Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 15, 2006

Homeland security: why do people believe the worst?

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christian Beckner on January 15, 2006

Novelist Ariel Dorfman writes an amusing but also illuminating column in today’s Los Angeles Times recounting a keynote speech he gave at the Modern Language Association conference in DC several weeks ago, in which he invented a story about being detained by “homeland security agents” at Miami International Airport who had “impounded” the real speech he intended to deliver at the conference. He filled his tall tale for the conference attendees with preposterous details, such as an invented conversation with an agent about the politics of the Allende regime in Chile. Nevertheless, after the speech:

But I quickly discovered that some took my whimsical literary invention way too seriously. One professor later stopped me and wondered why the agents had not Googled my name to determine if I posed a real danger. Another wanted to know if my computer had been confiscated. Still others asked if “those brutes” had roughed me up. A former student of mine told me she was writing a letter to the Washington Post to protest my mistreatment. In an afternoon session, a graduate student confessed to me that my story had filled her with fear because if someone like me could be detained and interrogated, what might happen to ordinary people like her when they enter the United States?

It then dawned on me how deeply my fictional account of detention by Homeland Security agents had resonated with unbridled fantasies inside the heads of so many of my colleagues. I doubted that any of them were about to be sent to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. And as my bogus agents had pointed out when I tried to convince them that the U.S. is on the verge of becoming a police state, I was free to say anything I wanted at the Modern Language Assn. convention.

Yet there was no denying that my tale had tapped into a deep paranoia. If entirely rational men and women, experts in literary interpretation and ironical readings, believed me, it was because they must have already imagined the possibility of my sham experience befalling them. Not one of my friends and associates at the convention or afterward dismissed my tall tale as patently absurd. When I lamented the naivete of my sophisticated audience, the response was unanimous: It was I who was naive.

A story that fits this general narrative of Dorfman’s tale seems to hit the media and/or the blogosphere every week. Just in the last few weeks, for example:

– The college student who allegedly was confronted by homeland security agents because he had checked out Mao’s Little Red Book: a story that turned out to be a total fabrication.

– The retired professor in Lawrence, Kansas who gained national media attention for the fact that Customs and Border Protection had opened a letter he received from the Philippines. Subsequent stories confirmed my immediate reaction when this story broke that this was consistent with longstanding customs enforcement authority.

– The story on Huffington Post by author and long-time Bush critic James Moore where he speculates on whether he had been placed on the list as political grudge (even though presumably this effects the thousands of other “James Moore”‘s in the United States).

All of these stories have in common an almost knee-jerk desire to believe the worst about homeland security activities in the US government. Dorfman’s “experiment” shows how even a group of well-educated people were quick to believe the worst about the government’s homeland security activities, rushing to judgment about a story that confirmed their prior biases, even if it contained unbelievable and suspiciously odd details.

It’d be easy perhaps to shrug off and dismiss this paranoia and mistrust as the result of wacko tinfoil hat syndrome, but I think it’s much more significant than that. And based on personal conversations over the last few years, I don’t think this is simply a left-wing phenomenon, but something that is prevalent across the spectrum of political ideology.

We need a better understanding of this phenomenon. One of the preconditions for effective homeland security in the United States, in my opinion, is a broad national consensus on the importance of domestic measures to protect the nation against terrorism, and anything that threatens this consensus needs to be carefully studied.

What are the potential root causes of this phenomenon? I see four:

First, the unambiguous violations of civil liberties and human rights by the United States government in support of the war on terror (e.g. Abu Ghraib, rendition of people to countries that are known torturers) contribute to the belief among many people that this sort of behavior is the rule, not the exception.

Second, while government secrecy is a necessity for certain types of homeland security activities, it has become the default choice for too much of DHS’ work. The choice to eschew openness and transparency for homeland security by the government has led to mass confusion in the general public about what “homeland security” is and what it means to the average person. The result is that benign acts of incompetence (e.g. Ted Kennedy on the no-fly list) take on a conspiratorial hue.

Third, the media and civil liberties groups are often too quick to believe these types of credulous stories without doing thorough fact-checking and/or research on the context of the charges. I didn’t believe the “Mao’s Little Red Book” story the moment I heard it. The national media should have waited to cover this story until more substantive evidence was learned about it.

Fourth, DHS and related government entities let these charges fester and replicate in the media and on the Internet, rather than providing full responses to them in the same or next media cycle. For example, DHS let the “Mao” story bounce around for days, never officially refuting it prior to the student admitting that it was a fabrication. My debunking of the “CBP is reading your mail” story was posted 4-5 days before the follow-up story in the media where DHS provided context on the issue.

There’s no easy solution to this problem, especially in this time of fierce partisanship. But it’s something that serious supporters of the nation’s homeland security efforts, from all political parties, need to work together to address. These little stories chip away at the national will to combat the threat of terrorism in the United States, and we can’t afford weakness or irresolution in this fight.

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