Hurray for the Tea Party! The lunatics liberated the asylum, if only for a brief, shining moment. It’s one we should cherish, though, as infinitely precious.
On Feb. 27, the House of Representatives blocked an emergency bill to fund the Homeland Security Administration for three weeks. The vote was close, but clear: 222-204. Naturally, the vast majority of the nay-sayers were Republicans, but 12 Democrats did join them, which made the final difference.
Their names should be enshrined on the Capitol Dome. They liberated their country, however briefly. But let us not forget where the lion’s share of the credit belongs: it was the Tea Party wing of the GOP that swung the vote, and commanded the bulk of it. Terrified by this populist scourge, even House Speaker John Boehner’s more reliable charges joined the stampede.
Of course, the Tea Partiers did the right thing for the wrong reasons, as is their wont. But thank the good Lord for stopped clocks. They do get the time right twice a day, which is twice more than the spinning, special interests-driven gyroscope that is Washington’s normal mode of telling time.
The Tea Partiers cut off Homeland Security’s cash flow because they were piqued by their inability to attach a rider to the emergency funding bill that would have rolled back the immigration reforms — more accurately, the relaxation of some of its more onerous administrative provisions — decreed by President Barack Obama in November.
Let’s get some of that background straight. No president has treated an immigrant population more brutally since Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to lock Japanese-Americans up in concentration camps during World War II than Barack Obama.
Under Obama’s administration, more illegal immigrants have been deported than under any predecessor, and more families miserably broken apart, with parents on one side of the border and children on the other.
More such immigrants have been jailed on the pretext of petty violations of the law, and housed for months and years at a time in conditions of squalor and misery that make FDR’s internment sites look like the Ritz Carlton. In fact, we have been operating a whole gulag system in the lower 48 states, all to punish the crime of seeking a better life.
President Obama has been deeply concerned about this, like a mad driver trying to tap down the brakes while his other foot rides the accelerator. He has told the Congress, annually, that he wants immigration reform that will provide undocumented aliens with a path, albeit a steep and treacherous one, to citizenship.
He has then ritually taken no for an answer from Speaker Boehner, and filed away his speech for another year. This is how our President engages the legislative process. He tells people what they ought to do, and then folds up his tents when they don’t do it.
To encourage them to act, he further immiserates the very people whom he notionally wishes to assist, to the point of denying them elemental human rights. Well, we did elect the guy.
The Tea Partiers have a simpler solution to America’s immigration problem: deport everyone who hasn’t got papers. Ideally, illegal aliens would get the message and go home before being kicked out — the notion popularized by Mitt Romney as “self-deportation.”
To get the message across, they want to make conditions for such aliens as onerous as possible. Hence, their demand to undo Obama’s loosening of the noose last November, itself of course a transparent ploy to woo the Hispanic vote.
Unlike other people in Washington, Tea Partiers tend to mean what they say, rather as a squalling infant does. To make their point about immigration, they are perfectly prepared to shut down government agencies. Homeland Security was simply the target du jour.
It could just as easily, and as arbitrarily, have been the Centers for Disease Control; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; or the Federal Aviation Administration. These agencies do their jobs well or poorly, for good or ill. As a matter of fact, none of them have been distinguishing themselves much of late.
But Homeland Security is the sacred cow of the federal government. It exists for the one job that, above all else, Americans have been taught to require: being kept safe, at all times and under all circumstances. We have learned to do without many of the functions government once routinely undertook: safe food, clean air, public education and even postal service. But security?
In the wake of 9/11, in the atmosphere of hysteria in which the Department of Homeland Security was founded, fear became our daily bread, and the DHS its provider. It is, in fact, our Ministry of Fear, and on it our gigantic 21st century surveillance state has been erected.
Yes, the National Security Administration’s snooping long preceded it, as did the spooks of J. Edgar Hoover and James Jesus Angleton. Nor, in fact, did the DHS have anything to add to existing spy agencies and special ops projects; it has been one great boondoggle from the beginning.
It was born out of the colossal intelligence failure that made 9/11 possible. And like many another federal bureaucracy, it exists to compound the problem that created it.
Thus, DHS did not replace the CIA, FBI, NSA or any of the other dozen-odd federal intelligence agencies. It was superimposed on them, as another layer of redundancy. It is most famous, at this point, for flying air marshals around the country for sexual assignations, stripping little old ladies in public and confiscating large quantities of drinking fluids and intimate toiletries.
It must have quite a stash of house and car keys by now, too. What it has not demonstrated is the slightest capacity for improving travel safety or securing the national borders. That isn’t really the point, though.
The DHS does not exist to make us safer; it exists to make us fear for our safety. The more ineptly it executes its presumed mission, the better it executes its actual one: to keep us all on mental red alert. And that mission is the critical one in modern government, for it justifies the confiscation not only of shampoos but of civil liberties, starting with bodily privacy and ending with thought control.
Tea Partiers may or may not have figured this out; I actually doubt they have. They shut off funds for the DHS, for a few hours anyway, simply because it was a government agency, regardless of function. They didn’t care what DHS did or didn’t do. Whatever it was, they were going to shut it down until the government stopped coddling illegal aliens and their children.
Inadvertently, they left a far more interesting point on the record: that a majority of the House of Representatives was either willing to jeopardize the security of the nation or unconvinced that the uninterrupted operation of the DHS was critical to it.
Since the DHS has been advertised from the beginning as our first, indispensable line of defense against international terrorism — since it is the one government agency tasked with that function and none other — this would seem a less than resounding endorsement, both of the DHS itself and of the proposition that terrorism is “Public Threat Number One.” Fools, it seems, may sometimes speak the truths that wise men fear to utter.
Islamic terrorism, a nagging but mid-level problem until the lucky hit of 9/11, was promptly elevated to the status of an existential threat requiring an endless “war” to combat it by the unelected administration whose indifference and incompetence permitted it to occur. We have all been paying a very high price since, and none of it higher than the DHS, the security agency whose chief actual function is to keep us scared around the clock. No one has dared to call it out till now.
The Tea Party caucus has done just that, and how can we not be grateful to it? Can we move on now, please, to the CIA, the FBI and the NSA? I can’t think of the last time these agencies have not done more harm than good, or, for that matter, when they’ve ever done any good, period. You know, if we can’t be secure, we might as well be free.
The best antidote to terrorism would be to stop fighting the imperial wars that produce it. Terrorism is always a response to social ills, real or perceived. The laying waste of a wide swath of the contemporary Middle East from Libya to Pakistan by Western invasion is a very real fact. Nor is terrorism simply a present-day phenomenon.
At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, Europe and the United States were swept by a wave of anarchist (and, in Russia, reactionary state-sponsored) terrorism that claimed the lives of kings, presidents and prime ministers as well as ordinary folk, and saw bombs hurled into legislatures and stock exchanges.
The world survived it, and, with World War I, devised a mass slaughter that rendered it redundant.
I won’t say exactly that the best way to deal with contemporary terrorism is to ignore it, but it is certainly far better treated as an ongoing police problem than a “war” to be fought and won. Institutionalizing an enemy only guarantees it permanence, and creates the kind of bureaucracy that feeds on perpetuating it.
So let’s defund the DHS, not for an hour or a day but for good. Our civil liberties will be the better for it, and our private lives. Maybe our security will be, too.
In the meantime, thanks be to those Tea Party nut cases. They’ve blazed the way forward.
Robert Zaller is a professor of history at Drexel University. He can be contacted at [email protected]