HOMELAND SECURITY WAS DESTINED
TO BECOME A SECRET POLICE FORCE

By Masha Gessen


July 25, 2020


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Since early July, federal agents in military-style uniforms have waged battle against protesters in
Portland, Oregon, using tear gas and nonlethal munitions.Photograph by Mason Trinca / NYT / Redux


In a press conference on Tuesday, Chad Wolf, the acting head of the Department of Homeland Security, responded to media reports that unidentified federal agents using unmarked vehicles have been arresting protesters in Portland, Oregon. Since early July, men in military-style uniforms have waged battle against protesters there, using tear gas and nonlethal munitions; video and photographs coming out of Portland have shown scenes of urban warfare, with what looks like a regular army moving on unarmed protesters night after night. On behalf of the D.H.S. and its uniformed services, Wolf claimed responsibility for the armed presence in Portland. He asserted that his agency was doing exactly what it was created to do. He was right.

The rationale for the creation of the D.H.S., as laid out by the George W. Bush Administration, was that the knowledge, skills, and capabilities that could have stopped the 9/11 attacks were spread out among many government agencies, with no single body in charge of fighting terrorism. The proposal for creating the department presented hypothetical examples of failures to coördinate among different agencies. When a ship sailed into U.S. waters, for instance, the Coast Guard had the power to stop it for inspection, but it was up to the Immigration and Naturalization Service to deal with the people on board, and up to Customs and Border Protection or the Department of Agriculture to stop any dangerous or illegal cargo. The examples made D.H.S. seem like something that should exist. That logic held, though, only if you thought about travel, immigration, and trade primarily as security concerns. There are countries that think like that. I grew up in one—it was called the Soviet Union, and it had an agency, the Committee for State Security (K.G.B.), which had its tentacles in every area of society.

The creation of the D.H.S. marked a shift in the way that Americans think and talk about the country, and about people. Four years ago, in an essay for the Times Magazine, the journalist James Traub traced the appearance and evolution of the word “homeland” in American language. “The rise of ‘homeland’ … tracks the rise of the national sense of vulnerability,” Traub wrote. “As we use it now, ‘homeland’ means ‘the country insofar as it is endangered.’ ” The word had surfaced in 1997, in a Pentagon report warning that the singular threat to U.S. security, which the Soviet Union once posed, had been replaced by a diffuse threat from different sources. By 2001, “homeland” had sudden traction—it was a word that had found its meaning. By the time Traub was writing, in 2016, all of the contenders for the Republican nomination for President—a group in which Donald Trump may have still seemed an outlier—were trafficking in fear for the land. “Homeland” is also a nativist term: it refers to the country where you were born, or else it comes with the qualifier “adopted,” which suggests that your claim to the homeland is contingent. (Sure enough, under Trump, the federal government has moved toward seeing naturalized citizenship as revocable.)

“Homeland” is an anxious, combative word: it denotes a place under assault, in need of aggressive defense from shape-shifting dangers. The original proposal for the D.H.S. described the agency as “a new government structure to protect against invisible enemies that can strike with a wide variety of weapons”; one hypothetical example of an invisible enemy was “a non-citizen that intends to enter our nation and attack one of our chemical facilities.” The nation used to protect itself against other nations and their hostile military forces, but now it had to fear individuals. This is the premise on which secret police forces are built. Their stated purpose is to find danger where normal human activity appears to be taking place. The D.H.S. began with mobilizing against the foreign-born, via Immigration and Customs Enforcement (which replaced the Immigration and Naturalization Service). The logic of the secret police, however, dictates that it perpetually has to look in new places for threats.


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