What's a threat and what's threatening to political authorities and citizens? My 1995 piece on the topic entitled "Multidimensional Threat Perception and State Repression", which has informed much of my thinking on the topic, argued that authorities are threatened by specific behavioral manifestations of collective action: e.g., the degree of violence involved, the variety of different tactics being employed by challengers and the deviation of existing behavior from cultural norms/expectations (largely determined by prior experienced).
While presenting a useful way to think about how governments conceive of threats as they think about using repressive action, however, this work treated threats as though they were publicly understood. This was reasonable given the use of media generated data (i.e., the World Handbook of Political and Social Indicators): government responded to what was publicly known. But, what about those threats are not publicly known?
President Trump says he has information that we are threatened. To quote him directly: "While I’ve been president, which is just for a very short period of time, I’ve learned tremendous things that you could only learn, frankly, if you were in a certain position, namely president,” he said. “And there are tremendous threats to our country." This raises some interesting questions though. What "things" is he talking about? What evidence backs these things? And what is new? Did Former President Obama see this evidence but did not act, leaving us at risk? Can Obama tell us his opinion about these "tremendous things" to get some corroboration or did he sign some agreement that he would not?
This leads to still other questions: Why should we believe the current president or any president for that matter? We have been misled before. Remember discussions regarding weapons of mass destruction from former President Bush, Soviet superiority in nuclear weapons across numerous US administrations or that there were Communists under every rock? These were all falsehoods that cost American lives and money.
Why are we back here again and what does it mean for those of us interested in state repression and human rights?Well, fear is big business and it is one that is immensely important for political authorities. But herein lies the biggest weakness in a democratic form of government: the people with the information about what threatens the citizenry and polity are the same people who have a vested interest in providing protection from said threats. This is the essence of the "protection racket" discussed by Charles Tilly and William Stanley. Societies cannot rely upon the agency that has a vested interest with providing protection to generate information on the very threats that prompt/legitimize threat protection.
In a sense, we should "publicize" not privatize threat assessment (in diverse senses of the word). Transparency, reliability and validity require it. Why not have some panel of relevant scholars provide assessments and let these be publicly vetted for reasonableness from another set of scholars? At this point, I am not even suggesting having all this information be released to public. Folks could sign away rights to talk about what they see for a few years but they would provide some check. After 10 years this info is released to the public.
Threat assessment is too important for political democracy for its evaluation and process to be hidden from public view. What criteria are used for good information? How many sources were used? How credible are the witnesses? Are there witnesses? How much error is included within the threat assessment (there is always error)? How "tremendous" is tremendous? - I need some kind of baseline. Is it Grand Canyon tremendous or is it strawberry milkshake after a few years kind of tremendous?
I say this in part because the part about crime and people being threatened by it is just kind of wrong.
If people are not actually being threatened by crime, however, then it might be possible that we are not really threatened by terrorism/terrorists either. In that context, President Trump is playing to an old dynamic within American politics: the politics of fear/fearing up. The minute this is done however, the peace and lowered repression that is normally associated with democracy, is undermined as discussed in my Domestic Democratic Peace book. In this context, where it is believed that some threat is apparent, then the path to repression is facilitated.