Homeland Security — What is Past is Prologue

Americans are generally critical of the today’s political landscape and current societal mores. We tend to look back in history with a sense of nostalgia without much thought of our rose-colored lenses. Each generation of Americans reflects upon the differences in our respective histories and the perceptions of our own “today” and hope that previous mistakes remain lessons learned instead of them being repeated. But, as Shakespeare’s The Tempest reminds us, “What is past is prologue.”

The Romans of classical antiquity, often revered for their art, culture, military achievements, and literature, are regarded by many as influencing modern Western society. Virgil’s heroic hexameter epic, the Aeneid — a cornerstone of undergraduate political science and classical studies courses — describes the prophetic founding of a great civilization born from war and despite all odds. Of course, Virgil’s masterpiece was written during what many scholars call the “Golden Age” of classical Rome. It was during this period and under the new emperor Augustus, that Virgil writes a divine and inspiring history of the Roman people, for the Roman people. Not unlike the Romans of Virgil’s myth, Americans may look upon our own comparatively short history with a certain fondness, while ignoring those struggles, upheaval, and controversies that our progress allows us the luxury of forgetting.

Today, Homeland Security professionals work within a society that, some argue, appears fractious and divested of a spirit of unity, not unlike the historically correct periods of upheaval confronting ancient Rome. As these professionals work to protect the Homeland, media reports of a political pendulum swing creating a chilling effect within the DHS community are emerging and fostering a new sense of uncertainty and controversy. This is not “new” however.

While we are bombarded with headlines about immigration, nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court, and social protests, it is important to understand that these are not foreign to the American experience and that we have always managed to overcome them.

The United States, founded as a nation of immigrants, has a storied history regarding immigration. The immigration surges in the mid-late 1800s, 1920s, and the 1980s inflamed political debate and created widespread social divisions. Let us not forget FDR’s Executive Order 9066 (1942) that authorized the internment of nearly 120,000 people of Japanese heritage, over 60 percent of whom were American citizens.

Politicization of the U.S. Supreme Court dates back to the earliest days of the Court. In 1803, Marbury v. Madison established “judicial review” that effectively limited the actions of Congress and reaffirmed the equality between the branches of government. The Court’s embarrassing decisions in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) stood for over 100 years before Brown v. Board of Education unanimously started to roll them back in 1954. Today, the American public nervously watches as the nomination process unfolds and discussions of overturning 1973’s landmark decision in Roe v. Wade and of the constitutionality of executive orders regarding immigration loom.

Americans, too, should remember the frequency of political and social protest in the United States. It was not long ago violence beset Los Angeles after the acquittal of officers involved in what became known as the “Rodney King Case.” The devastation of Hurricane Katrina spurred disturbances and violence in New Orleans for weeks following the storm in 2005. The shooting deaths of four students protesting at Kent State precipitated the mobilization of millions of students across the United States and arguably invigorated debate of the government’s mission in the war in Vietnam and on other issues of social significance.

These brief history lessons are not offered to paint our nation in an unflattering light. They are offered as a reminder that protest and controversy have always been alive and well within the United States. The problems Americans face today are variances of the same problems we have faced before. As generations of people mobilize and peacefully express themselves, they may very well influence political and legal outcomes. While it is important to respect the uncertainty and immediacy of today’s problems, we should appreciate the fact that we have been here before and have prevailed.