Homeland Security Horrors

Most of the administration’s paper grandly proclaiming a "National Strategy for Homeland Security" is the kind of innocuous bureaucratic blather one finds in a report on waste management or wetlands maintenance. I’m not sure whether it’s alarming or reassuring to be confronted by such soporific sentences as "This is an exceedingly complex mission that requires coordinated and focused effort from our entire society – the federal government, state and local governments, the private sector, and the American people." Or to be told that "the challenge is to develop interconnected and complementary systems that are reinforcing rather than duplicative and that ensure essential requirements are met."

Despite the bland bureaucratese, there is much in the document to worry those who still cherish traditional American liberties. And despite the fact that the House, under direction from Majority Leader Dick Armey (is he feeling able to express whatever quasi-libertarian impulses he has only now that he has announced his retirement?) the re-creation of the Cuban block committee system and a nationalized drivers license/ID card, much of what is left is even more worrisome.


It is fascinating and seldom predictable what issues of many that should have the potential to do so will attract the attention of enough of the great public, or of those in the media who claim to have their finger on the public pulse, to convert a policy question into an issue. The Terrorist Information and Prevention System, or TIPS, announced as being in the early stages of formation by the Justice Department, managed to make the cut. To be sure, it was ripe with opportunities not just for snooping but for cartoons and wise remarks about cable guys as spies and the like. And the House under Dick Armey has announced that it is opposed to such a systematic, federally supervised use of people who are ordinarily in neighborhoods to spy on Americans.

That doesn’t mean that the issue might not resurface, or that the system might not be quietly implemented with less fanfare and attention. It was set to be put in place by the Justice Department without any new legislation being required, after all. And to some people, including some in the media, the reaction was a tempest in a teapot. This wasn’t Sovietism in America, but kind of a glorified Neighborhood Watch program, a community-oriented kind of thing. Opposition to it, in some eyes, was simply a sign that knee-jerk ACLUism is still all too prevalent in the United States, despite the obvious fact that wartime demands some attitude adjustment.

In fact, if I were the FBI, I would at least make arrangements to talk to mail delivery people on a fairly regular basis, preceded by an informal discussion about the kinds of things to look for – and the time-wasters to avoid. Mail carriers generally know a good deal about who is in a neighborhood on a regular, who has relatives living with them, who is seeing big changes in the kind of mail they get, what addresses have mail sent to pseudonyms and the like. There might be one person on every 10 or 50 carriers’ route legitimately deserving of attention because of patterns a carrier might notice.

But it’s of no concern to those genuinely seeking intelligence on potential terrorist acts who is getting pornography, or even who is getting magazines or mailings from wiggy political outfits. And that’s the weakness of such a program. You know that amateur surveillers would find something suspicious in numerous instances of harmless eccentricity.

They would want to feel as if they were contributing, so they would redouble their efforts to find something on which they could report. An "informer" mentality would become predominant in some of them. They would find a way to find something suspicious about increasing numbers of people. They would begin to look at people from the assumption that they are probably doing something that bears watching rather than from the assumption that they are probably ordinary, innocent Americans who are supposed to get protection rather than harassment from government.

All this would not only have a chilling effect on freedom, it would be a tremendous waste of time and resources. By concentrating attention on something other than legitimate threats it might even make the success of the next terrorist attack attempt more likely.


The idea of a national drivers’ license or some form of national ID, of course, has been around for a while, long enough for a constituency opposed to the idea to have developed. (In fact, one of the more striking aspects of the plan is how much of it has been seen and rejected before, but has been waiting on the shelf, ready to put forward again with a few tweaks in the language and a different justification.) So it’s not surprising that a national drivers’ license bit the dust.

However, as Jefferson knew, the natural way of things is for government to advance and liberty to retreat. However, it’s not exactly a "natural" or inexorable process built into the way things are. Government advances because – as "public choice" theorists have demonstrated rather convincingly and most non-academics know as a matter of simple common sense – people in bureaucracies tend to assume for themselves the institutional interests of the bureaucracies in which they are ensconced, which include growing and having control of more money and more power.

So the uniform drivers’ license idea will be back, probably in the form of uniform "voluntary guidelines" for states in terms of the kind of proof of identification required, information collected, electronic encoding and the like. It will be sold so as to imply that only a covert ally of terrorism could oppose these simple, sensible, minor reforms. Eternal vigilance and all that.


The fact that the Homeland Security proposal (and it seems telling to me that they have stuck with an Orwellian formulation with Mussolinian overtones) is full of half-baked ideas and vague promises to "integrate information sharing," And "integrate separate federal response plans into a single all-discipline incident management plan" is not the worst of it. The bureaucratic language almost masks the more fundamental problems.

The first is that "terrorism" is not a state, not an enemy, not an adversary, not a phenomenon that can be eliminated with proper inoculation and sanitation, like malaria. It is not a new phenomenon; it was used in ancient times and people have been writing books about modern terrorism since the 1960s.

Terrorism is a tactic – a tactic used by people with mostly political goals who find themselves at a disadvantage vis-à-vis their enemies who seek a dramatic way of announcing themselves or demoralizing the other side. The Homeland Security paper, aside from a brief mention of al Qaida and some murmuring about people trying to acquire nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, does not discuss who the enemy is and why the enemy should wish to harm anybody in the United States.

This seems like more than a minor oversight. It strikes me more as a way to expand the size, scope and power of the government using the World Trade Center bombing as a pretext, while being completely unserious about trying to get to the bottom of why terrorist incidents occur, which would seem to a normal person like the first step in trying to minimize them.

Now some would argue that we face a world revolutionary movement seeking to undermine and destroy Western civilization, while others would argue that we face a small coterie of fanatical Islamists who are well outside the mainstream of Islam generally. Some would argue that the problem is a few psychologically unbalanced people able to use political pretexts and modern technology to be the equivalent of playground bullies, while others would argue that capitalist or statist exploitation or poverty or inequality or arrogant U.S. interventionism are among the root causes of the willingness to commit terrorist acts.

It would seem to make a difference, in designing a strategy, which cause or through a combination of causes promotes the modern terrorist phenomenon. Especially if terrorism is a tactic, not a strategy, goal or cause, those who embrace political causes are likely to use other tactics along the way, and to focus on terrorism is to be unprepared for other possible tactics.

What is striking about the White House document is that there is no discussion – zip, zero, nada – of any of this. There are terrorist enemies out there who are ruthless, and this is the extent of official curiosity. The way to defeat them is to give the government more power to coordinate all aspects of society, to peer into previously private places, to assume more direct control over more areas of human endeavor.


A huge blind spot in the report is the assumption that the key to coordination is minutely exercised central control. The Hayekian insight that real societal coordination arises from thousands and millions of independent decisions taken with consideration for but imperfect understanding of what other independent actors are doing, creating what could be called "spontaneous order," is completely absent.

The insight is, of course, frightening to those who have made careers of controlling others. It is also potentially frightening to people who haven’t given the matter much thought, because freedom doesn’t offer ironclad guarantees that nothing bad will ever happen. The fact that government guarantees of safety through central control or planning might be delivered but are seldom valid (see September 11 for an example of government failure to perform the minimal function even limited-government advocates would concede as part of its legitimate job on a massive scale) is seldom stressed or even mentioned.

So our Republican leaders ("the appalling people who govern us" as Richard Cowan of MarijuanaNews.com is fond of putting it) use terrorism as a pretext for increasing central government power, continuing the process of Sovietizing America – even resurrecting the age-old desire to have the military perform more essentially civilian law enforcement functions, which failed abysmally when tried in the War on Drugs and which most military people have no desire to do. Just more than 10 years on, they seem to have missed the lesson that it was the highly centralized, highly "coordinated," highly governed system that failed, while the "chaotic," relatively free society succeeded and triumphed.

Our leaders, in both parties, not only don’t appreciate but seem downright hostile to the freedom and independence that has made the United States the leader and sole superpower of the world. If they have their way, the problem of American hegemony, if it is a problem, will not trouble the world for very long, at least in world-historical terms.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).