affected the poor and elderly; the tsunami in Asia is another grisly example. Redressing this imbalance, and improving society's overall resilience to terrorism, would include upgrading public health systems (for example, more neighborhood clinics), improving mass transit, developing alternatives to hazardous materials and their transport, and a myriad of other infrastructure reforms that would require social agreement to work optimally. Having local solar arrays or windmills to produce power is one example: Safe and clean energy should trump aesthetic concerns, but in any event would be subject to strong citizen participation. (This was Amory Lovins' insight more than a quarter-century ago, including its counterterrorism logic.) The benefits outweigh the sacrifices, however, and along the way we would garner an increase of trust in public institutions – the sense of equity and fair play – that are essential to a long-term antiterrorism effort.

That this vast reconfiguration of how we derive and use fuel, chemicals, etc. would be costly is an understatement. Rejiggering the energy system alone would reach into the trillions of dollars, and would have to include alternatives to the internal-combustion engine. (This will have to be done within 50 to 75 years anyway, because of declining global oil production.) Since 9/11, however, homeland security expenditures, both public and private, have totaled something like a half-trillion dollars, and this does not include the costs of military interventions in the Persian Gulf region since 1990.

Apart from new jobs in the security industries, these expenditures have produced little in the way of public goods or "social capital." We do not have better social or physical infrastructure, better schools or a stronger sense of justice. We do have more encumbrances, more mistrust, more anxiety – possibly greater security – but few if any outcomes for a better society.

Consider another example of creating social goods with enhanced security: improving the public health system. Building local public clinics to deal effectively with infectious diseases, immediate and unencumbered access for the uninsured, vaccination programs, attention to children and youth, and so on would provide protection in these specific areas, and would also create a new opportunity to reach people in the underserved areas that are most exposed to the risk of disasters and social dislocations of all kinds. Such clinics serve as educational platforms as well as health providers. And, in the process, they would demonstrate a level of caring in society that is now spotty at best.

In the unlikely event of a biological-weapon or similar attack, a layer of protection would be in place, one that not only could provide health services but would be an empowering link in an essential social network. Consider how anthrax or other "bioterror" diseases manifest themselves – often with only gradually worsening symptoms – and how reluctant uninsured people are to go to a hospital, even when they are ill. A bolstered public health system – nationwide, connected, technically sophisticated and trained for multiple threats, terrorism included – would be a layer of defense; it would demonstrate to the public that the government is serious about reducing vulnerabilities; and it would have manifold benefits for combating other diseases and social ills.

Reducing vulnerabilities does not mean al Qaeda cannot strike America. By reducing the number of potential catastrophe targets, however, and by bolstering the social and physical infrastructure of response, the possibilities for suffering a debilitating loss are reduced. But if reducing vulnerabilities simply means hardening, with no effort to decrease vulnerabilities, and social response is based purely on fear rather than positive inducements, then it will be difficult to sustain attention to and investment in homeland defenses. The "securitization" of America will remain expensive and paranoid, while the most important elements of improving security through social organization will be forfeited.

A reconstruction of energy choices, public health, mass transit and trust in government seems a daunting task. But a precedent for undertaking such vast social change is visible in "how we have come to manage the safety imperative over the past century," as Stephen Flynn, a former White House security adviser, notes in his book America the Vulnerable. Enormous strides were made in everything from flame-retardant children's clothing to food safety to the handling of hazardous materials in manufacturing. The economy adapted, and in fact new industries and jobs were created to provide this added layer of safety. Over this same period, safety became a broader social concern – safety in schools, safe access for the handicapped, safety in driving, safety in the natural environment, safety in relationships. While this was hardly a seamless triumph, the safety issue was engaged broadly, in part because ordinary people could see beyond the costs and inconveniences to the benefits for themselves and their communities. As Flynn notes, "If we are smart in how we construct a security deterrent, we will achieve other benefits."

Thinking about homeland security in this same way would give progressives a decided edge in the debate about how best to protect Americans in the age of global terrorism. Does America want to deal with vulnerabilities arising from its petroleum facilities? Then get serious about reducing petroleum dependencies. Does America want to have a truly effective first-responder system? Then get serious about dispersing and upgrading public health networks. Does America want to enhance trust in the public institutions needed to combat terrorism? Then get serious about building public institutions that deserve respect, provide services, protect civil liberties and expand public goods.

Every war – indeed, every great national challenge – has not only demanded sacrifice but has reordered social relations and yielded new public goods in return. World War II, for example, brought the GI Bill, advances in racial integration and other such rewards. It is worth examining that tradition and reinventing it as a galvanizing core of a progressive antiterrorism agenda.
John Tirman directs the Program on Global Security Cooperation at the Social Science Research Council in Washington, D.C.