Friday, September 30, 2016

Institutionalized Paranoia

I read Michael Barkun's A Culture of Conspiracy earlier this year and enjoyed the academic look into the world of conspiracists; because I enjoyed that book (and because I am fascinated by the conspiracist mindset) I purchased Chasing Phantoms, which I believed was a book about the growth of a new conspiracist movement since September 11th 2001 - that is not at all what the book was about but just because I bought the wrong book doesn't mean that it wasn't provocative and compelling.

Chasing Phantoms: Reality, Imagination, and Homeland Security Since 9/11 explores the other side of the coin that Barkun presented in A Culture of Conspiracy. One book takes a look into a paranoid citizenry who sees shadows in their governments, the other examines a paranoid government that considers its citizens as threats. Chasing Phantoms is, at this point, a bit outdated. Several times throughout the book Barkun points out that there haven't been any major terrorist attacks in the US but it was written before the Boston Marathon Bombing, the Charlotte Church shooting, the San Bernadino shooting, and the attack at Pulse Nightclub. But one of the points that Barkun repeatedly makes is that since 9/11 the US government's anti-terrorist forces have placed a large emphasis on WMDs (with special attention paid to biological and radioactive agents) while the vast majority of terrorist attacks in the US before, since, and including 9/11 have been conventional attacks with homebrewed bombs or guns (the one major exception being the anthrax attacks shortly after 9/11, which were determined to be the work of one man who helped run one of the few anthrax research labs in the US and who appears to have mailed anthrax-laced letters to ensure his lab would remain vital in a nation fearful of terrorists). So even though some of Barkun's information has fallen victim to the passage of time his central thesis remains true: current homeland security practice is more focused on difficult-to-detect, hard to manufacture threats from an invisible population of potentially radicalized immigrants than it is on preventing conventional terrorist attacks from known quantities (for instance Dylan Roof had clear white supremacist imagery and attacked a back church with a handgun he legally obtained after a three-day waiting period, but we're all handing over water bottles in the airport because of one failed bombing).

Barkun also dedicates a significant amount of ink to discussing the reasons behind the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and its early missteps in maintaining security - especially the spectacular departmental fumble that was evaluating and evacuating New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Interdepartmental miscommunications, no true chain of command, and jealousy over credit led to an enormous human cost. Changes have been made to that system since the failures during Katrina, but that the unpreparedness for Katrina was allowed to happen at all is sobering when considered against the backdrop of secret-hoarding and lack of communication that kept various agencies from coordinating to potentially prevent the country's largest terrorist event. 9/11 might not have happened if some agency had existed that fostered a culture of sharing information about threats; once such an agency was created the first threat if faced was natural, not human, and the department didn't respond appropriately. The organization has changed since both 9/11 and Katrina but serious questions have been raised about the bureaucracies meant to protect and what their motives are.

Chasing Phantoms is an incredibly dry book, and overall it is probably not the sort of thing that many people will find useful reading. People who care deeply about or who are involved with policy concerning threat prevention should probably all read it, but it's not written for an audience that isn't already familiar with academic discussions of defense policy and security theater. The one exception is the discussion of invisible versus visible threats and folk devils - Barkun does a brilliant job of laying out why the "secretly radicalized terrorist next door" trope is such an effective way of scaring a population and he makes excellent work of explaining why groups on the fringes of society make such excellent targets for and hatred from the local majority (which also just creates a self-perpetuating cycle: the majority fears the radicalization from a minority group and so isolates the minority, who become radicalized because of poor treatment and threats from the majority, on and on, ad infinitum.)

It's not likely that I'll read the book completely through again, but it's nice to have it as part of my reference collection. I do know people in computer security communities I would recommend it to. But it's really, painfully boring at times. I suppose that's the nature of the beast with an academic political science study talking about policy failures.


Barkun, Michael. Chasing Phantoms. University of North Carolina Press. Chapel Hill:
     North Carolina. 2011.

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