Fear begets fear: political paralysis on crime and terrorism

Politicians and pundits constantly drum up fear to move their political agendas. While the manipulative nature of the fear-mongering is frustrating, it’s nothing compared to the serious damage that is done by resulting policies. Enemies like Osama bin Laden and boogie men like Willie Horton have led to sprawling “wars” with no defined end that eat up our resources  and ruin (and often end) lives. The campaigns of fear around crime and terrorism have paralyzed our political process in a way that politicians concerned about reelection are too afraid to defy these counterproductive and unjust frameworks.

This is coming to the fore in California, where the courts have stepped in to mandate the release of thousands of prisoners from our state’s overcrowded prisons. Rather than using this court order as an opportunity to remedy a broken system, Governor Jerry Brown proposes to squander much-needed tax dollars on an even worse proposal:

Over the summer, Brown revealed a plan to spend what could end up being the bulk of the state’s $1 billion emergency reserve fund – money that is supposed to be spent in the event of an emergency – to finance the transfer of people from California’s overcrowded detention facilities into privately run prisons. “Brown said the alternative is to allow 10,000 prison inmates to go free.”

“It’s going to take some money, make no doubt about it,” Brown said of defying the federal government. But, “Public safety is the priority and we’ll take care of it,” he said, “the money is there.” The estimated cost of transferring the prisoners is about equal to what the state cut in funding for the University of California system between 2008 and 2012.

Refusing to acknowledge the real problem is an injustice to people in and out of prison. Thousands of nonviolent offenders not only unnecessarily languish in prison, but are then systematically shut out from opportunities to improve their lives, feeding a vicious cycle (if you haven’t read Michelle Alexander’s brilliant The New Jim Crow, which chronicles the ripple effects of mass incarceration, stop what you’re doing and go get it). Directing our tax dollars to private prisons continues a disturbing trend of injecting a profit motive into a broken, unjust system. And as Charles Davis points out in his piece, it means a billion dollars that could help with anything from education to emergency preparedness is squandered.

In talking to activists working on this issue, it’s clear that even some politicians who recognize the need for fundamental change are too afraid to take responsibility for it. Nobody wants to be the politician who let Willie Horton out of jail. So you get a “liberal” governor in a blue state ignoring proven solutions and exacerbating a devastating problem.

This resonated for me after ten years of organizing for a more just foreign policy during the so-called “war on terror.” Gregory Johnsen has a thorough and valuable piece about the history of the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed shortly after September 11th and the never-ending war it spawned:

More than a dozen years after the Sept. 11 attacks, this is what America’s war looks like, silent strikes and shadowy raids. The Congressional Research Service, an analytical branch of the Library of Congress, recently said that it had located at least 30 similar occurrences, although the number of covert actions is likely many times higher with drones strikes and other secret operations. The remarkable has become regular.

The White House said that the operations in both Libya and Somalia drew their authority from the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, a 12-year-old piece of legislation that was drafted in the hours after the Sept. 11 attacks. At the heart of the AUMF is a single 60-word sentence, which has formed the legal foundation for nearly every counterterrorism operation the U.S. has conducted since Sept. 11, from Guantanamo Bay and drone strikes to secret renditions and SEAL raids. Everything rests on those 60 words.

More than a dozen years since that law was passed, there has not been a significant challenge to the “war on terror” framework. Johnsen chronicles how Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) bravely stood up as the lone vote against the original AUMF, even though some of her colleagues indicated behind the scenes that they shared her concerns about the resolution. The difficulty of casting that vote a few days after September 11th is clear (Lee faced outrage and death threats), but with twelve years of distance we are still only chipping away at the injustices it engendered. Again, politicians swing too far in the wrong direction, that overcompensation an insurance policy against charges of being soft on terrorism that could be linked to an attack on their watch.

While some of the most egregious actions, like throwing up roadblocks to transferring innocent people from Guantanamo, have been led by Republicans, most Democrats haven’t challenged the orthodoxy. People from both parties praised President Obama for the targeted assassination of U.S. citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki, despite the fact that the threat he posed has been called into question and the frightening precedent set by this act. Some leaders in Congress are pushing for greater transparency around the administration’s targeted killing policy, but few are willing to substantively challenge the entrenched mentality that has led to torture, incarceration of innocent people, racial profiling, and hundreds of civilian casualties.

Mulling this over brought me back to a revealing (though not terribly surprising) moment in John Oliver’s masterful pieces on gun control on The Daily Show. When asking Sen. Harry Reid’s staffer about what makes a politician successful, he responds with “getting reelected.” It’s a telling slip up. The challenges to sanity on these issues don’t make change impossible, and we have an obligation to work as hard as we can to undo these injustices. It reminds us that we need to increase the political cost of supporting these unjust, dangerous and counterproductive wars.