When Does a Threat to the Homeland Become “Existential”?

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This article was last updated on April 16, 2022

National Security Advisor Susan Rice gave a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington last week that was depicted as an unveiling of the federal government's 2015 national security strategy.

Many had been looking to the event to see what the White House policy responses would be to various crises and flashpoints around the globe, including the threat that the Islamic State, Al Qaeda in Yemen, and other radical fundamentalist Muslim terror groups pose to the West generally, and the United States more specifically. Rice had this to say:

But, too often, what's missing here in Washington is a sense of perspective. Yes, there's a lot going on. Still, while the dangers we face may be more numerous and varied, they are not of the existential nature we confronted during World War II or the Cold War. We can't afford to be buffeted by alarmism and an instantaneous news cycle.

I've been pondering those words in the days since she uttered them. What, or how big, must a threat be to be "existential"?

Nineteen fanatic young Arabic men took to American skies on September 11, 2001, and within hours national chaos ensued. Thousands lost their lives, billions of dollars in property was destroyed, the airways were shut down, financial markets were jolted, and within weeks we were put on a wartime footing from which we have never recovered, with thousands more lives of our military and their families affected by death, wounds, and disfigurement. Since then, the government has been fundamentally restructured, trillions have been spent on a massive homeland security apparatus, and our understanding of the right to privacy vs. national security and public safety has been forever altered. Was that existential?

I'm no great student of history, but didn't the Nazi party begin as a ragtag movement involving brown-shirted thugs engaging in street scuffles in German cities in the 1920s? Could anyone then have seen the "existential" threat that they would become in a few years; a threat that would engulf the world in a war so all-consuming that it would make its predecessor, World War I (the "War to End All Wars"), seem anachronistic less than three decades after its occurrence?

Likewise the Cold War: At the beginning of the twentieth century, who might have imagined that the revolutionaries opposed to Czarist Russia would ever amount to much, given their propensity to internal squabbling so intense among factions that they spent as much time fighting each other over obscure points of Marxist philosophy as they did opposing the imperial government?

So when Rice speaks about the existential nature of World War II and the Cold War, she speaks with the perfect clarity of hindsight. But history is no respecter of pundits or politicians. The course of human events can change as slowly as the erosion of rock under river waters — or in the cold blink of fate's jaundiced eye.

What has this to do with American immigration policy? Pretty much everything. A government incapable of recognizing existential threats abroad is ill-prepared to keep us safe at home.

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