Department of Homeland Security: It’s Time To Unwind The Anti-Terrorism Apparatus

I’ve contemplated writing an article which asks the question, do we need the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)? It rose to the forefront last week when Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano announced she was resigning. Then today I see Charles Kenny at Businessweek wrote (“The Case for Abolishing the DHS“), which as you might imagine grabbed my attention.

“The U.S. Department of Homeland Security was a panicked reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks,” writes Kenny. “It owes its continued existence to a vastly exaggerated assessment of the threat of terrorism.” Amen brother.

Is anyone else creeped out by the name of this department? I know it’s cliché to invoke George Orwell and his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four — But really? We actually created a department called Homeland Security? If it doesn’t fit in with Orwell’s classic novel, it still might be a good candidate for the old Soviet Union, Mother Russia and all.

People will make a case that we have been kept safe from another 9/11 because of a massive uptick in anti-terrorism spending, including the budget of DHS, which now stands at $60 billion. That kind of money can buy you a lot of education and health care, but instead we will spend it on a threat that has been greatly exaggerated  And while there is no shortage of blame on both sides of the aisle, Republicans should face special scrutiny here because of their professed love of small government and spending cuts. But when it comes to an increased police state that infringes on our civil liberties, Republicans appear committed to the blank check, no questions asked approach to government spending. We don’t need to prove that the Department of Homeland Security is necessary, we simply feel safer because it exists.

An overweight DHS gets a free pass to infringe civil liberties without a shred of economic justification. John Mueller, a political science professor at Ohio State University, notes that the agency has routinely refused to carry out cost-benefit analyses on expensive and burdensome new procedures, including scanning every inbound shipping container or installing full-body scanners in airports—despite being specifically asked to do so by the GAO.

The problem with throwing money at national security, particularly in response to a frightening event like 9/11, is that nobody is willing to ask the tough questions, or follow through on enforcement of standards. The money will continue to flow even if the threat no longer exists, or was never as great as we were told. It’s all in the name of keeping us safe, so who wants to question that?

DHS has helped create institutional inertia: Its very existence suggests the domestic response to the threat of terror is of equal weight with defense, transport, health, labor, or foreign affairs. It heaps largesse on a range of contractors, all of whom have an interest in hyping the threat of terror to ensure the money keeps flowing.

I want my country to keep me safe, but I want it to do so responsibly. I don’t want defense contractors controlling purse strings. The response should be sufficient to defend against the threat. Anything beyond that not only takes money away from other areas of national importance, but threatens already eroding civil liberties. The threat of terrorism did not suddenly expand on 9/11/2001. The terrorists were able to pull off an unprecedented attack, but we’ve responded by believing that attack created a new reality. It did not. It was a reality that already existed. Sometimes bad things happen. It’s how we respond in the aftermath that defines us.

To invoke another cliché, the only way the terrorists win is if we trade freedom for security. There is no spending our way out of the threat of terrorism. It will always exist. Our response should meet the threat, and it should accord to this nation’s founding principles and our values.

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