The Common Good
February 2005

What Price Security?

by David Batstone | February 2005

Rumsfeld would re-establish the military as a judge, jury and executioner.

I am running a campaign to station the National Guard at all the grammar schools in my local area. Terrorists from Chechnya proved that our children are vulnerable to attack. On a fateful day last summer, they took hundreds of Russian children hostage, and a good number of the kids eventually died in the siege.

Hence, my campaign is not irrational. It involves positioning heavily armed soldiers at all entrances to our schools. I am also proposing a biometric security scan - fingerprint or retina ID will do - to screen all parents on file.

Of course I am not serious. But it is instructive to push boundaries in order to appreciate the balance that we must strike between security and paranoia. Terrorism is a real threat globally. It is not simply a manufactured bogeyman of the Bush administration, however much Bush & Co. aim to manipulate for their own political agenda the fears that terrorism evokes.

For that reason, we need to engage in a meaningful civic debate about what reasonable security measures would look like. On the other side of that coin, we ought to determine what civil rights and social routines we are unwilling to sacrifice regardless of increased vulnerability to acts of terror. For example, militarizing our schools, as above, offers maximum security, but it also shifts us toward an abnormal social life that most of us would deem unacceptable.

DONALD RUMSFELD must have received his training on civil liberties at the School of the Americas. The Pentagon chief is happy to push the boundaries, and he means it for real. In a late-2004 summit of the hemisphere's defense ministers, held in Quito, Ecuador, Rumsfeld opened his own campaign to reverse nearly two decades of democratic reform in Latin America. Though the summit went largely unreported in the U.S. media, we may look back at it in years to come as a significant political watershed for the region.

In an effort to leave the dirty wars of the 20th century behind, the United States over the past 20 years has urged Latin American governments to shift away from "national security doctrines" that sought to legitimize rampant human rights abuses. In Quito, however, Rumsfeld urged a revival of a strong security apparatus in order to protect "national sovereignty." Central to his new doctrine is the reintegration of the military and police - separating them was a major reform objective that both U.S. and Latin American human rights organizations deem necessary to bringing military activity under civilian accountability.

"Since Sept. 11, 2001, we have had to conduct an essential re-examination of the relationships between our military and law enforcement responsibilities in the U.S.," Rumsfeld proclaimed in Quito. "The complex challenges of this new era and the asymmetric threats we face require that all elements of state and society work together," he added. He then went on to define a broad range of criminal activity - such as drug trafficking, gang activity, and kidnapping - as part of a destabilizing force that results in "terrorism," thereby blurring the line delineating the respective functions of civilian police and the army.

I worked in Latin America for nearly 12 years, founding and then running a human rights agency that also focused on economic and community development. Prior to the social reforms of the late 1980s, I observed the military act without accountability, targeting civilian enemies and then justifying their murder as a necessary defense against "terrorists." The military was judge, jury, and executioner. The "police" worked hand-in-hand with the military. The police would investigate community leaders working for social change during the day, report their findings to the army, who would then make the civilians "disappear" in the middle of the night. Anyone who lived in that era is chilled that the Pentagon is willing to take us back there.

During the drafting of the final summit statement, the Canadian delegation tried to salvage the gains for civilian freedoms. Backed by Brazil and Chile, the Canadians introduced language that would reaffirm a commitment to international human rights and legal protections. Rumsfeld's team, however, successfully blocked this corrective to its "national sovereignty doctrine."

A broad spectrum of Latin American leaders are deeply concerned with the about-face on democratic reforms at the Quito summit. No one spoke with more clarity than Gen. Rene Vargas, the former head of Ecuador's military: "In Latin America there are no terrorists - only hunger and unemployment and delinquents who turn to crime. What are we going to do, hit you [the United States] with a banana?"

David Batstone is executive editor of Sojourners.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Related Stories

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)