Satire vs. scandal

The Customs Service chases imported counterfeit Rolexes and pirated movies. The Customs Service is now part of the Department of Homeland Security. Counterfeit Rolexes aren’t a terrorist threat, so it seems silly to have the Department of Homeland Security chasing fake-Rolex smugglers. But the silliness is in the name, not the activity. The routine work still has to get done.

Bloggers left and right have been having a good time recently showing up some of the silly activities that are occupying the Department of Homeland Security while the incoming cargo containers still mostly aren’t getting checked for dirty bombs. (I’ve engaged in this sport myself at least once.)

But a little bit of reflection suggests that there’s less scandal here than meets the eye.

When DHS was created, it absorbed what used to be the U.S. Customs Service and the enforcement most of what used to be the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Together, those two units are now U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

In addition to fighting terrorism, ICE has a huge portfolio of routine inspections activities to manage. We don’t want those activities to stop. But, since the Customs and Border Patrol folks who work for ICE are “officials of the Department of Homeland Security,” the opportunities for satire are unlimited.

Right this second, “officials of the Department of Homeland Security” are calculating duties on imported rutabagas, without any suggestion that the rutabagas in question belong to Osama bin Laden. Other “officials of the Department of Homeland Security” are stamping the passports of equally innocent Australian tourists landing at LAX.

The “Homeland Security” label may be a foolish one to apply to such routine operations, but that doesn’t make it a scandal that DHS is doing its ordinary jobs along with (we hope) its more sensitive job.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: