New York Times (Editorial)
April 21, 2017
The United States is as vulnerable to an attack today as it was the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Information in the press about national security is misleading or flat-out wrong, offering a false sense of security. The men and women of the Department of Homeland Security perform heroic work day and night for a largely ungrateful nation. If members of Congress are unhappy with the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration, they should pass new laws or “shut up.”
Those were the main takeaways from Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly’s first extensive remarks about how he intends to lead a vast bureaucracy on the front lines of immigration enforcement, passenger screening and cybersecurity.
“Make no mistake,” he said Tuesday during a speech at George Washington University. “We are in fact a nation under attack.”
Of course it is necessary to take seriously threats from extremist groups and criminals, and take measures against them. But they do not justify Mr. Kelly’s incendiary message to his work force. The tone he sets can only encourage abusive behavior among his officers further down the chain of command against immigrants, and also lead to the curtailment of Americans’ civil liberties and privacy.
Mr. Kelly said that Americans have grown complacent because their government has done such a good job of keeping them safe. The reality, he warned, is quite different: “We are under attack from terrorism both within and outside of our borders. These men and women are without conscience, and they operate without rules. They despise the United States, because we are a nation of rights, of laws and of freedoms. They have a single mission, and that is our destruction.”
That apocalyptic talk turns the Islamophobia and immigrant scapegoating that turbocharged the Trump campaign into marching orders for federal law enforcement agents and bureaucrats. It ignores that the United States has spent billions of dollars over the past 15 years greatly enhancing its intelligence collection capabilities and that it has put in place far more stringent mechanisms to screen visa applicants and visitors.
Disregarding these gains, Mr. Kelly and other top administration officials stand to make the country less safe with talk of a war on unauthorized immigrants, which is driving segments of immigrant communities underground, making them fearful of any encounters with law enforcement. The bashing of Muslims, meanwhile, is music to the ears of extremist, violent organizations that have used the notion that America is at war with Islam as a recruiting tool.
Mr. Kelly’s prepared remarks also telegraphed more drastic measures to come. He said a new restriction on carrying laptops and tablets onto some flights from Muslim-majority countries “will likely expand,” citing, vaguely, “the sophisticated threats aviation faces.” America’s cyberdefenses can no longer rely on “muskets,” but instead need “heavy artillery.”
Mr. Kelly dismissed critics who have lamented his stated willingness to separate immigrant mothers and children caught entering the country, claiming that this unfathomably cruel threat would be, and indeed already has been, a useful disincentive for would-be migrants.
Among the more jarring parts of Mr. Kelly’s speech was his message to lawmakers. Citing the low morale of employees he described as “political pawns” in the nation’s contentious immigration debate, Mr. Kelly said members of Congress should have “the courage and the skill to change those laws,” or “shut up and support the men and women on the front lines” of immigration enforcement.
Mr. Kelly’s choice of words reflects the dismal state of public discourse in American politics. That brusqueness encourages lawmakers to respond in kind, which can only make policy making more fraught and partisan. But even more alarming is his unrestrained fearmongering. If Americans take his discourse at face value, they will be living in a paranoid society willing to trade fundamental freedoms and principles for a sense of security.
A version of this editorial appears in print on April 21, 2017, on Page A26 of the New York edition with the headline: Fearmongering at Homeland Security.
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