Secrecy, Fear, and the National Security State: A Lecture on American Democracy

Fritz Schwarz delivered a lecture entitled "The National Security State and Other Dangers to Democracy" on November 11, 2010, at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at the Free University of Berlin.

"Crisis and its cousin fear always make it tempting to ignore the wise restraints that keep us free. That is not new. But America has been living in an atmosphere of crisis for an unusally long time."

November 22, 2010

     America is by far the longest-lasting democracy in history.  While there have been flaws, American democracy has shown the capacity to change, grow and improve.  Who in the eighteenth century could have possibly imagined that a black man could be elected as president, or that his fiercest competitor would be a woman?

     Nonetheless, today there are some new challenges to American democracy. 

     Crisis and its cousin fear always make it tempting to ignore the wise restraints that keep us free.  That is not new.  But America has been living in an atmosphere of crisis for an unusually long time.  The crisis atmosphere has lasted since World War II, broken only by the end of the Cold War, symbolized by the fall of the wall that divided this city.  But then the 9/11 terror attacks brought back crisis and fear. 

     With crisis and fear, America has become a National Security State.  The National Security State brings with it many threats to democracy—including a secrecy culture.  Excessive secrecy saps democracy’s strength because it deprives citizens of the information needed to fulfill their role as “the primary control on the government.” 

     In addition, the yeast of democracy—how the voting process actually works—is increasingly being burdened by barriers to participation.

     Finally, the most basic test for democracy is whether becoming an unparalleled economic giant, with an enormous military and intelligence establishment eyeing security fears and obligations around the world, will drain democracy in America—just as those factors ruined Rome centuries ago.

For the full speech, please click here.