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If there’s one central lesson to take from 2020, it’s that the country with the most well-funded “security state” in the world is also one of the least secure places on Earth. Facing a deadly pandemic that ravaged the globe, the United States leads the world in overall deaths, and is fourth in deaths per 100,000 people. Our cutting-edge, top-of-the-line, trillion-dollar “national security” apparatus was not only helpless in the face of an actual danger, but repeatedly made that danger far worse by foreclosing on a more humane social response — and unleashing violence on the very people hardest hit.
This horrific fact should be a wake up call that challenges the very premises of how we perceive “threats” and danger as we enter the 2020s.
The concept of “security” is an organizing principle behind how the U.S. government allocates public resources. The U.S. military budget is, by far, the most heavily funded in the world — larger than the military budgets of the next 10 countries combined. According to the National Priorities Project, in 2019, the military budget accounted for 53% of the entire federal discretionary budget, which Congress determines through the appropriations process every year. This percentage jumps considerably when you consider the “militarized” budget that encompasses spending on U.S. wars, imprisonment, the war on drugs and immigration crackdown (the National Priorities Project put the “militarized budget” at 64.5% of discretionary federal spending in 2019). Earlier this month, as unemployment soared and Americans waited in miles-long breadlines for food, Congress overwhelmingly passed a $740 billion National Defense Authorization Act for 2021. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) praised the military budget from the House floor, saying it “strengthens our security.” (President Trump has threatened to veto the NDAA over key grievances, including his insistence on the inclusion of a provision prohibiting the renaming of military bases that give tribute to Confederate figures.)
Militarization trickles to the state and local levels, and is used to fund massive prison and law enforcement infrastructure. Roughly 0.7% of people in the United States are in local jail, or federal or state prison. As the Prison Policy Initiative notes, “If this number seems unworthy of the term ‘mass incarceration,’ consider that 0.7% is just shy of 1%, or one out of a hundred.” Like the U.S. military budget, this imprisonment apparatus is unrivaled globally: The United States accounts for less than 5% of the world’s population, but 20% of the world’s incarcerated population. Meanwhile, policing continues to account for a massive chunk of municipal budgets. According to Sludge’s June 2020 analysis of 473 U.S. cities, “spending on police takes up almost one-third of municipal budgets,” a number that climbs even higher in poor cities.
This spending, we are told over and over again, is necessary to protect Americans from danger. The primary role of the state, according to this framework, is to provide “security” — from a “foreign enemy,” “criminals,” or some “other” who allegedly poses an existential threat to the safety and wellbeing of Americans. Each of these institutions — prison systems, police departments, the U.S. military, the Department of Homeland Security — comes with its own well-funded press department that tells the public the danger is great, and their services are needed now more than ever. This message echoes from the highest echelons of U.S. political power, as demonstrated when Trump declared in March that Covid-19 is “our big war. It’s a medical war. We have to win this war. It’s very important.”
It’s important to make clear that the coronavirus pandemic wasn’t a “black swan” event — some act of god out of the blue that we couldn’t have possibly prepared for. Rather, it was predicted by health officials and scientists for years. Bill Gates even made a video about U.S. vulnerability to the pandemic for Vox in 2015. This wasn’t a random event, it was both predictable and banal in its inevitably. But there’s not a lot of money to be made by weapons contractors in boring pandemic preparations, nor is there a lot of new surveillance powers to be seized, so little funding went into pandemic prevention. Instead, emotionally charged fear mongering that fuels U.S. expansion and power — over the threat of “terrorism,” or the specter of Russian or Chinese global dominance — won the day and monopolized our “security” priorities. This is despite the fact that “terrorists” kill fewer people in the U.S. per year than furniture, and the military budgets of Russia and China are significantly smaller than that of the United States.
When it became clear the Covid-19 pandemic posed an existential threat to actual human beings, not only was this bloated security apparatus useless in protecting people, it became a vector of harm, measurably worsening the pandemic. The U.S.-Saudi military coalition continued bombing Yemen even as the outbreak raged, with Yemen’s medical system already devastated by more than five years of relentless war. According to the groups Physicians for Human Rights and Mwatana for Human Rights, there have been at least 120 attacks on medical facilities between March 2015 and the end of 2018, leaving the country especially ill-prepared to deal with the pandemic. The imperial U.S. apparatus, strengthened by its bloated military, imposed devastating sanctions in the midst of a pandemic, ratcheting them up in Iran as doctors begged for relief, because they were unable to get basic medical supplies to treat an exploding outbreak in the country. Now that there’s a Covid-19 vaccine, Iranian officials say maximum pressure sanctions are preventing them from purchasing the Covid-19 vaccine. The usual violence of U.S. militarism is now being unleashed on a world that is going through a devastating and globally interconnected crisis, where an outbreak anywhere affects people everywhere. The concept of “national security” begins to break down in the face of a crisis that’s fundamentally international.
Within the United States, the carceral system has proven to be one of the most harmful vectors of Covid-19 transmission. The Marshall Project and Associated Press jointly reported on December 18 that one in five people incarcerated in federal prisons has tested positive for Covid-19 — a rate four times greater than the general population. “In some states, more than half of prisoners have been infected,” the report notes, adding, “Nearly every prison system in the country has seen infection rates significantly higher than the communities around them.” People imprisoned in Kansas and Arkansas, for example, are eight times as likely to contract Covid-19 than their surrounding communities. The same holds true for people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE): A study published in JAMA found that, from April to August 2020, the Covid-19 rate among people detained by ICE was 13 times greater than the general population. These outbreaks are not only dangerous and deadly for people who are locked up, but they spread the virus through broader society. In just one example, University of Chicago researchers found in June that Cook County Jail in Chicago is responsible for 15.7% of all documented Covid-19 cases in Illinois. Despite the measurable infections and deaths that spread through the U.S. incarceration system, local, state and federal officials have overwhelmingly resisted calls to free people from prison.
And then, of course, there are the police beatings and killings that have continued throughout the pandemic, disproportionately targeting Black people — the very population hit disproportionately hardest by Covid-19 deaths and economic devastation. People who took to the streets over the summer crying out for dignity, racial justice and the right to live were ruthlessly beaten by the same police departments equipped with our military’s “surplus” supplies, then thrown in Covid-19 infested jails. Yet Black Lives Matter protesters turned out again and again, forced to endanger their own safety in the middle of a pandemic to address the scourge of police violence.
The very institutions that we are told exist to keep Americans “safe” have, in fact, worsened the most dangerous and frightening pandemic of our lifetimes. And a government that prioritizes allocating funds to this “security” state has strangled the actual social programs that would have allowed us to mitigate and contain the harms of this crisis much more effectively. The best way to get the crisis under control would be to simply pay people to stay home — i.e. give them a way to pay rent, eat and avoid economic destitution while surviving the pandemic. But, from the beginning, the idea of robust monthly payments was ruled out by both Democratic and Republican leaders alike. Meanwhile, Medicare for All — a universal, single-payer healthcare system — has been declared out of bounds by an incoming Biden administration over “deficit” concerns, even as tens of millions of Americans are forced to go through the pandemic with no health insurance. Stimulus spending has brought some relief, including expanded unemployment insurance and one-off checks. But this relief spending has been a small pittance compared to what’s needed. A federal government that has no problem churning out massive military budgets year after year has not been able to come together to fund a genuine humanitarian response to the Covid-19 crisis that has left more than 300,000 people in the United States dead.
The same holds true for local governments that are hell-bent on keeping police budgets high, even during the pandemic. As Indigo Olivier reported for In These Times in July, “Faced with mass teacher layoffs, deep cuts to education and social services, and a looming eviction crisis, police budgets across the nation remain absurdly high and have been largely insulated from Covid-induced belt-tightening.” From Phoenix to San Diego to Louisville, Ky., numerous municipalities have even increased their annual police budgets in the middle of the pandemic, defying protesters’ demands to defund the police.
We are told repeatedly that the U.S. security state is the best institution for responding to social crises, whether it’s the pandemic, natural disasters, the social turmoil of poverty or the coming climate catastrophe. And with each new crisis, the security state is further fortified and bolstered, no matter how great its failures. This devastating year demands that we stop for a moment and ask why the preeminent security state in the world failed to protect its people from a great and pressing danger. And the only answer is that true “security” cannot be found in aerial bombardments or prison cells or police deployments: It must emanate from the exact opposite — a civilian, solidaristic response to social crises, premised on the principle that all our fates are bound together, and no one is dispensable.
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Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times. She tweets at @sarahlazare.