The June 2016 issue of reason has an interesting piece on “The $4 Trillion War on Terror.” Now, I take everything from them with a grain of salt, since they’re very much agenda-driven, and many of the sources they quote are from their own libertarian think tank. That said, there’s so much that seems accurate. We know that wars can be big money makers (especially when they’re won), and terror tactics have long been used to convince a frightened public into going along with awful schemes, or to get them to forgo certain essential civil liberties under the supposition that even an overindulged police force is nothing to fear if they’re law-abiding citizens. (And if you’re assuming that we merely need to add the word “white” in there, then you’re ignoring asset forfeiture.)
So James Bovard’s writing resonates, as he lays out the various organizations to which that $4 trillion dollars has gone, and emphasizes how little has actually been accomplished. There have been convictions and foiled plots, sure, but the vast majority of them have been instigated through sting operations by the FBI. In other words, we’ve activated potential terrorists and provided them with the means to carry out acts of destruction simply so that we can stop them and justify the expense. That’s not to condemn the FBI entirely–these people, aggressively baited into jihadism or not, did intend to harm Americans . . . but the same could be said for hundreds of thousands of Americans. I’m sure if we spent money trying to weed out extremists from the political parties, we’d find them there, too. The question, then, is whether this is an effective form of policing, especially since the 2013 Boston bombing and 2016 Chelsea bomb demonstrate that there will always be those who slip through even the most expensive net.
As for the TSA, enough bad things can’t be said. How effective are those full-body scanners, really, if they only catch inspector general testers sneaking in weapons 4% of the time? How can we admonish the use of stop and frisk even as we enable the TSA to do “chat downs” with undercover “Behavior Detection Officers” using untested behavioral indicators with no statistical success rate to harass passengers, largely those of color? (And despite all this security, airlines still sometimes kick Muslim passengers off planes because of complaints from other riders.) At least the police and the FBI have metrics for success, even if they have to sometimes create those upticks themselves by enforcing inane infractions (see the increase in traffic tickets toward the end of a month’s quota). Here, we’ve spent over a billion dollars on a thing that’s never been proven to work.
The list of wasteful measures goes on and on. The redundant Department of Homeland Security has achieved nothing; its grant money has gone to some truly outrageous purchases, such as the $6,200 a Michigan department spent on sno-cone machines, which it justified as “needed to treat heat-related emergencies.” This is the very definition of “looking busy,” and we see it all the time in New York City, where officers sometimes set up checkpoints in a train station at which they can ask travelers to submit to a screening. Consider the thought and planning that goes into an actual act of terrorism: would a random blockade like this really stop someone with the intent to cause harm when they could simply travel a few blocks to the next stop, or another entrance to the same station? For every law-abiding citizen who feels safer seeing an officer with an assault rifle in Times Square, there’s likely to be another for whom the illusion of that commercial dystopia is ruined, notwithstanding the fact that bringing a gun to fight a terrorist threat is like bringing a spoon to a knife fight.
Do we actually feel safer now than in 2002, mere months following 9/11? Have the trillions that we’ve spent in wars actually diminished the threat, or simply stoked the fires? This money could be used to actually improve our infrastructure, such that we could defend against and respond to an actual attack with more alacrity, and it could be used on outreach and education, such that we’d perhaps be less racist and more welcoming to those of a different faith or ethnicity. That might not make a dedicated terrorist any less likely to hate us or want to kill us, but if it’s accomplishing as much for our safety as the wasteful War on Terror, the net gain would be positive in that at least it would make us better people.