Against National Security

For nearly 20 years, I’ve been a “national security” reporter. I hate that term. Here’s why I won’t use it anymore. 

Against National Security

Edited by Sam Thielman

ON JULY 11, 2020 a still-unidentified deputy U.S. Marshal, clad in tactical gear and instructed to defend Portland’s Mark O. Hatfield Courthouse from Black Lives Matter protesters, shot a gas canister that landed at the feet of Donavan La Bella, a 26-year old across the street. According to contemporary accounts in the Oregonian and elsewhere, La Bella maneuvered the canister about halfway into the road, away from his comrades. Then either the deputy or one of their colleagues shot La Bella, cratering his forehead with the kind of “less-lethal” impact munition that cops have used for decades.

La Bella survived, but the injury required re-hospitalizations, including for a painful sinus infection that resulted from the new space between his sinus cavity and brain. As of this writing, a coordinated inquiry between the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security inspectors general into the state violence of Portland during July 2020 remains unresolved.

We still don’t know who shot Donavan La Bella. But we know whomever shot him acted in the name of national security.

The assailant used national security’s tools and its symbolism. They were kitted out in tactical gear, from body armor to camouflage, in imitation of soldiers and marines. The U.S. Marshals were co-located with BORTAC, a tactical unit from the Department of Homeland Security, that quintessential creation of 9/11. And about a month before, the president and the attorney general had declared people like La Bella to be terrorists—direct threats to national security. Whatever effects this declaration had (and did not have) on the security bureaucracy, it communicated sufficient impunity to the person who leveled their weapon at La Bella.

Chad Wolf, Trump’s never-confirmed secretary of homeland security, justified the violence federal forces had used – such as stuffing protesters into unmarked vans ahead of detentions – in terms of protecting hallowed federal ground from a “violent mob” that not only destroy property but “desecrate” it.

By the time La Bella arrived at the Hatfield Courthouse, the operative definition of national security identified him as the representative of a threat. And so national security, as represented by the fellow with the gun, threatened him back.

LA BELLA’S EXPERIENCE, and so many others, underscores how the rhetorical framework of “national security” obscures the enterprise it purports to describe. As I’m writing this, I’m listening to Daniel Denvir interview Kate Aronoff about climate change for The Dig. Climate change is the premiere threat to humanity, and we know from our plague year that a merely national focus will give us disasters like vaccine apartheid. In the coming world of 2-degrees-Celsius temperature increase, human security, a security predicated on solidarity amongst people across borders, is the only security there is. One significant contributor to climate change – which is pretty much never discussed in those terms, for obvious reasons – is the ultimate instrument of national security: the U.S. military.

But perhaps you’re on the right and don’t like the examples I’m using. Consider, then, that the Biden administration is working out how – and how much – to reorient the security machinery of the state against right-wing violence as a substitute for contesting right-wing democratic rejectionism politically.

So the term "national security” has little to no relevance to the insecurities that threaten people most urgently. Nor are we including in “national security” the security of people threatened by agents of the state. What can national security even mean in such fragmented contexts?

The biggest material threat to the lives and freedom of millions of Americans is not China, Russia, Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, Cuba, or any other entry on the list of Washington adversaries. It is American law enforcement, and the “homeland security” apparatus that treats the oversight of immigration as counterterrorism work. An even broader cohort of Americans, while not in imminent physical danger from police and ICE or CBP, face an exploitative economic system, now fused with government surveillance, whose ravages are growing geometrically; a political system that functionally ignores their interests when not actively harming them; a legal system that disposes of them as needed; and a media that justifies it all.

For I-don’t-know-how-many other Americans, the consequences of this arrangement go entirely unfelt. Once unfelt, awareness of their realities recedes. Once awareness recedes, the machinations of foreign adversaries fill the void of elite preoccupation. Those machinations are no less real by being elite preoccupations, but their impact on most Americans are abstract and indirect compared to the deputy U.S. Marshal’s impact on Donavan La Bella.

I’M NOT INTERESTED in making “national security” relevant to most Americans. I’m interested in exploring why and how it isn’t. I’m interested in what is relevant to our personal and collective security, and how “national security” harms it. The War on Terror has transferred $6 trillion-and-counting of public wealth to the defense industry, a machine that immiserates so many while ensuring that more pressing crises go unfunded and unaddressed. The security of the people is what “national security” is supposed to mean, but what it means in practice is the security of American hegemony.

For instance, here’s a painfully typical interaction during an April 14 hearing in the Senate. The hearing, a typically-annual opportunity for public testimony from the intelligence barons, is called the Worldwide Threats briefing. This was one exchange between Sen. John Cornyn and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines:

CORNYN: Director Haines, the issue of supply chain vulnerability is high on Congress' agenda, and certainly on everybody's mind. But I don't really have a clear understanding of how good a handle the intelligence community has on what those supply chains that are critical to our national security look like. And we clearly need the help of the--of the intelligence community, to help Congress, the policymakers, sort of rack and stack what are the most urgent priorities. Semiconductors is certainly one that's on everybody's mind. But are there--do you think the intelligence community has a good handle on those, so you could help Congress prioritize those so we could attack them from a policy perspective?

HAINES: Yeah. I think, frankly, this is an area where we're doing a lot of work. And as you indicate, I mean, semiconductors are the obvious one, but there are a lot of others. And as we've been working through, for example, rare earth elements or other key areas where, you know, there may be a contestation in particular from other countries such as China, to our ability to get access to things that are critical to our national security, and where we need to--to promote an effort, in a sense, from the policy community to pay attention to it and to recognize where there are the vulnerabilities and how to address them over time.

And that is what national security cashes out to. Cornyn and Haines aren’t talking about a security threat that could injure people. They’re talking about a resource competition – manufactured resources like semiconductors and the natural resources used to make them – for economic and commensurate geopolitical dominance. None of this matters in a security hearing unless hegemony, and an ever-proliferating array of Worldwide Threats to it, is the point.

To Haines and Cornyn, national security is “great power competition” – imperial struggle – against China. Averting imperial struggle is, by this definition, contrary to national security. But, as Sen. Bernie Sanders writes, the emerging Washington consensus that the U.S. must confront China economically and militarily “will create a political environment in which the cooperation that the world desperately needs will be increasingly difficult to achieve.” National security, in the end, is about denying the truth of international solidarity – the truth that the real interests, needs and security of people, which is to say their class interests, are not found between governments and do not correspond to lines on a map. As Sanders puts it, “Creating true security and prosperity for working people in the United States and China alike demands building a more equitable global system that prioritizes human needs over corporate greed and militarism.”

I’ve been a national security journalist for my whole almost-20-year career. For most of that time, I never questioned the term. It was just what my peers called the beat. I reported the beat, so that’s it – national security reporter. There were times when, consciously or otherwise, something would strike me as so obviously outside national security that I wouldn’t think to cover it, such as immigration. It took me far too long to realize how absurd that was, given how extensively the machinery of national security was concerned with immigrants and migration.

So let’s get rid of the term. Here, where we have the power to abandon it. What I cover isn’t “national security;” it’s the Security State, its interactions with mainstream politics, its interactions with people, and what results from them. Even if you see me use the term “national security” in a context that can’t allow for a deconstruction of the term, please know this is what I mean.

“National security” is a euphemism. We mean surveillance and surveillance capitalism; detention; deportation; war; hegemony.

Let’s use those terms instead – terms with the benefit of specificity and fixed meanings, not ones that treat the most repressive elements of America as de facto legitimate. The purpose of journalism, I believe, is to expose, delegitimize, confront and dethrone them.