Of the many wrong turns this country has taken since the suicide attacks of 2001, the use of a single word may seem small change to quibble over. Yet a decade on, and deep into a Democratic administration that has continued a global "war on terror" and the erosion of civil liberties, one word still stings and sticks like a cracked fingernail.
The word is "homeland."
I've never thought of my native country as a homeland. We are far from the homogenous society such a word connotes; indeed, homogeneity is deeply anti-American because the United States has always been a destination. Diversity is the national currency, though many don't either realize it or admit it. At our best, we are mobile and lithe - open to ideas and culture and language and change. "Homeland security" is - to my ear - something of an explicit abandonment of the outward-facing view, of an open-sourced, open-handed America. In 20th century terms, it smacks of Lindbergh and Father Coughlin and darker European movements tied to land and blood. In 21st century terms, it reeks of fear, of a national nesting instinct that stands in opposition to confidence in our system of justice. Using "homeland" for a Federal security agency was the involuntary muscle spasm that signals a deeper sickness within.
For years, I hated the word on the lips of the Bush Administration officials who instituted its use. But it sounds just as strange from the mouths of Democrats; witness Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who was attacking radical libertarian Republican Rand Paul to holding up the vote extending the Patriot Act (via Glenn Greenwald):
"If the senator from Kentucky refuses to relent," Reid said earlier Wednesday, "that would increase the risk of a retaliatory terrorist strike against the homeland and hamper our ability to deal a truly fatal blow to al-Qaida."
As Greenwald has pointed out repeatedly, this was simple fear-mongering under Republicans, and it's fear-mongering under Democrats. And "homeland" is just the right word for jacking up security spending - it's le mot juste for the vast anti-terrorism system that has grown up in the last ten years.
Terrorism succeeds only by inducing an instinctive reflex of fear. "Homeland" falsely suggests that a brutal but relatively small band of Islamic desperadoes constitute an existential threat to the republic. It goes the bland but accurate "National" several editorializing steps further. And it supports more full body scans, more extraordinary rendition, more wiretaps, more extra-judicial anti-terrorism activities against American citizens.
As President Obama begins to campaign for the second term he clearly deserves, my hope is that he'll hew more to the themes and promises of his first campaign - and begin to move away from the fear-driven policy of the last decade. President of the Homeland is a title he (and we) should explicitly reject. As Kevin Gosztola argued back in 2009:
If Obama really thinks “we cannot keep the country safe unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values,” we the people will have to lead the way in enlisting these values.