Redefining National Security in an Era of Mass Shootings

Article In The Thread
Jinitzail Hernandez /
May 31, 2022

What does “national security” mean in a country where people are killed in mass shootings that happen so regularly that they have become almost a normal way of life?

On May 14, 2022, a shooter walked into a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, N.Y., and shot and killed 10 people. The alleged shooter reportedly published a white supremacist manifesto detailing plans for a racially motivated attack. Not even two weeks later, another shooter murdered 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. And this past holiday weekend alone, there were a dozen mass shootings nationwide, killing at least 8 people and injuring over 55.

These devastating events suggest that it is time to rethink what we mean when we talk about “national security.” Traditionally, for Americans, national security has always been considered a foreign policy issue, encompassing faraway conflicts and crises that pose a distant threat but rarely have discernible effects on our everyday lives. But as the New Models of Policy Change Initiative’s work demonstrates, those traditional boundaries between the domestic and international policy spheres no longer meaningfully exist.

This becomes clear when we take a step back to think about what makes our communities secure. The safety of our communities relies on their access to basic needs — like affordable groceries and gas, safe and affordable housing, and quality healthcare. And safe spaces matter, too. Communities surely cannot be secure when Black families worry that they could be targeted during an afternoon grocery run, or when parents fear that their children could be murdered at school.

The ability of communities to access these necessities and to thrive is closely related to the state of our democratic institutions, which have been challenged in recent years by threats that originate abroad and close to home.

We know that the way that Americans think about security has evolved substantially over the past decade as well. Ten years ago, Americans tended to identify “traditional” security issues, like terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and energy security, as the most pressing threats that our country faced. Today, while many of these threats remain on the table, they are joined by a set of security threats that hit closer to home, ranging from the effects of climate change to racial and economic inequality in the United States. Cases of political violence in the United States are connected to a global surge in right-wing extremist violence. Disinformation is increasingly coming not just from foreign actors attempting to interfere in our elections, but from Americans themselves seeking to weaponize our divisions. Rising economic inequality has stifled the growth of the middle class and contributed to negative health, education, and social outcomes. Climate change is barreling forward, and the United Nations has warned that we’re running out of time to avert catastrophic warming. At the same time, the decline of our democratic institutions at home has effectively accelerated these challenges and obstructed our ability to do something about them.

These threats cross the traditional boundaries of foreign and domestic policy — and they require solutions that fall outside of our conventional national security silos. They must be addressed at the global and domestic level, and these complex challenges can only be solved through innovative forms of international cooperation that will require the coming together of a wide set of actors — from NGOs and private organizations to scientists and the United Nations.

Communities surely cannot be secure when Black families worry that they could be targeted during an afternoon grocery run, or when parents fear that their children could be murdered at school.

When we talk about security in America today, we must also talk about equity. How are we ensuring safety and security for all Americans, including the most vulnerable? What does it look like to safeguard communities of color facing higher risk of political violence? How are we defending the LGBTQIA+ community against anti-democratic laws that strip away their human rights? And, how do we address the continued threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, which disproportionately impacts Black, Latina/o, and Native American communities? All of these are forms of insecurity in America today. As Mari Faines of Global Zero wrote, “​​Antiracism as a security issue is about understanding what makes people feel secure. Most people are not made to feel more secure with a $700+ billion proposed military spending budget. Reallocating funds and committing to changing health policy and equity in their own communities does.”

Americans are therefore redefining national security in real time, to encompass the issues that touch their everyday lives, making their families and communities more (or less) secure. The problem is: The policy community needs to catch up. National security practitioners and researchers don’t have the innovative frameworks and policy responses needed to confront these challenges.

America is only as secure as its most vulnerable communities and their ability to build power in response to today’s most pressing issues, ranging from political violence against people of color to environmental degradation on Indigenous lands. In order to build the frameworks and policy responses that we will need to address these challenges — and to make our communities safer — we need to redefine and reimagine national security.

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