The Patheos Public Square has asked bloggers to write on the topic of “Faith in the New Security State.” This is a wide topic covering war and the rules of war, surveillance and spying (both domestic and foreign), terrorism and security, and the proper response to whistleblowers who release government secrets in response to abuses. Here’s the question as it was presented:
Since 9/11 Americans have largely accepted the idea that national security requires a trade-off between government power and freedom. However, recent revelations about the extent of government surveillance have raised serious questions about overreach, abuse of power, and the limits of democracy. How should people of faith respond to these revelations? Amid wide-spread public apathy over drone warfare, surveillance, and open-ended wars on “terror,” how can faith leaders provide stronger moral leadership? Do our faith traditions have anything distinctive to say in relation to alleged government overreach, whether by the NSA or the CIA? And how do we assess the ethics of those who expose secret government operations in the name of preventing abuse?
When I first saw the question I had dreams of writing a brilliant response that would draw on historical examples, ancient pagan philosophy and modern Pagan inspiration. But when I sat down to write it, it wouldn’t come. I tried a second approach, and then a third. I spent ten days thinking about it and got nowhere. I had told Christine I’d write something on this and started composing an e-mail that said “sorry, I just couldn’t come up with anything.”
As I did, I heard a voice in the back of my head say “if you don’t write on this, you’re accepting that we can’t do any better than what we’re doing.”
I do not accept business as usual from the security state.
I do not accept the necessity of endless war. I am no pacifist – military action is sometimes necessary. But military operations need specific goals that include conditions for victory and withdrawal. Open ended military operations breed fatigue at home and resentment abroad. The military is not suited for hunting criminals and the Army is not the FBI – do not use a machete when you need a scalpel.
Likewise, I do not accept the necessity of militarizing our domestic police forces. Police officers risk bodily harm on a regular basis and providing them with protective gear and adequate weapons is a must. But the fear of being “outgunned” is driving millions of dollars of scarce local resources to purchase military weapons and vehicles which are almost never needed. The mere presence of such equipment increases the chances it will be used – not to stop a drug cartel or a street gang, but to intimidate peaceful protestors.
And how many more people have to die before we understand that tasers aren’t being used as non-lethal alternatives to firearms but as torture devices used to obtain “compliance”?
I reject the criminalization of dissent. I reject any and all use of force against peaceful protestors. I reject the idea that protecting public officials means shielding them from dissent. “Free speech zones” are nothing more than live action versions of the comments section of news websites – meaningless and easy to ignore.
I reject the idea that the ends justify the means. We are the good guys because we do good things, and when we do bad things we aren’t the good guys any more. On the battlefield, killing people is frequently necessary. But once someone is captured, even the most vile terrorist deserves a day in court. To those who disagree, I ask why? Are you so sure our government never makes a mistake? Or do you simply not care that innocent people may be rotting in prison? I want terrorists in jail, and I want people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time sent home.
I reject the prosecution of whistleblowers. Releasing proof that our government is not following its own laws is a good thing (embarrassing, yes, but necessary and good) and is in no way comparable to leaking battle plans or selling technical secrets to a strategic opponent.
I do not accept the idea that security theater is effective. So much of what we’re told is necessary is simply an act so those in charge can say they’re “doing something.” We do it because politicians live in mortal fear of an opponent saying “you didn’t do enough to prevent this – it’s your fault.” 9/11 wasn’t Bush’s fault and Benghazi wasn’t Hillary’s fault. When we accept these baseless propositions because they attack people we don’t like, we reinforce the idea that pretend security is worth giving up real freedoms.
I reject the idea that absolute security is even possible. Look at the Olympics – unimaginable amounts of resources are being spent protecting athletes and spectators from terrorist attacks, and preparing for dealing with any attacks that may occur. Probably the games will go on without incident… but I still remember Atlanta in 1996 and Munich in 1972. It’s almost impossible to stop small groups of halfway intelligent people who want to kill indiscriminately and who don’t care if they die in the process.
Don’t misunderstand – I’m not advocating unilateral disarmament, literally or figuratively. I have locks on my house. I have smoke detectors. I have weapons I know how to use.
But I have no desire to live in a gated community – not just because I don’t like the social message they send, but because I don’t want to have to deal with gatekeepers. I don’t have an alarm system – I don’t like the idea of paying some company to monitor my comings and goings. I don’t have a concealed handgun license – I don’t want to carry a gun, and I certainly don’t want to wear enough clothes to conceal one in the Texas heat.
When your fear causes you to take reasonable precautions and think about what you’re doing, that’s a good thing. When your fear causes you to make major lifestyle changes, keeps you from doing what you want to do, and persuades you to spend limited resources chasing absolute security, that’s a bad thing.
When your fear causes you to vote for politicians who support killing innocent people because they might bag a terrorist in the process, that’s A Very Bad Thing.
Finally, I reject the idea that maintaining an empire is necessary, much less in our best interests. Ron Paul – not on my list of politicians to vote for, although I’m in general agreement with him on these matters – claimed the United States has 900 military bases in 130 countries. Truth-O-Meter called that “Mostly True” and verified 662 bases in 38 countries, with U.S. military personnel in 148 countries. Trying to establish the exact number misses the point, which is that whatever the number is, it’s WAY THE HELL TOO MANY!
Spending more on war and the accoutrements of war than the next 10 countries combined hasn’t made us “safe.” I’m under no illusion that slashing that spending and bringing all the troops home would make us “safe” either – but I’m willing to bet it will make us safer.
I reject the empire.
I reject the security state.
We can do better.