States have always thrived on the fear of the taxpayers, and states have always justified their existence in part on the idea that without the state, we'd all be overrun by barbarians, or murdered by our neighbors. Charles Tilly, a historian of the state, frequently noted that the modern state as we know it, was born out of war, and was created to wage war. War and the state are inseparable.
Moreover, support for the state is so central to maintaining continued funding and deference to the state's monopoly power, that Randolph Bourne famously went so far as to say that "war is the health of the state."
By extension, agents of the state — whether elected officials or bureaucrats — fancy themselves as guardians of prosperity and civilization. Without them, they apparently believe, life would be barely worth living.
Thus, one should hardly be surprised when government bureaucrats spread fear as a means of self-promotion.
Keeping this tradition alive is Department of Homeland Security John Kelly who recently claimed that people would "never leave the house" if they "knew what I know about terrorism."
This, incidentally, introduces a new variation on the time-worn they're-coming-to-get-us propaganda that the state has relied on for centuries. Nowadays, we're not even allowed to know what the threat is.
"It's a secret, so just trust us." is the refrain. "They're coming to kill us. We swear it's true."
Kelly then punctuated his comments with an advertisement for the federal government, concluding
The good news is, for us in America, we have amazing people protecting us every day, DHS, obviously, FBI, fighting the away game is DOD Department of Defense, CIA, NSA, working with these incredible allies we have in Europe and around the world.
What counts as "protecting us every day," is apparently a bit different for Kelly than for more astute observers.
James Bovard recently described how the FBI has been doing such a great job keeping us safe:
Before the 9/11 attacks, the FBI dismally failed to connect the dots on suspicious foreigners engaged in domestic aviation training. Though Congress had deluged the FBI with $1.7 billion to upgrade its computers, many FBI agents had old machines incapable of searching the Web or emailing photos. One FBI agent observed that the bureau ethos is that "real men don’t type. … The computer revolution just passed us by."
The FBI’s pre-9/11 blunders "contributed to the United States becoming, in effect, a sanctuary for radical terrorists," according to a 2002 congressional investigation. (The FBI also lost track of a key informant at the heart of the cabal that detonated a truck bomb beneath the World Trade Center in 1993.)
"Everyone makes mistakes!" Might be what the FBI's-backers claim. True enough. But few organizations get paid 8 billion dollars per year of the taxpayers' money to not stop terrorists.
So, it's unclear what Kelly is referring to in how we'd all be dead were it not for federal agents.
Perhaps he's referring to the CIA. The same CIA that planned the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, and then spent decades paying spies to report on how the Soviet economy was growing impressively, estimating the Soviet economy to be three times the size of what it actually was. The implication, of course, was that the USSR was a powerhouse that could defeat the US in an arms race.
One can guess what CIA agents were saying at the time: "If you knew what we know about the Soviet economy, you'd never leave the house!"
Kelly also refers to the NSA. This is the same NSA that allowed Edward Snowden to walk off with countless numbers of their own top-secret documents. And its lack of control over its own information enabled this month's malware attack that infected computers in 99 countries. The attack was not stopped by the NSA, of course.
These are those "amazing people" that keep us safe, according to Kelly.
And then there's the Department of Defense. The centerpiece of a military establishment that hasn't won a major conflict since 1945. The "victory" in Iraq in 1991 wasn't even complete enough to end the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq before the war started. Those sanctions persisted until 2003. 12 years after the first "victory" the US then attacked Iraq again, thus promoting the spread of Islamic extremism and causing a civil war that led to the near-destruction of Iraq's few remaining Christian communities.
"Before the United States invaded Iraq, Al Qa’ida was on the ropes…" the Brookings institution concluded in 2007. "The invasion of Iraq breathed new life into the organization."
Meanwhile, the Pentagon doesn't know what it did with six trillion dollars.
Fortunately for us, the US's most implacable enemy today is ISIS, which has no air force, no navy, and is composed largely of depressed outsiders whose deadliest weapons outside of Iraq and Syria are delivery trucks.
It doesn't take an army, or an FBI, or a CIA to stop crazies from driving trucks into crowds on Bastille day, as one did in 2016. It requires that police keep unauthorized trucks off pedestrian malls during festivals.
Nor are secret police required to keep people from carrying bombs into crowded theaters. Competent security guards can do the trick. The same might be said of maniacs carrying semi-automatic rifles into night clubs.
But of course Kelly would likely claim that the government is preventing far greater attacks than these. He just can't tell us what any of them might be, or give any details at all.
Nevermind that in situations like this, the burden of proof is always on the government agency that wants more tax dollars and more power to keep doing what they're doing. The claim of necessary secrecy offers a convenient excuse from having to provide an evidence at all.
But, there's always enough violence and mayhem in the world to try to convince people that the world is falling apart. Although the chances of being murdered in an American city are at a 50-year low (unless you're in certain neighborhoods of Chicago and Baltimore) many Americans believe crime is worse than ever. Pew has noted that at the homicide rate was cut in half over the past 20 years, Americans persist in the idea that crime is getting worse.
Moreover, under the Obama administration, the feds claimed that mass-shootings were sweeping the country. In fact, the odds of dying in a mass shooting are so low that they might as well be zero.
The hysteria over shootings, however, was a convenient justification for the federal government's ongoing attempts to regulate firearms.
"If you knew what I know about gun violence" Obama might have said. "you'd never leave the house!"
Creative arithmetic is also being used to justify public fear over terrorism. Kelly's comments invoked this week's massacre in Manchester where 22 people (not including the attacker) were murdered. But, if you're worrying about homicides in England, you'd might want to look to street crime instead. After all, in England and Wales, homicides increased by 121 (21 percent) from 2015 to 2016, largely fueled by stabbings and shootings of the traditional variety.
Unfortunately, many Americans have been trained to believe whatever they're told by higher authorities. The specifics vary according to one's politics. Leftists appear ready to believe whatever some federal bureaucrat says about global warming — provided it fits into the leftwing narrative.
Rightwingers are primed to believe whatever some government agents says that confirms their narrative about national security.
To illustrate the skepticism one should bring to comments such as those made by Kelly, let's use the same format, and apply it to claims that might be made from across the ideological spectrum:
"If you knew what I know about the state of our lakes and rivers, you'd never drink any water!" said the director of the EPA…
"If you knew what I know about our economy, you'd never trust private industry!" said Senator Elizabeth Warren…
"If you knew what I know about kidnappings, you'd never let your children out of your sight!" said FBI director…
"If you knew what I know about global warming, you'd never drive a car again!" said President…
And so on.
When confronted with a blanket claim that it's obvious to those "in the know" that hysterical fear is warranted, we might be inclined to demand more convincing evidence. But, if what is said just supports our existing biases, then no evidence is necessary. The self-serving opinion of a government bureaucrat is all that's required.