2020 Exposed The Myth Of American “Security”

Above photo: The U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels and U.S. Air Force’s Thunderbirds perform a flyover tribute to “honor” Covid-19 frontline workers on April 28, 2020 as seen from Weehawken, New Jersey. Michael Loccisano/Getty Images.

The “security state” not only failed to keep us safe, but worsened the coronavirus pandemic and unleashed violence on the people hardest hit.

If there’s one cen­tral les­son to take from 2020, it’s that the coun­try with the most well-fund­ed secu­ri­ty state” in the world is also one of the least secure places on Earth. Fac­ing a dead­ly pan­dem­ic that rav­aged the globe, the Unit­ed States leads the world in over­all deaths, and is fourth in deaths per 100,000 peo­ple. Our cut­ting-edge, top-of-the-line, tril­lion-dol­lar nation­al secu­ri­ty” appa­ra­tus was not only help­less in the face of an actu­al dan­ger, but repeat­ed­ly made that dan­ger far worse by fore­clos­ing on a more humane social response — and unleash­ing vio­lence on the very peo­ple hard­est hit.

This hor­rif­ic fact should be a wake up call that chal­lenges the very premis­es of how we per­ceive threats” and dan­ger as we enter the 2020s.

The con­cept of secu­ri­ty” is an orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple behind how the U.S. gov­ern­ment allo­cates pub­lic resources. The U.S. mil­i­tary bud­get is, by far, the most heav­i­ly fund­ed in the world — larg­er than the mil­i­tary bud­gets of the next 10 coun­tries com­bined. Accord­ing to the Nation­al Pri­or­i­ties Project, in 2019, the mil­i­tary bud­get account­ed for 53% of the entire fed­er­al dis­cre­tionary bud­get, which Con­gress deter­mines through the appro­pri­a­tions process every year. This per­cent­age jumps con­sid­er­ably when you con­sid­er the mil­i­ta­rized” bud­get that encom­pass­es spend­ing on U.S. wars, impris­on­ment, the war on drugs and immi­gra­tion crack­down (the Nation­al Pri­or­i­ties Project put the mil­i­ta­rized bud­get” at 64.5% of dis­cre­tionary fed­er­al spend­ing in 2019). Ear­li­er this month, as unem­ploy­ment soared and Amer­i­cans wait­ed in miles-long bread­lines for food, Con­gress over­whelm­ing­ly passed a $740 bil­lion Nation­al Defense Autho­riza­tion Act for 2021. House Speak­er Nan­cy Pelosi (D‑Calif.) praised the mil­i­tary bud­get from the House floor, say­ing it strength­ens our secu­ri­ty.” (Pres­i­dent Trump has threat­ened to veto the NDAA over key griev­ances, includ­ing his insis­tence on the inclu­sion of a pro­vi­sion pro­hibit­ing the renam­ing of mil­i­tary bases that give trib­ute to Con­fed­er­ate figures.)

Mil­i­ta­riza­tion trick­les to the state and local lev­els, and is used to fund mas­sive prison and law enforce­ment infra­struc­ture. Rough­ly 0.7% of peo­ple in the Unit­ed States are in local jail, or fed­er­al or state prison. As the Prison Pol­i­cy Ini­tia­tive notes, If this num­ber seems unwor­thy of the term mass incar­cer­a­tion,’ con­sid­er that 0.7% is just shy of 1%, or one out of a hun­dred.” Like the U.S. mil­i­tary bud­get, this impris­on­ment appa­ra­tus is unri­valed glob­al­ly: The Unit­ed States accounts for less than 5% of the world’s pop­u­la­tion, but 20% of the world’s incar­cer­at­ed pop­u­la­tion. Mean­while, polic­ing con­tin­ues to account for a mas­sive chunk of munic­i­pal bud­gets. Accord­ing to Sludge’s June 2020 analy­sis of 473 U.S. cities, spend­ing on police takes up almost one-third of munic­i­pal bud­gets,” a num­ber that climbs even high­er in poor cities.

This spend­ing, we are told over and over again, is nec­es­sary to pro­tect Amer­i­cans from dan­ger. The pri­ma­ry role of the state, accord­ing to this frame­work, is to pro­vide secu­ri­ty” — from a for­eign ene­my,” crim­i­nals,” or some oth­er” who alleged­ly pos­es an exis­ten­tial threat to the safe­ty and well­be­ing of Amer­i­cans. Each of these insti­tu­tions — prison sys­tems, police depart­ments, the U.S. mil­i­tary, the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty — comes with its own well-fund­ed press depart­ment that tells the pub­lic the dan­ger is great, and their ser­vices are need­ed now more than ever. This mes­sage echoes from the high­est ech­e­lons of U.S. polit­i­cal pow­er, as demon­strat­ed when Trump declared in March that Covid-19 is our big war. It’s a med­ical war. We have to win this war. It’s very important.”

It’s impor­tant to make clear that the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic wasn’t a black swan” event — some act of god out of the blue that we couldn’t have pos­si­bly pre­pared for. Rather, it was pre­dict­ed by health offi­cials and sci­en­tists for years. Bill Gates even made a video about U.S. vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to the pan­dem­ic for Vox in 2015. This wasn’t a ran­dom event, it was both pre­dictable and banal in its inevitably. But there’s not a lot of mon­ey to be made by weapons con­trac­tors in bor­ing pan­dem­ic prepa­ra­tions, nor is there a lot of new sur­veil­lance pow­ers to be seized, so lit­tle fund­ing went into pan­dem­ic pre­ven­tion. Instead, emo­tion­al­ly charged fear mon­ger­ing that fuels U.S. expan­sion and pow­er — over the threat of ter­ror­ism,” or the specter of Russ­ian or Chi­nese glob­al dom­i­nance — won the day and monop­o­lized our secu­ri­ty” pri­or­i­ties. This is despite the fact that ter­ror­ists” kill few­er peo­ple in the U.S. per year than fur­ni­ture, and the mil­i­tary bud­gets of Rus­sia and Chi­na are sig­nif­i­cant­ly small­er than that of the Unit­ed States.

When it became clear the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic posed an exis­ten­tial threat to actu­al human beings, not only was this bloat­ed secu­ri­ty appa­ra­tus use­less in pro­tect­ing peo­ple, it became a vec­tor of harm, mea­sur­ably wors­en­ing the pan­dem­ic. The U.S.-Saudi mil­i­tary coali­tion con­tin­ued bomb­ing Yemen even as the out­break raged, with Yemen’s med­ical sys­tem already dev­as­tat­ed by more than five years of relent­less war. Accord­ing to the groups Physi­cians for Human Rights and Mwatana for Human Rights, there have been at least 120 attacks on med­ical facil­i­ties between March 2015 and the end of 2018, leav­ing the coun­try espe­cial­ly ill-pre­pared to deal with the pan­dem­ic. The impe­r­i­al U.S. appa­ra­tus, strength­ened by its bloat­ed mil­i­tary, imposed dev­as­tat­ing sanc­tions in the midst of a pan­dem­ic, ratch­et­ing them up in Iran as doc­tors begged for relief, because they were unable to get basic med­ical sup­plies to treat an explod­ing out­break in the coun­try. Now that there’s a Covid-19 vac­cine, Iran­ian offi­cials say max­i­mum pres­sure sanc­tions are pre­vent­ing them from pur­chas­ing the Covid-19 vac­cine. The usu­al vio­lence of U.S. mil­i­tarism is now being unleashed on a world that is going through a dev­as­tat­ing and glob­al­ly inter­con­nect­ed cri­sis, where an out­break any­where affects peo­ple every­where. The con­cept of nation­al secu­ri­ty” begins to break down in the face of a cri­sis that’s fun­da­men­tal­ly international.

With­in the Unit­ed States, the carcer­al sys­tem has proven to be one of the most harm­ful vec­tors of Covid-19 trans­mis­sion. The Mar­shall Project and Asso­ci­at­ed Press joint­ly report­ed on Decem­ber 18 that one in five peo­ple incar­cer­at­ed in fed­er­al pris­ons has test­ed pos­i­tive for Covid-19 — a rate four times greater than the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion. In some states, more than half of pris­on­ers have been infect­ed,” the report notes, adding, Near­ly every prison sys­tem in the coun­try has seen infec­tion rates sig­nif­i­cant­ly high­er than the com­mu­ni­ties around them.” Peo­ple impris­oned in Kansas and Arkansas, for exam­ple, are eight times as like­ly to con­tract Covid-19 than their sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties. The same holds true for peo­ple detained by Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment (ICE): A study pub­lished in JAMA found that, from April to August 2020, the Covid-19 rate among peo­ple detained by ICE was 13 times greater than the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion. These out­breaks are not only dan­ger­ous and dead­ly for peo­ple who are locked up, but they spread the virus through broad­er soci­ety. In just one exam­ple, Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go researchers found in June that Cook Coun­ty Jail in Chica­go is respon­si­ble for 15.7% of all doc­u­ment­ed Covid-19 cas­es in Illi­nois. Despite the mea­sur­able infec­tions and deaths that spread through the U.S. incar­cer­a­tion sys­tem, local, state and fed­er­al offi­cials have over­whelm­ing­ly resist­ed calls to free peo­ple from prison.

And then, of course, there are the police beat­ings and killings that have con­tin­ued through­out the pan­dem­ic, dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly tar­get­ing Black peo­ple — the very pop­u­la­tion hit dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly hard­est by Covid-19 deaths and eco­nom­ic dev­as­ta­tion. Peo­ple who took to the streets over the sum­mer cry­ing out for dig­ni­ty, racial jus­tice and the right to live were ruth­less­ly beat­en by the same police depart­ments equipped with our military’s sur­plus” sup­plies, then thrown in Covid-19 infest­ed jails. Yet Black Lives Mat­ter pro­test­ers turned out again and again, forced to endan­ger their own safe­ty in the mid­dle of a pan­dem­ic to address the scourge of police violence.

The very insti­tu­tions that we are told exist to keep Amer­i­cans safe” have, in fact, wors­ened the most dan­ger­ous and fright­en­ing pan­dem­ic of our life­times. And a gov­ern­ment that pri­or­i­tizes allo­cat­ing funds to this secu­ri­ty” state has stran­gled the actu­al social pro­grams that would have allowed us to mit­i­gate and con­tain the harms of this cri­sis much more effec­tive­ly. The best way to get the cri­sis under con­trol would be to sim­ply pay peo­ple to stay home — i.e. give them a way to pay rent, eat and avoid eco­nom­ic des­ti­tu­tion while sur­viv­ing the pan­dem­ic. But, from the begin­ning, the idea of robust month­ly pay­ments was ruled out by both Demo­c­ra­t­ic and Repub­li­can lead­ers alike. Mean­while, Medicare for All — a uni­ver­sal, sin­gle-pay­er health­care sys­tem — has been declared out of bounds by an incom­ing Biden admin­is­tra­tion over deficit” con­cerns, even as tens of mil­lions of Amer­i­cans are forced to go through the pan­dem­ic with no health insur­ance. Stim­u­lus spend­ing has brought some relief, includ­ing expand­ed unem­ploy­ment insur­ance and one-off checks. But this relief spend­ing has been a small pit­tance com­pared to what’s need­ed. A fed­er­al gov­ern­ment that has no prob­lem churn­ing out mas­sive mil­i­tary bud­gets year after year has not been able to come togeth­er to fund a gen­uine human­i­tar­i­an response to the Covid-19 cri­sis that has left more than 300,000 peo­ple in the Unit­ed States dead.

The same holds true for local gov­ern­ments that are hell-bent on keep­ing police bud­gets high, even dur­ing the pan­dem­ic. As Indi­go Olivi­er report­ed for In These Times in July, Faced with mass teacher lay­offs, deep cuts to edu­ca­tion and social ser­vices, and a loom­ing evic­tion cri­sis, police bud­gets across the nation remain absurd­ly high and have been large­ly insu­lat­ed from Covid-induced belt-tight­en­ing.” From Phoenix to San Diego to Louisville, Ky., numer­ous munic­i­pal­i­ties have even increased their annu­al police bud­gets in the mid­dle of the pan­dem­ic, defy­ing pro­test­ers’ demands to defund the police.

We are told repeat­ed­ly that the U.S. secu­ri­ty state is the best insti­tu­tion for respond­ing to social crises, whether it’s the pan­dem­ic, nat­ur­al dis­as­ters, the social tur­moil of pover­ty or the com­ing cli­mate cat­a­stro­phe. And with each new cri­sis, the secu­ri­ty state is fur­ther for­ti­fied and bol­stered, no mat­ter how great its fail­ures. This dev­as­tat­ing year demands that we stop for a moment and ask why the pre­em­i­nent secu­ri­ty state in the world failed to pro­tect its peo­ple from a great and press­ing dan­ger. And the only answer is that true secu­ri­ty” can­not be found in aer­i­al bom­bard­ments or prison cells or police deploy­ments: It must emanate from the exact oppo­site — a civil­ian, sol­i­daris­tic response to social crises, premised on the prin­ci­ple that all our fates are bound togeth­er, and no one is dispensable.