Since early July, men in military-style uniforms have waged battle against protesters in Portland, Oregon, 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.
Masha Gessen writes in the New Yorker that the creation of the DHS 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 New York 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.’”
Gessen notes that “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.
“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”…. 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 logic of the secret police, however, dictates that it perpetually has to look in new places for threats.
The CBP is the largest law-enforcement agency in the country. Its leader… and his boss, Chad Wolf, were telling the nation that they are terrified of the protesters. These men represent a government agency born of fear. Their tactics are designed to engender an equal amount of fear in the people they see as their enemies. The secret police is always a terror-production machine.
As we learn more about what is happening in Portland—as footage of federal troops waging war on protesters floods social media, and as the President threatens to send his foot soldiers to other large cities—we are watching the perfect and perhaps inevitable combination of a domestic-security superagency and a President who rejects all mechanisms of accountability, including the Senate confirmation process. What we are also seeing is a perfect storm of fear: the legacy of fear cultivated in the wake of 9/11, and the fear that Trump campaigned on in 2016 and continues to campaign on now.
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