Government Threat Appraisal Not Objective

Corey RobinIt is not necessarily a widespread fear of foreign or domestic threats — real or imagined — that compels the state to abridge civil liberties. When the government takes measures for the sake of security, it is not simply translating the people’s fear of danger into a repressive act of state. Instead, the government makes a choice: to focus on some threats and not others, and to take certain actions (but not others) to counter those threats. Merely think of the attention — and money, staff, countermeasures, and air time — the US government has lavished upon terrorism as opposed to automobile accidents or climate change, even in the wake of Katrina, Sandy, and a host of other life-threatening weather events…

Governments today have a great deal of freedom to define what threatens a people and how they will respond to those threats. But far from being removed from the interests of and ideologies of the powerful, they are often constrained, even defined and constituted, by those interests and ideologies.

To cite just one example: it is a well known fact that African Americans have suffered as much from the American state’s unwillingness to protect them from basic threats to their lives and liberties as they have from the willingness of white Americans to threaten those lives and liberties. Throughout much of US history, as legal scholar Randall Kennedy has shown, the state has deemed the threat to the physical safety of African Americans to be an unremarkable danger and the protection of African Americans an unworthy focus of its attentions…

[T]his constitutes a grievous failure; in America, it has been a semi-permanent boundary of state action. At the most fateful moment of white-on-black violence in US history, in fact, the national government deemed the threat to African Americans a relatively minor item of public safety, unworthy of federal military protection; by contrast, it deemed the threat to employers from striking workers a public emergency, worthy of federal military protection.

—Corey Robin
Yours, Mine, but Not Ours

6 thoughts on “Government Threat Appraisal Not Objective

  1. OK, last one for today before I grab the baseball game. I just rarely get to type a lot!

    The “posse comitatus” wingnuts go ape at the thought that Big Gummint is coming for them; for their guns, Bibles, whatever, and cite some old law that the military should never be used for social control, then talk about the ATF and . . . you know the drill.

    But of course the military has been used for social control! Every Midwest town of a certain size has an old National Guard Armory. The one in Saint Paul is a recruiting center now, the one in Minneapolis is a bat-infested cheap parking garage. What were they for, originally? They were storehouses of guns the part-time military (and Pinkertons) could grab to shoot strikers. What was John Brown doing? He was raiding the Harper’s Ferry armory, full of guns to stop a slave rebellion, in hopes of starting a slave rebellion. (Brown met with W.E.B. Dubois, and Dubois probably knew Brown’s attempt was doomed but either didn’t or couldn’t discourage Brown. Whether he hoped against hope Brown would succeed, couldn’t dissuade Brown, or hoped Brown’s doomed actions would spark an anti-slavery war . . . now that’s an interesting historical question.)

    And it was never just the part-time National Guard. The regular damn army was called in to beat down coal strikers in Appalachia, and of course was used to beat down Natives trying not to have their land stolen.

    In a sense, we’ve always had leaders who conflated threats to America with threats to the power structure they represented; we’ve always had a silly “enemies list”; we’ve always been Nixonland, well before Nixon. (PS: Perlstein’s latest is 800 pages and I’m loving it!)

  2. That’s some very interesting history. I hadn’t thought about the national guard armories. But yes, when I read that, it immediately made sense. It has always been in the cause of national safety that unions have been oppressed. The reason that the Taft–Hartley Act was passed was to stop solidarity and other kinds of strikes, but the stated reason was safety. (To his eternal credit, Truman vetoed the act.) This was also the stated reason that Reagan destroyed the Air Traffic Controllers union.

    As for Dubois, you are probably thinking of Frederick Douglass; Dubois was, well, you know now that I’ve mentioned it. ;-) As to the point, from what I know about Brown, there was no stopping him. He clearly “knew” that God had called him. People like him are dangerous, but in the cause of good, necessary. See, for example, today’s birthday post on Emily Davison.

    As for conflating America with the power structure: just look at the classification of documents. Those are almost never about national security! They are generally about not embarrassing someone important. I thought it was hilarious that all these documents that were declassified by Clinton were reclassified by Bush. There are a lot of people in power (eg Cheney) who just want to have secrets for the sake of having secrets.

    • Dammit! I remembered it was either Dubois or Douglass and I took a memory guess. I guessed wrong.

      Brown was, by any modern definition, a terrorist. And as you know our anthem, which we teach to schoolkids, “Battle Hymn Of The Republic” repurposes the song “John Brown’s Body.” It’s an iffy moral thing, terrorism versus activism. From what I understand, Brown never wanted to personally harm anyone; he tried to help wounded government soldiers during his raid. But he did want a slavery war. And it was going to be horrid; there was no escaping that.

      The posts on little-known activists and scientists are easily among my favorites, BTW . . .

      • Have you heard Sarah Vowell’s story of the song on This American Life: Lost in America. It is fantastic. Of course, I’ve had a crush on Vowell for at least a decade.

        Thanks regarding the birthday posts. I haven’t been doing many scientists recently because they take so much longer to do. It’s usually pretty hard to explain what they have done. But I will have to get back on that.

        • Thanks for the Vowell link! I guess I’m skipping baseball today . . .

          Years ago, “American Life” was trying to pimp a cable version of the show (it didn’t take.) Ira Glass and others went on a national pimping tour; I saw it with people who had free tickets.

          Glass was predictably Glass, the East Coast Garrison Keillor. Dan Savage was there, and was fun. Vowell struck me as nervous and uncomfortable around audiences; I disliked her for that at time. Naturally, that’s what makes her terrific!

          To close out the show, David Rakoff just went on an absolute riff. A seriously bilious rip smear on everything in our common culture. He was assured and compelling and darker than opal. I immediately loved him. And then he died from hideous cancer . . .

          • Well, I don’t see the need to miss the games! I saw them both. The Giants continue to be a defensive marvel.

            I got Showtime just to watch the This American Life show. It was extremely disappointed. I don’t really listen to the show much anymore, but when I do, I like it. But I used to never miss it. Of course, I used to be a total NPR nut. “I hear that old piano…”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *