Chasing Phantoms

Reality, Imagination, and Homeland Security Since 9/11

By Michael Barkun

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Chasing Phantoms

208 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-2226-2
    Published: December 2014
  • eBook ISBN: 978-0-8078-7769-2
    Published: December 2014

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Author Q&A

Copyright (c) 2011 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.

Michael Barkun, author of Chasing Phantoms: Reality, Imagination, and Homeland Security Since 9/11, has a conversation about the gap between the real and perceived terror threats that exists among the American public as a result of Homeland Security's policies.

Q: Chasing Phantoms identifies the gaps between the realities of terrorism and the discourse about it among government officials and the general public. What led you to discover this discrepancy?

A:  "Discover" may be too strong a word. But I will give you one example. During the years immediately after the 9/11 attacks, I attended terrorism conferences at which some of the participants were or had been high officials in state and federal government agencies. What struck me at the time was their extraordinary level of fear, bearing in mind that the United States was then and still is the most powerful country in the world and that Al Qaeda even at the height of its capacities, could hardly have numbered more than several hundred people at most. Yet, as I said, here were individuals with years of governmental experience terrified about the safety of the Republic. And that suggested to me the existence of a great gulf between what you term reality and discourse. And, to my mind at least, developments over the last ten years suggest that that gulf did in fact exist.

Q:  How did you get interested in government homeland security policy?

A:  If we think of homeland security in the broadest sense, it goes back to the mid-1990s, the years of the armed standoff at the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco, the growth of the militia movement, and the Oklahoma City bombing. The FBI had failed to grasp the importance of religion in the Waco standoff and was now trying to figure out how to factor religion into their decision-making process, an enterprise in which I was involved. In that period, of course, the emphasis was on domestic sources of violence, not foreign terrorism, a focus that didn't change until 9/11.

Q:  You emphasize the climate of fear that is evoked by the presence of invisible adversaries and various unseen dangers. Do you believe that these "invisible" fears have driven the U.S. "war on terror?"

A:  Well, one of the problems is that the "the war on terror" became a pretty vague term, used to explain or justify a lot of different things, some of which had to do with terrorism and some of which were rather remote from it—the Second Gulf War, for instance, since Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. I don't get into that in the book, which concentrates on domestic developments. In terms of homeland security, the great fear has been that something or someone will cross our borders undetected. Given the length of those borders and the hundreds of thousands of individuals and items that pour across them, it's virtually impossible to guarantee complete safety, yet that has been the implicit standard. And, at another level, the use of torture on so-called "high-value detainees" was predicated on the belief that they had some hidden knowledge of invisible terrorists or weapons that had to be uncovered.

Q:  Several books have already been published detailing and critiquing U.S. homeland security policy following 9/11. What distinguishes your book from these others?

A:  Yes, there are certainly lots of books, and I don't want to repeat what other people have said. Others who have critiqued policy have often done so by pointing to the misallocation of resources, the fact that a great deal of money, time, and effort have sometimes been expended on things that don't necessarily make us more secure—for example, that much airport screening may make people feel more secure but doesn't necessarily increase actual security. Those analyses are valuable, but that's not what I'm doing. I'm trying to trace the conceptual roots of policy. Where do the ideas come from that drive policy decisions?

Now, as to my personal suggestions, these, I think, flow from the analysis. One of the conclusions of the book is that our policies have not always been built on completely rational foundations. They have been, in part, the expression of non-rational fears. This isn't surprising, given the traumatic effect of 9/11. But it's time—indeed, past time—to try to put policy on a more rational foundation.

Q:  One of your arguments is that most current homeland security policy attempts to "force the invisible into visibility." What do you mean by this?

A:  If you believe that the world is full of dangerous but invisible forces, as policymakers certainly did after 9/11, then there is a strong incentive to "force the invisible into visibility," to make them see-able, to use a very awkward term. That presents two problems: First, it assumes that there really are invisible forces, which may or may not be true. Second, it can lead to all sorts of questionable activities—profiling, torture, discriminatory treatment of religious or ethnic minorities.

Q:  Some readers may not be as politically aware as others. What do you hope the general reader will learn about U.S. homeland security policy by reading this book?

A:  I've tried to make the book accessible to non-specialist readers in two ways. First, it is, I hope, free of jargon. Second, the apparatus of homeland security, especially the part associated with the Department of Homeland Security, isn't terribly well known even to academics, so I tried to lay that out in a pretty straightforward way. DHS is a huge organization, with a great raft of policy documents that underpins it. Yet except for the now discontinued color-coded alert levels, it's maintained a fairly low profile, and I hope that readers of this book will gain a better sense both of DHS and of the broader outlines of homeland security policy.

Q:  What's the significance of Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano's decision to drop the color-coded terrorism alert system?

A:  The old system of color-coded alert levels had been subject to a lot of criticism. It stayed high for long periods of time, leading to charges that the result was so-called "alert fatigue." In other words, the public became complacent instead of watchful. The new system will be more focused, with alerts that are more specific and have expiration dates, and that sometimes are directed only at governmental agencies rather than the general public. The irony here is that the color-coded system was originally meant to signal government departments rather than the public, but it very quickly got turned into something much broader.

Q:  You mention Hurricane Katrina as an example of a Department of Homeland Security failure. However, the media and the general public largely placed the blame on the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its director, Michael Brown. Why do you hold the Department of Homeland Security accountable, as well?

A:  As inept as FEMA and Michael Brown were in New Orleans, their culpability was greatly magnified by the failure of the Secretary of Homeland Security at the time, Michael Chertoff, to use his powers more effectively. As I describe in the book, he had the ability to mobilize federal resources in advance of Katrina, and he failed to do so.

Q:  In this book, you detail numerous examples of poor policymaking decisions committed by the Bush Administration. Were there any success stories?

A:  It's probably still too early to tell exactly which were the success stories, and obviously there were some, since of course there hasn't been a successful attack on American territory since 9/11. However, it's not clear how much of the credit goes to the disruption of terrorist networks abroad, how much to the enhanced cooperation among federal, state, and local authorities, and how much to the reduction in compartmentalization at the federal level. One of the difficulties in sorting out successes is that so much money was thrown at the problem and so many new initiatives were born that evaluation is extremely difficult, even ten years out.

Q:  What policymaking recommendations would you make to the anti-terrorism movement and the strengthening of U.S. homeland security policy?

A:  There needs to be a sense of proportion, an ability to gauge the significance of terrorism alongside the other issues that face the United States—Iran, China, energy, the environment, the economy, and so on. Immediately after 9/11, terrorism was seen as the only issue that mattered. We know now that that fixation on terrorism distorted policy, that it was neither the only problem nor the most important problem.

Q:  What do you consider to be the public attitude in America towards terrorism?

A:  The public has lived with the possibility of terrorism now for a decade. The importance of the problem has diminished, I think, as far as most people are concerned, for two reasons: First, as I've said, there hasn't been a successful attack on American soil, although there have been some close calls, such as the Times Square bomber. Second, the economic upheaval which we're now just working our way out of simply pushed other issues to the back burner.

Q:  In the preface, you describe two types of terrorism—those that exist in the world and those that exist in our minds. How should Americans attempt to differentiate the two?

A:  It's sometimes difficult for all of us to make a clear distinction between our own fears and the reality of dangers in the world. This has become particularly so since the end of the Cold War, because as long as the Soviet Union was there as the single, overwhelming external enemy, the world seemed to make sense. We knew where dangers lay and how the world divided between good and evil. Since the early 1990s, that hasn't been the case, and as a result the world doesn't seem to make sense any more. There's what I call an "enemy vacuum." It gets filled in various ways, and one of these ways is with the figure of the terrorist. The question is: Do we do that because the terrorist is really an immense danger, or have we magnified the figure of the terrorist because we need to have the vacuum filled?

Q:  In Chasing Phantoms, you connect prior nineteenth-century nativist fears of disease-bearing immigrants to the twentieth- and twenty-first-century fear of bioweapons-bearing terrorists. In what ways do you consider these fears to be similar?

A:  In the late 1800s, opponents of immigration were afraid that foreigners were contaminating America by bringing in diseases, and that they had to be stopped before the diseases spread. Now we fear the foreign terrorist who might sneak across the border carrying a biological weapon that could spread some disease-causing virus. The new fear closely maps the earlier one: the fear of the foreigner, and the link between the foreigner and sources of disease.