Security as Political Practice and Ideological Screen

In the LRB, Corey Robin looks at war, national security and our liberties.

Because war mobilises all spheres of society, defenders of the social order claim that any disruption to that order – from, say, striking labour unions – is as threatening to the war effort as opposition to the war itself. It was on these grounds that in 1950 the Supreme Court upheld the federal government’s denial of labour protection to Communist-led unions. These union leaders, the court argued, might use their positions of power ‘at a time of external or internal crisis’ to call ‘political strikes’ and disrupt the channels of commerce. In January 2003, the office of Tom DeLay, then the House majority leader, sent out a fundraising letter to supporters of the National Right to Work Foundation, a business group seeking to rid America of unions. Claiming that the labour movement ‘presents a clear-and-present-danger to the security of the United States at home and the safety of our Armed Forces overseas’, the letter denounced ‘Big Labour Bosses . . . willing to harm freedom-loving workers, the war effort and the economy to acquire more power!’

Republicans in Congress also worked closely with Bush to deny union rights and whistle-blower protection to 170,000 employees in the Department of Homeland Security. Even though many of them are clerical workers, and even though employees in the Defense Department are not denied these rights, the administration claimed that eliminating them would make the department as ‘agile and aggressive as the terrorists themselves’. After Congress passed the anti-union bill in November 2002, a White House official declared it to be a model for all federal employees.

The government shares these weapons with private employers, who are often better positioned to use and abuse them. Because they aren’t subject to the constraints of the First Amendment, they are generally free to use their powers of hiring and firing, promotion and demotion, to silence dissent. During the McCarthy years, for example, the government imprisoned fewer than two hundred men and women for political reasons. But anywhere between 20 and 40 per cent of the workforce was monitored for signs of ideological nonconformity, which included support for civil rights and labour unions.