Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly delivered a speech Tuesday that was stunning for its indifference to facts, accountability, and democratic oversight. Kelly is a tough, former four-star Marine general who thought maintaining the prison in Guantanamo was the right policy. But as the head of Southern Command, he was also renowned for his effective work south of the border, where he emphasized the need for human security and smart border policies. With his speech Tuesday, it’s beginning to appear that, in joining the Trump administration, he may be leaving behind his track record for excellence.
“We live in a dangerous world,” he said Tuesday at George Washington University. “Those dangers are increasing, and changing speed and direction every single day… We are a nation under attack.”
Well, sort of. The world as a whole is in the midst of the longest decrease in violence in history. Wars kill 90 percent fewer people today than anytime since World War II. Conflicts that kill over a thousand people are down by 70 percent since the end of the Cold War. Homicides have been falling globally for years. In the United States, homicides are at an all-time modern low of 4.4 per 100,000.
America hasn’t been this safe since the 1950s.
Of course, it’s always possible to improve. But Kelly’s admonitions – that elected officials either change the laws or “shut up and support the men and women on the front lines,” isn’t going to help.
Kelly is right to have singled out transnational criminal organizations as the greatest threat to the US and the globe. Mexico’s drug cartels killed the same number of people in 2015 as the violence in Iraq. Having a failed, narco-state to our South is surely among the more pressing – and least recognized – security problems the US faces.
But as we learned during Prohibition here in the US, fighting supply without cutting demand simply creates violent criminal markets. Kelly’s commitment to get tough on marijuana isn’t going to help. Meanwhile, Mexican cartels get their weaponry thanks to lax US gun laws. If Kelly actually wants to fight narco-traffickers in Mexico, US gun laws and the demand for drugs are the place to make a dent, which requires working with, rather than dismissing, Congress.
Instead, the Trump administration wants to beef up border guards and build walls. That does little good if the cartels can simply bribe their way past border personnel, and corrupting US border guards is already part of the cartels’ business model.
“There is a concerted effort on the part of transnational criminal organizations to infiltrate, through hiring initiatives, and to compromise our existing agents and officers,” James Tomsheck, head of internal affairs at Customs and Border Protection from 2006 to 2014, explained to the Senate Homeland Security subcommittee in 2010.
The Customs and Border workforce itself is plagued by complaints of drug smuggling, sexual abuse, buying guns for cartels, and, of course, bribery. As the Trump administration hires thousands of more guards as quickly as it can, these problems are bound to increase. Just as writing more code creates more places where bugs and cyber-hackers can enter, putting more lightly vetted people on the border ironically creates more potential points of failure and could increase insecurity. Giving these guards more license and less oversight, which seems to be where Kelly is headed, is likely to turn them into foxes in charge of the hen house.
Kelly is also tapping into a public paranoia that is dangerous, and is partially of the Trump administration’s own making. The more this administration heats up its rhetoric (building on President Donald Trump’s “American carnage” inaugural address), the more Americans feel under attack and embattled. That lets the Trump administration introduce more poorly thought through security policies, which lead to worse outcomes, further justifying the paranoia.
But the greatest threats we face are internal.
Kelly is right that the epidemic of drug-related deaths is horrific. These deaths are increasing particularly among middle-aged, working class whites. Along with suicide and alcohol abuse, they make up the trio of “deaths of despair,” which are contributing to rising death rates among a population whose life span is increasing in all other parts of the world. People hooked on opioids prescribed by doctors are 19 times more likely to turn to heroin than non-addicted peers. This means prescription painkillers, not marijuana, are the real gateway drugs. So far, public health advocates are unimpressed with Trump’s plans to tackle opioid addiction.
A paranoid, unaccountable DHS can do little about the real problems that plague our country, from drug use to porous borders, which are real, and a danger to the immigrants crossing them as well as the rest of us. But solving these problems requires an entirely different set of tactics, one that’s not dependent on the administration stoking fear through stories of crime and violence that serve to justify a protective and more authoritarian state. Based on Kelly’s speech, don’t expect anything to get better.