Homeland insecurity

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“I do not believe that anyone could have prevented the horror of Sept. 11. Yet we now know that thousands of trained killers are plotting to attack us.”

—George W. Bush, June 6, 2002

Well, that’s certainly reason to hide The New York Times from the kiddies. But fear not: Our nonelected leader has a solution designed to make Osama quake in his sandals: a massive new government bureaucracy, the Department of Homeland Security, which will unite the Secret Service, the Border Patrol, the Coast Guard, and lots of obscure agencies, like the Animal and Plant Inspection Service.

It’s not a done deal yet. Congress has to approve it, which it seems certain to do in about five minutes, regardless of whether it is a good idea. Who, after all, would dare look soft on “homeland security” in an election year?

What it will do, Bush says, is “review intelligence and law enforcement information from all agencies of government and produce a single daily picture of threats against our homeland.” This will be a Cabinet post, which means it will be around more or less forever, and so this also means we are signing on to a perpetual terrorism war.

Whether we have any enemies or not, that is. Back when I was a poorly supervised child in the 1960s, I read lots of (mostly bad) science fiction. Much of it was set in a future where the United States or its successor state/federation had evolved a dazzlingly high-tech but essentially fascist society.

Half these worlds had something very like an “Office of Homeland Security.” The name, like the “USA Patriot Act,” certainly smacks of black leather.

What’s really going on here?

Unfortunately, our traditional rights and freedoms are being threatened, but not especially by Muslim terrorists. The real threat comes mostly from fanatic far-right Americans, who don’t like many of our freedoms to begin with, and who finally have one of their own — John Ashcroft — as attorney general.

The concept of a united security agency may not be all bad. Yet interestingly, the CIA and the FBI would not be part of it. Which means we’ll still have several separate “homeland security” bureaucracies, which will then expand to mirror (and spy on) the new agencies. Bush, of course, said none of this would increase the size of government. Ho, ho.

We now know there were all sorts of pre-Sept. 11 warnings, and that the various intelligence services mostly ignored them and certainly did not share them, god forbid, among themselves. Nothing going on now indicates that’s going to change very much. We have, however, been busily passing laws designed to limit civil liberties.

“I don’t think anyone thinks that Sept. 11 happened because there weren’t enough laws,” says Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU in Michigan. If nothing else, she noted, those who plotted the attacks could be indicted on 3,000 counts of murder.

But thanks to the USA Patriot Act, and a lot of associated legislation, the government now can get a warrant, search your house or your home computer — and never have to reveal to you that they did that. More than a thousand immigrants have been arrested and held incommunicado, in harsh conditions, with little or no access to lawyers or families.

That’s a violation of international law, and the highest law enforcement official in your federal government loves it. Ashcroft now plans to monitor certain attorney-client conversations, is targeting members of certain ethnic groups for harassment, and wants a full-surveillance society, except when it comes to buying guns.

“One of my greatest fears is that they are using these events to lower our expectations of privacy,” Moss says. “And that Ashcroft is using these events to advance an agenda of his own that has nothing to do with Sept. 11.”

There is no doubt that she is right.

Incidentally, where are the “thousands of trained killers” Bush scared us with the other night? Why haven’t we seen any proof of them?

Nobody doubts that there are more potential terrorists in the world. But the bad guys haven’t even set off a cherry bomb here since Sept. 11, a well-planned event that involved nothing more technologically complex than a box cutter.

We need to remember that too. If the authorities need to be vigilant, we need a sense of proportion. We also need to recognize that Ashcroft, a fundamentalist Christian, is the scariest person in government since J. Edgar Hoover. As Jeffrey Toobin’s profile in the New Yorker (April 15) makes clear, Ashy believes he is an instrument of God.

“The verdict of history is inconsequential; the verdict of eternity is what counts,” our attorney general wrote. Mohammed Atta, naturally, felt exactly the same way.

Swell. But the founding fathers wanted a government run by and for people who were only born once. Long before they were able to claim Al Qaedas might be under your bed, the Ashcrofts of this world wanted to look into your bedroom.

Are we really that eager to give up too much freedom for too much false security?

The real scoop: The talking heads want you to believe the shocking Enron collapse was a rare aberration. You might want to check out, “It’s Not Just Enron, It’s the System,” at Barth Hall (Woodward at Warren) Thursday night at 7. Donald Boggs, head of the AFL-CIO in metro Detroit, and University of Michigan professor Ian Robinson may make you want to convert your pension fund to pewter, right quick.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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