Democracy and Homeland Security: Strategies, Controversies, and Impact

Part I. Papers Presented in Panels 1–4

Comparative Perspectives on Democracy and Homeland Security: Commentary

T. J. Berard, Kent State University

It is my privilege to discuss three very interesting papers, and it is also my challenge, because of the great diversity among the three papers. Despite this diversity, each paper contributes to the understanding of democracy and security from a comparative perspective, and I will start by addressing this common ground.

A comparative perspective is one that learns from the diversity of human experience, across cultures, across nations, and throughout human history. This perspective derives its name from the methodological principle of learning by comparison, which involves noting relevant similarities and distinctions between different societies or between different historical periods, trying to understand selected differences in terms of other differences and selected similarities in terms of other similarities, in a rigorous search for meaningful and useful generalizations. Some of these generalizations allow us to better understand current affairs by placing them in a global and historical context that goes well beyond the here and now.

A comparative and historical perspective on democracy must start with the acknowledgment that democracy, as a form of government, is a historical development fostered by certain social, political, cultural, and economic conditions. In early modern Europe, these conditions included the decline of divine monarchies (Bendix 1978) and the rise of the middle class associated with the development of capitalism in early modern Europe (see, e.g., Moore 1966). Once in place, democratic government can be maintained on the foundation of these or other social, political, cultural, and economic conditions, including a democratic civic culture and the rule of law.

At times, democracy in early modern Europe was regarded as a very threatening and radical development. Aside from the fact that democracies have often been established by force or threat of force, democracy also met with much skepticism from aristocrats and intellectuals who suspected that the political power of the masses would lead to a new variety of tyranny in the modern world. There was a fear of a tyranny of the majority, characterized by the excesses of mob sentiment and the political schemes of opportunistic demagogues. Such concerns have been voiced by many influential scholars, including the democratic theorist Alexis de Tocqueville, the early crowd psychologist Gustave LeBon, and the conservative Spanish social philosopher Ortega y Gassett (cf. Kornhauser 1959).

Liberal as well as conservative theorists of democracy have expressed these concerns about the dangers posed by democracy. Such concerns go a long way toward explaining why the United States is not a direct democracy, but an indirect democracy. We have the Electoral College, which is supposed to serve as a check on the power of demagogues and the excesses of majoritarian politics. The U.S. Senate was created to protect smaller states of our political union from the majoritarian excesses that an unchecked populist House of Representatives might commit. American efforts to avoid direct democracy in Iraq now serve as a recent reminder that American policymakers can be fundamentally ambivalent about populist governance, even while liberating others or ourselves in the name of democracy.

Partly due to different sources of social support and different sources of political resistance, the development of democracy took different forms in different national contexts and in different historical periods. Today’s democracies vary greatly on characteristics of key significance, including different degrees of secularism, militarism, cultural diversity, and racial and ethnic integration. Americans rightfully take pride in American democracy, but there is no justification for complacency. Many Americans don’t realize that a comparative perspective reveals that American democracy is tainted by a level of economic inequality, poverty, crime, and racial tension that hardly makes the United States a model for many other democratic countries, including our neighbor Canada and the Scandinavian democracies. The relative lack of democratic control over the foreign policy decisions of the world’s sole superpower also tempers the international appreciation of American democracy.

A comparative perspective on homeland security must start with the acknowledgment that every society and every nation, across the globe, faces security risks of one kind or another. This same point holds as a historical generalization. Democracies are certainly no exception to this general rule and, in some sense, may be more vulnerable, as democracies are more or less open societies. The phrase homeland security is a recently popular variation on the general theme of national security. The innovation is arguably significant in that the notion of the “homeland,” like similar notions of “fatherland,” “motherland,” and “heartland,” appeals to a variety of folksy sentiment that in the United States is called patriotism but which, in comparative analysis, would have to be considered a variety of nationalism. The term nationalism is a decidedly more ambivalent term for referring to political initiatives and political sentiments premised on the use of mass media to stoke national pride and the fear of foreign threats.

Comparative analysis applied to the topic of democracy and homeland security refers to the method of learning from the diversity of human experience on political, military, and other matters, providing us with a deeper and broader understanding of the relationship between security and democracy. Each of the papers prepared for this panel contributes to a deeper and broader understanding of democracy and homeland security in this comparative manner.

Professor Curren has mentioned socioeconomic conflicts between status groups in classical Greece and religious conflicts in reformation Europe that inspired political principles of profound significance for the development of Western civilization, including democracy, but also the rule of law, secular governance, and religious tolerance. The historical lesson he draws from these cases is that these principles have been adopted at different critical junctures of Western civilization to secure peaceful relations between groups, despite diverse values and interests. According to the ideal of public reason, competing interests can be voiced through rational discussion, and if neither side can be convinced to adopt the position of the other, at least neither will resort to force to win the argument. The foremost comparative historical sociologist, Max Weber, understood these principles as aspects of formal or procedural legitimacy—a type of legitimacy that is granted despite and across substantive disagreements.

Professor Collins has reminded us of World War II and warned us about the political dangers of subscribing to ideological simplifications of national character and national culture that are not entirely distinct from wartime propaganda efforts. In referring to Huntington’s work on the “clash of civilizations” (1996), Professor Collins brings to our attention that stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims are guiding Western thinking about international relations not just during times of war with other nations, as during the two recent wars with Iraq and the campaign in Afghanistan, but also in times between wars, and also prospectively, looking into the future.

Professor Das argues that democracy and security are inevitably in tension, which makes it all the more important for the pursuit of security to be moderated by social and political forces representative of democratic values. Traditionally, the moderation of policing and security efforts have been understood under rubrics such as civilian oversight, political accountability, the separation of power between branches of government, a watchful media, and informed public opinion (cf. Das 2000, 5; Freeman 2003, 9–10; Chalk and Rosenau 2004, 45–46; Lustgarten 2003, 328). Importantly, Professor Das recognizes that professionalism among the police and security forces themselves can moderate the more undemocratic liabilities of policing and security measures (cf. Freeman 2003, 10). This is consistent with important but still insufficient American efforts since roughly the late 1960s increasingly to consider questions of minority representation, community relations, and civil rights in the hiring and training of police officers.

Professor Curren argues that the survival of a democracy depends upon public vigilance in regard to the mistakes, corruption, and ambitions of government officials. Many scholars would include public vigilance in the idea of a democratic civic culture. Professor Curren sees this public vigilance as including not only an independence of judgment but also a political voice for expressing independent judgment. Americans often pride themselves on just these qualities: independence of judgment and political voice. In fact, these qualities or qualities like them are often included in descriptions of the American national character. Some might object that independence of judgment is a myth in light of American tendencies toward conformism, and that the disinterest in rigorous journalism suggests that independence of judgment refers to a reactionary skepticism and anti-intellectualism more than any positive tendency toward informed citizenship. Professor Curren expresses concerns that these traits of independent judgment and political voice so commonly attributed to Americans are not sufficiently widespread and deep-seated to prevent our own government from encroaching upon our liberties as a people. Crucially, he suggests that Americans’ own fear of alien threats is what fuels this domestic threat upon our own liberties.

In this respect, Professor Curren is in a sense expressing skepticism about popular conceptions of American national character, in a manner reminiscent of critiques of mass society, and connecting this traditional concern with another tradition of social criticism, the analysis of racism and xenophobia. And this is exactly what is required by any critical analysis, because American notions about American national character are predictably self-satisfied rather than self-critical, to the point that such notions are best understood as part and parcel of our national patriotic sentiments.

As Professor Collins points out, even the academic study of national character has to be understood in light of the historical origin of national character studies in government-sponsored research during World War II. These wartime studies often involved academics lending their scholarly credentials to popular stereotypes about foreign peoples. Perhaps even more problematic, these studies at times suggested political ambitions of altering the national character of conquered peoples in a process of social or cultural engineering, as Professor Collins politely suggests. If this has been the academic version of national character stereotypes, there should be little wonder at the excesses of popular or folk versions. Academic and folk versions have both reflected notions of American cultural superiority and manifest destiny. These notions have also been coupled with militaristic or paternalistic ambitions of assisting states in the former Communist block and in the developing world, and now in the Middle East, to follow the American model of capitalist democracy, as best they can, as quickly as their allegedly backward natures will allow.

The American study of American national character has often neglected more balanced or skeptical concerns about American culture and American traits, such as Professor Curren’s concern about insufficient vigilance in defense of liberties. But the study of the American national character does include important moments of skepticism and criticism, and often enough we owe these moments to foreign and immigrant scholars. In what is arguably the first comparative study of American democracy, American national culture, and American national character, the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville noted that the problem of racial inequality would be a pivotal challenge to the long-term security and success of American democracy. He suggested that racial inequality was a feature of American society and economy, but not a feature of democracy, so racial inequality was simultaneously an important and a marginal issue in his discussion of Democracy in America (see, e.g., Kohn 2001).

More recently, and at the same time that American social scientists were engaging in national character studies as part of World War II and its aftermath, German social scientists who had escaped Nazi Germany began gauging attitudes toward religious and racial minorities in the United States, resulting in a very influential study, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, on The Authoritarian Personality (Adorno et al. 1950). The title alone is very effective in suggesting that these refugee intellectuals found cause for concern in their surveys of American attitudes toward minorities. These authors argued that intolerance is un-American, but their studies suggested that the realities of American attitudes diverged from the ideals of the American national character. As with Tocqueville, American liberty and equality seem to be most secure for white Christians.

If research findings about authoritarianism and intolerance predictably failed to alter our national self-conception as an egalitarian society, this skepticism has had a more limited and lasting impact on our cultural stereotypes about the character and the organizational culture of the police and the military, which brings us back to Professor Das’s concerns. Professor Das suggests that the organizational pressures of policing largely work against democratic principles. However, he also acknowledges that professionalism among the police can serve to moderate what some might call the authoritarian liabilities of police and policing. One aspect of professionalism is surely the avoidance of discrimination and scapegoating based upon prejudiced cultural stereotypes, of the type discussed by Professor Collins. These stereotypes, including stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims as retrogressive extremists prone to resentment and terrorism (cf. Esposito 1995), are no longer merely a characteristic of international relations. Due to immigration, stereotypes about international threats have been carried over into thinking about internal security threats and policing, in that fellow citizens are treated as embodiments of foreign threats (cf. Katzenstein 1996, 535–36; Cole 2003, 115). As Cole notes with reference to the Japanese internment during World War II, “alienage discrimination is often closely tied to (and a cover for) racial animus, and is therefore particularly susceptible to being extended to citizens along racial lines” (Cole 2003, 7).

The increasingly multicultural nature of democratic societies is undermining whatever credibility was left to national character studies. Notions of racial, ethnic, or religious traits can no longer be mapped onto national boundaries, because contemporary democracies are less and less owned by single ethnic groups with every passing decade (cf. Gutierrez 2001, 12). National boundaries cut across cultural boundaries, and vice versa. The nation is at once too small and too large a unit of analysis, given the reality of transnational cultures or civilizations represented partly by intranational minorities.

Indeed, some insightful scholars have suggested that the rhetoric of national security interests simplifies the divergence of interests present within nations and effectively treats the interests of the most influential voices as the interests of all (cf. Edelman 1971; Millet and Moreland 1976). Lustgarten and Leigh, in a comparative analysis of national security and parliamentary democracy, express this concern rather well when they argue,

National security is bedrock, and therefore limited. . . . Hence more extravagant declarations about the needs, claims, or rights of a state couched in the language of “national security” ought to be treated with extreme suspicion. They are likely to prove dangerous in their effect on relations with other states, and to turn out on closer examination to be no more than disguised attempts by a favoured class, ethnic group, or political-military elite to seize some advantage for itself. (Lustgarten and Leigh 1994, 8)  

This concern seems to be especially relevant in the case of the contemporary United States, which is truly exceptional in the global reach of its national security interests. Yergin notes of American national security policy that “desirable foreign policy goals are translated into issues of national survival, and the range of threats becomes limitless. The doctrine is characterized by expansiveness, a tendency to push the subjective boundaries of security outward to more and more areas, to encompass more and more geography and more and more problems” (Yergin 1980, 196). Lustgarten and Leigh also suggest a wider trend, following the cold war, for nations to understand economic desires under the rubric of national security. They warn that the “hazards of confusing, or rather conflating, national interests with national security begins at home. Most important is the fact that giving national security so wide-ranging a meaning is potentially oppressive, for it erodes the distinction between the civil and military spheres of social life, or at any rate between a liberal and an authoritarian society” (1994, 27). Civil rights are therefore at risk of being sacrificed in the name of national security threats that seem to be understood more and more broadly, especially in the United States.

Arguably, the greater threat to the security of citizens in democracies around the globe comes from their own governments, acting on the basis of broad but partisan social interests, much more than threats from foreign governments. Lustgarten suggests, “For every Somalia there are a dozen functioning states whose citizens have been terrorized by internal repression or official persecution of minorities” (Lustgarten 2003, 320; cf. Katzenstein 1996, 537). The lesson he draws from this is to note “the historical truth that those governing under emergency measures are more often responsible for the death of democracy than those who ostensibly present the threat” (Lustgarten 2003, 332).

The ever-increasing multiculturalism of democratic societies can surely pose problems, but problems such as interreligious and interracial violence are grossly misunderstood if the perpetrators are treated as representatives of their faiths or races. The challenging nature of maintaining peaceful and mutually beneficial relations in a diverse community of political interests is greatly complicated when political or paramilitary behaviors by individuals or fringe groups are seen as expressions of collective action at the level of entire faiths and races. Cultural stereotypes elevate problems associated with particular people into conflicts between entire peoples, to the point of suggesting a “clash of civilizations” (Huntington 1996). At the level of practice in domestic policing and counterterrorism, the clash of civilizations is played out through prejudiced methods of investigation and discriminatory enforcement, from racial profiling to selective detention and deportation based on minor offenses that are routinely ignored except in the case of members of profiled groups (cf. Cole 2003, 22–25).

By contrast, democratic respect for minority rights and human rights, both at home and abroad, enhances domestic and international peace, as Singh argues with respect to post-Communist Europe (Singh 2001, xvi, 70). By this view, rights are a security issue not because they need to be sacrificed for security, but because denial of rights becomes the basis for many domestic and international security threats (Singh 2001, 16). As David Cole and many others have repeated often since 9/11, excessively broad security measures such as racial profiling can be counterproductive, alienating possible allies and witnesses in minority communities, and potentially expanding the scope of the conflict (see, e.g., Cole 2003).

What is needed at the national level is partly suggested by Professor Das. At the national level, security and police forces need to be moderated from without and from within, by external review based on principles of oversight and accountability, and by internal deliberation and self-control, as denoted by the term professionalism. A key element of professionalism in security and police forces must include the appreciation of the fact that the mandate of providing security includes a mandate for securing civil liberties and democratic freedoms, as well as physical safety. Constraints can be imposed on police and security forces by law, but the effect of external constraints is minimal compared to the effect of democratic values among police and police subculture(s) (cf. Lustgarten 2003, 326; Marenin 2000; Freeman 2003, 10–11). We cannot afford to allow the government responsibilities for security and civil rights to be split among agencies divided by unequal public policy support and minimal communication. Objecting to the metaphor of striking a balance between human rights and national security, Lustgarten and Leigh argue, “The loss of liberty must be counted on both sides of the scale and thus deducted from any asserted gain in national security, as well as recognized as a loss to the individuals or groups specifically affected” (1994, 9). The several goals of policing and national security, including the protection of civil rights, must be reflected in the training and judgment of individual officers, rather than left to a lopsided model of checks and balances between different agencies or branches of government.

At the international level, as Professor Curren suggests, we need a vision of international peace instructed by the historical lessons that gave rise to democracy in classical Greece, which gave rise to religious tolerance and secular government in post-Reformation Europe, and which also gave rise to the League of Nations after World War I and the United Nations after World War II. These institutions were modeled with the benefit of hindsight, but they will not accomplish their purpose if hindsight dies off with the retirement of every next generation of diplomats.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, solidified certain problematic trends and realized certain troubling liabilities in security and policing, but these trends and liabilities existed in American policy before September 11 and were also visible in a variety of different security contexts around the world. Numerous scholars have noted that in the wake of the cold war, security agencies struggled to find new mandates and new security risks, and often ended up targeting immigrants. This was an institutional reality played out in country after country. Brodeur, Gill, and Tollberg (2003) make this observation about internal security services in Europe. Vernez (1996) noted this tendency in a 1996 study meant largely to contribute to the understanding of American security risks and security policy. He noted the increasing emphasis on migration as a security risk, for lack of a more compelling or more traditional national security risk (cf. Katzenstein 1996, 524–25).

But this emphasis upon immigration as a threat to national security clearly predates even the cold war. David Cole places America’s post-9/11 counterterrorism measures in a historical context characterized by repeated abuse of powers and encroachment on First Amendment rights going back at least to World War I. These measures have targeted a wide variety of groups, but one common thread is that such abuse has been rationalized publicly and legally by reference to the threat of foreign elements or loyalties, whether on the part of suspected spies and saboteurs during the two world wars, immigrant anarchists, suspected Communists, war protesters, Central American activists, Palestinian activists, and so forth (Cole 2003; Cole and Dempsey 2002).

This historical pattern is not unique to the United States but is part of a much broader pattern of the social control of political dissidents and minority groups. There seems to be a general liability, even in stable democracies, for the mandate to gather security intelligence to devolve into political policing and the scapegoating of immigrant minorities (cf. Brodeur, Gill, and Tollborg 2003, 1, 5; Das 2000, 18; Donahue 2002, 321; Marenin 2000, 324). The logic of the devolution of security policy and policing practices is suggested well by the term subversion, denoting a fear of dissent and criticism on the part of immigrants and minorities, even when there is no evidence of criminal or military threat (cf. Lustgarten 2003, 329). More recently, the concern over “terrorist sleeper cells” has contributed a devious and invidious variety of suspicion designed to maximize social control efforts. Specifically, it has been suggested that Arabs and Muslims who appear to be innocent or foreign businessmen or foreign exchange students, and even American citizens who appear to be assimilating into American society, may be acting out a terrorist script and taking advantage of American freedoms in preparation for a vicious attack (cf. Cole 2003, 97).

This rethinking of risk, with increasing emphasis on peoples of different colors and different faiths, took place at the level of political symbolism and cultural stereotyping, as well. It was at the end of the cold war and before the Persian Gulf War that the late scholar of political symbolism Murray Edelman noted a symbolic vacuum that he predicted would be filled by substituting Arabs for Communists as America’s public enemy number one. I remember being very impressed at this prediction, sitting in front of my television in 1991 as our recent ally Saddam Hussein was transformed into another Muammar Qadaffi—the personification of evil on earth in the form of an Arab man. More recently, Osama bin Laden has joined this gallery of Arab devils, cast in the role, not just of a leader of a dangerous fringe militant group critical of American foreign policy, but as yet another incarnation of evil in the form of an Arab man.  

As a nation, we do have to be vigilant of both internal and external threats, but internal threats need to be understood more broadly. They include more than terrorist cells, organized crime, and drug traffickers—and note here that even our national understanding of internal threats borrows heavily from our national skepticism toward foreigners and immigrants. Internal threats to democracy can also appear as the excesses of mass politics and the excesses of national security policies. This is especially true when municipal, county, and state police forces are asked to staff the supposed front lines of a domestic war on terrorism for which they have not been trained, and it is especially true when even many citizens, with no relevant training at all, eagerly assume the role of deputized officers, policing their minority neighbors. And I am not referring only to the nativist proclivities of many white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, but to the invidious suspicions and actions of many racial and religious minorities as well.

An understanding of the challenge to provide security without undermining democracy requires that contemporary threats be understood in a broader context than has informed public opinion and counterterrorism strategies since September 11, 2001. Comparative and historical perspective allows us to see that threats to democracy come in many forms, some of them in forms that easily fit into stereotypical and nationalist thinking, such as the nineteen Middle Eastern extremists who flew hijacked airplanes into symbols of American empire. But other threats to democracy come in less obvious forms, which exploit stereotypical and nationalistic thinking and create or exacerbate the dangerous social divisions we fear. Focusing exclusively on threats posed by the Other is in a sense too easy, and such a focus is certainly lacking in comparative and historical perspective.


I would like to thank the panelists for their interesting and diverse contributions to the panel and the Symposium, and to thank the Symposium planning committee, and especially the chair, Nawal Ammar, for the opportunity to serve as discussant.

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