In the stacked deck of political jargon that passes for policy these days, security is the trump card. With this magic word, our American autocrats answer all arguments and halt all opponents, actual and potential, in their tracks. Everyone wants to be safe. We don’t want our lives and families threatened by violence. We need security in order to live a reasonably happy life. But what is it, really?
That’s a question that generally isn’t asked. To really explore what security means would involve challenging the mental shorthand that has replaced thought in the public discourse. We just assume we know what it means. In the mouths of politicians and pundits, it means being safe from enemies. And who are these enemies? Right now they are Muslim terrorists, who are generally equated, by extension, with all Muslims. The people talking a lot about security are very enthusiastic about the threat posed by these terrorists. When I was growing up, the Communists were the enemies that we were constantly being reminded of. Presumably, if terrorists ceased to be credible enemies at some point, we would find other enemies to obsess about.
Very soon after the atrocities of 9/11, a question began to be posed by politicians and pundits, and echoed by innumerable flocks of human parrots: how much freedom are we willing to give up for our security? It’s a revealing question. For one thing, it assumes that freedom and security are in some fashion opposed—that an increase in one involves the diminution of another. Freedom is seen as insecure, risky, dangerous. Enemies can take advantage of freedom in order to kill us. There is a sense that freedom is a sort of luxury, or a privilege granted to us by our masters that may have to be taken away for our own good if security is threatened.
I can understand how freedom would necessarily involve risk, if we think of simple freedom of movement or of choice, since there’s always the possibility that someone will choose to hurt us, or even attempt to undermine society. So imagine a society where there is no freedom of movement or choice—you are told where to live, where to work, whom you can associate with, when and where to travel. Would that be security? Would you feel secure? Paradoxically, you would probably feel much less secure in such a society. The absence of choice, the domination of your movements and actions by the state, would inevitably produce more insecurity, more of a sense of fear, than the relatively modest risks posed by general freedom of choice and movement.
We know this is true from experience. Totalitarian states attempted just such social control in the name of security, and the result was an all-pervasive sense of dread. In
The issue is complicated, of course, by the fact that there are those who think they will benefit from such an arrangement—the military, spy, and secret police classes that become the privileged elements of society. Such a system rewards those who thrive on domination, suspicion, and the perpetual hunting of enemies, but even they can become victims of the system if they make the wrong move.
Many Americans seem to think that we are immune from such possibilities. A major element in the infantile mythology that we are fed growing up is that
It’s important to note that to shatter the mythology of
A key element in the public’s willingness to let go of civil liberties in order to be safe from enemies is simple, self-centered blindness to our own stake in the matter. When people reflexively support torture at
We understand this. We understand it all too well. But the fact is, it’s ultimately self-defeating. If all you’re willing to fight for is the right to own your little pile of stuff, you’ll end up ruled by fear, if only the fear that someone is going to take your stuff away. Cheney talks about defending the American way of life. He doesn’t mean freedom—he means our ability to hold on to all of our stuff, and the rest of the world be damned.
Security receives even more rhetorical weight when you add the word “national” to it. For many years now, national security has been the reason for every government action that will not withstand public scrutiny. What was Nixon’s argument against turning over his tapes? National security. Why was Oliver North proud of breaking the law? National security, gentlemen. Why did George W. Bush do everything he could to obstruct the 9/11 Commission? You get the picture. National security means no oversight, no accountability—the spooks should do whatever they want without you knowing. Notice, however, that the government is not really preventing information from reaching “the enemy,” it’s preventing it from reaching you.
National security doesn’t even mean safety for you and your family any more. It means safety for the government. If the nukes start flying, there’s a plan for all the big important people to go underground into their secret command bunkers—it’s called “continuity of government”—while the rest of us fry. Rather than take a hard look at the essential insecurity of having nuclear annihilation hanging over our heads, the war party has instituted a pre-emptive nuclear doctrine. They talk about using “small” nukes like the so-called “bunker busters.”
It should be evident by now that security has become a perfectly empty concept that means whatever the political elites want it to mean. In point of fact, actual security, in any meaningful sense, is rapidly diminishing. Even the fat old Wall Street dynamo—Cheney’s “American way of life,” the consumerist paradise—is crumbling under the weight of endless war debt. And in the midst of imperial debacle, the old truth, even that slaveholder