Donald Trump’s Wall, David Rieff’s Long War, and the Dangers of Fear-Mongering

This post is the latest installment of our “Monday Reflections” feature, in which a different Just Security editor examines the big stories from the previous week or looks ahead to key developments on the horizon.

So it has come to this. In yesterday’s New York Times, David Rieff, a human rights skeptic, argued that in light of continuing terrorism across the world, Western democracies have only two choices: “either the wall Mr. Trump wants to build and the mass deportations that many right-wing European politicians have begun calling for, or a vast expansion of the national security apparatus.” The latter, he continued, “would require serious increases both in budgets and personnel and in the methods at their disposal.” It would also require sacrificing “a certain amount of our humanity,” although he did not specify which aspects of “our humanity” he would sacrifice. Absent such a “vast expansion,” Rieff maintains, the people will opt for the draconian approaches pressed by Trump and other right-wing demagogues. We must give the security forces more power if we are to deny Donald Trump power. There are no other options.

This is a remarkably dangerous argument. It comes on the heels of the Republican convention, in which Trump did all he could to fan the flames of fear, and immediately before the Democratic convention, in which Hillary Clinton will set forth her national security vision. Rieff is right that Trump’s fear-mongering cannot simply be ignored or dismissed. It demands a response. But Rieff’s solution – an unspecified but “vast” expansion of the national security state – is no different from Donald Trump’s wall. It is, on the one hand, a dramatic piece of theater, designed to make the masses think that the government is doing something. And at the same time, it is patently ill-conceived, and fails for the same reasons the wall would fail – it favors simple dramatic “solutions” over measures that address the full complexity of the issue. And most disturbingly, it concedes rather than challenges the fear-mongering, thus playing on Trump’s turf.

What would the “vast expansion” of the security state consist of, and what would it get us? Rieff offers no particulars. He does not explain in what ways the security apparatus would be extended, or what new methods it would employ. Nor does he offer any evidence that it would stop the kinds of terrorist attacks that have become increasingly common, namely those in which an individual or small group not connected to an organized terrorist group kills as many people as possible without notice. Orlando, Nice, and San Bernardino are examples. There is simply no guarantee that even a vastly expanded security apparatus would have identified these individuals before they acted. And if they did, what could they have done, as the individuals had done nothing illegal? Moreover, as Rieff acknowledges elsewhere in the piece, it is simply impossible to secure all public places from the suicidal actions of deranged individuals.

Rieff never explains how he has determined that the considerable resources already dedicated to the national security state are inadequate—other than by noting that attacks, which he concedes cannot be stopped, continue. According to a 2013 Washington Post report based on leaked intelligence documents, the United States spent more than $500 billion on antiterrorism measures in the first twelve years after 9/11. What makes Rieff think this is insufficient? What would be sufficient? And how would he measure sufficiency, if, as he concedes, no state can stop all terrorist attacks? It makes perfect sense to buttress security where there is a specific showing of inadequacy, a sound basis to believe that additional measures will make us safer, and a determination that the benefits outweigh the costs. But those decisions need to be made at retail, not wholesale.

Meanwhile, the costs of Rieff’s approach would be considerable. He concedes that a “vast expansion” would entail some unspecified sacrifice to “our humanity,” but dismisses that concern as inevitable in wartime. He does rule out torture, military dictatorship, and a war of civilizations, but that leaves lots to sacrifice—such as privacy, freedom of speech, the right of association, freedom of religion, equality, and physical liberty. Again, which of these aspects of our humanity does Rieff want to give up? He does not say. And Rieff neglects entirely another significant cost of such an expansion – it would necessarily divert resources from society’s many other needs, including education, economic development, and ordinary criminal law enforcement—all of which have a greater impact on our long- and short-term security than terrorism.

Finally, Rieff’s argument accepts the premise of Trump’s fear-mongering. But the premise is deeply flawed. As disturbing as terrorist attacks are, they pose far less risk to Americans than demagogues like Trump want us to believe. In fact, the odds of an American dying in a terrorist attack are something like one in 20 million. We are more likely to be killed in a traffic accident, by ordinary gun violence, from post-surgery complications, or even by a lightning strike.

A responsible leader (or pundit, for that matter) would not simply respond to Donald Trump by saying, “I’ll see you and raise you one.” He or she would explain that countering terrorism, like fighting crime, requires a multitude of approaches, and is not susceptible to simple solutions like walls or “vast expansions” of the security state. He or she would support specific security measures where they could be shown to be defensible, but would not simply call for expansion for expansion’s sake. And he or she would remind Americans that our values include respect for individual dignity, privacy, equality, and fundamental freedoms; that these values entail living with some risk; and that in the end they are a source of strength, not weakness. Sacrificing those values without clear showings of necessity undermines not only the character of the society we live in, but plays into the terrorists’ hands, by delegitimizing our efforts and fueling sympathy for our enemies. And he or she would explain that if a “vast expansion” would entail substantial sacrifices in our most important values, divert funds from more pressing concerns, and do little to make us safer, it’s just as wrong-headed as Donald Trump’s wall.

Very shortly after 9/11, I appeared on a panel at the Open Society Institute in New York City with the late Susan Sontag, who is David Rieff’s mother. She warned that we must resist the temptation to label the fight against terrorism a “war.” At the time, I didn’t quite get it. What difference would a label make, I thought. The fifteen years since have borne out Sontag’s prescience. Rieff’s “Long War on Terror” is only the latest piece of evidence that Sontag was right. 

About the Author(s)

David Cole

National Legal Director of the ACLU and Professor at Georgetown University Law Center Follow him on Twitter (@DavidColeACLU).