Sunday, November 20, 2005

Homeland Security: Rising Cost of Rhetoric

The federal government, under the auspices of the Federal Communications Commission, is reaching back 11 years to the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act of 1994 to justify legislation for new surveillance access to information digitally exchanged in the public forum.

The 1994 wiretapping law required telephone carriers to re-engineer their switching systems in such a way as to facilitate easy access by federal agents enacting surveillance and to do so at their own expense. That law is now being extended to include current internet-based technologies. In a mandate recently issued by the U.S. Justice Department, every college campus in the country as well as any library, airport, commercial internet provider, or municipality that provides internet access to their residents/constituents will be required to complete necessary system upgrades to accomplish compliance with the new law by spring 2007 and to do so at their own expense.

Estimated costs to the nation’s universities alone are currently expected to reach as high as $7 billion, a cost translating to an annual tuition hike of approximately $450 per student. Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education said of the recent action, “This is the mother of all unfounded mandates.”

Some federal officials responded skeptically, minimizing the notion of a burdensome economic impact with reminders that “schools would be required to make their networks accessible to law enforcement only at the point where those networks connect to the outside world.”

Here is yet one more opportunity to realize the “slide” of words and the difficulty of securing “common understanding” within the crosscurrents of competing interests and compelling rhetorical compositions addressing “homeland security” and national interest. Exactly where does "the outside world" begin and end? What is "outside" in today's global community? Who are the "insiders"? And what kinds of tensions must be navigated when language so loaded with predisposition insists on being suckled on federal budgets? The costs for constructing a culture of fear and its consequent justifications in "deep concern" reach well beyond the boundaries of the $4.7 billion dollars a day funding the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When the Justice Department issued its request last year for the extension of the 1994 law, the rationale turned on the need to insure law enforcement’s ease in collecting information to “accomplish its mission in the face of rapidly advancing technology,” to aid “in their fight against criminals, terrorists and spies.”

Do I recognize the need for an eye toward security? Yes. I agree with Thomas Friedman on this point in recognizing a need for a federally funded agency that holds as its sole purpose the cankerous responsibility for living in suspicion, expecting trouble, endlessly waiting for attack, and I wholeheartedly believe that those accepting some part of such a difficult task on behalf of their grateful nation should be protected and regarded among the nation's heroes, but this is not the way for a whole nation to live – especially not a nation so profoundly great and globally influential as the United States.

What would $7 billion buy if turned toward research and development, if anchored in projects composed with the rhetoric of innovation, collaboration, inclusion … peace? Though I have my own political and often impassioned point of view about our current military involvement overseas, as I write this post, it is not the war overseas about which I am most concerned; it is the war of words taking place here at home that most wants our attention. There is no doubt an “iceberg” lies dead ahead in the water - the certain need to redirect our rhetoric into currents of productivity able to inspire confidence and emergent technologies. It takes time to turn the Titanic around, especially where passions have enflamed investment in identification with privilege.

When it comes to the words we are choosing to use in the United States today (and the money that follows those words), it is perhaps time we begin the serious work of promoting new vocabularies. Be sure that we won’t build a secure future until until we do.

This posts responds to information from “Colleges Protest Call to Upgrade Online Systems,” reported October 23, 2005 by Sam Dillion and Stephen Labaton.

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