Security: Never safer, or close to the civil liberties abyss?
As an air crash survivor I know how long jitters about safety can last. Eighteen years ago I crashed in an old Dakota in a remote corner of Africa, where such tragedies are sadly still not that rare.
The worst moment was when I was trapped for 20 seconds in the burning fuselage before being rescued by a fellow journalist. My physical injuries cleared up within months and I resumed flying, but mentally it was difficult. It took me about four years to recover my composure on planes.
The point about this story is that there was a good reason for my nervousness – even back then, we knew about post-traumatic stress. But these past few years, anxiety has come back into my travelling life. And while there is certainly a reason for this, I’m not sure it’s a good one.
This time the stress is far less intense and less personal but a lot more insidious. And it’s not just related to travel. You could call it security anxiety, a subliminal uneasiness aroused by the messages I am bombarded with day in day out about an array of alleged security risks. My job is reporting on security and counter-terrorism so my inbox is awash with this material.
But it’s not just me. In many countries, anyone with access to a PDA, TV, radio or laptop receives a daily array of stories, Tweets and emails and broadcasts not just about al Qaeda, but also about problems of a bewildering variety — climate change, pandemics, youth delinquency, food shortages, Internet fraud, organised crime, stray nuclear weapons, migration and water crises.
What’s going on? Well, it’s a commonplace that we live in a jittery, tremulous age of rapid social and technological change. More media, greater awareness and the tidal wave of globalisation is driving this hyper-awareness.
But are we over-reacting? What’s not so widely noted is the willingness of some governments to lump a range of hazards together as security risks, to be measured and mitigated by tougher laws or more electronic surveillance. Not surprisingly, civil liberties groups have been pressing the alarm bell.
David Omand, the British government’s Security and Intelligence Coordinator from 2002-05, says security is a much broader concept that before, because the interconnectedness of our world means governments must now ensure that daily life can continue with minimum disruption.
Once, he says, national security was “about the protection of the state and its vital interests from attack by other states. Now the concept has broadened to cover the responsibility of government to tackle a range of threats to individual citizens families and businesses.”
Right-wingers argue the danger of this approach is that if it’s mishandled, the state becomes a Big Brother that undermines personal responsibility. Civil libertarians say the policy sets itself up for failure by implying that the state can control everything. A case in point is the controversy that followed the Dec 25 attempt to blow up an airliner over Detroit.
David Brooks in the New York Times pins some of the blame on a misplaced faith in technology, post 9/11.
“We seem to be in the position of young adolescents — who believe mommy and daddy can take care of everything, and then grow angry and cynical when it becomes clear they can’t,” he writes about counter-terrorism.
There is no doubt that al Qaeda and the attacks of Sept 11, 2001 brought a dramatic change in the public mood. There was a fresh surge of security jitters after the Dec. 25 incident was claimed by al Qaeda.
There is no doubt that al Qaeda continues to pose a real, if diminished, threat and thereby continues to shape not only the international security landscape but the security atmosphere as well.
Pilot Patrick Smith, who is the air travel columnist for salon.com, describes the brittleness of the contemporary mood, contrasting the current over-reaction in the air to the far deadlier aviation piracy and sabotage of the 1980s.
When it comes to pinpointing responsibility for the culture of overreaction that engenders what Smith calls “needless security woes”, there’s plenty of blame to go around.
Critics of Western governments point the finger at the West’s health and safety culture, caricatured in Britain by the phrase the Nanny State.
They argue this po-faced approach has been taken to absurd lengths: Passengers on some British train station platforms are solemnly warned by loudspeakers to beware of standing on slippery surfaces.
Others blame the global 24/7 media, with its appetite for sensationalism and novelty.
A better explanation is that the very sophistication of modern life, which we rely on for comfort, convenience and protection, also renders much of our existence highly vulnerable.
Travel, cyberspace, banking, energy and defence rely on a wired world: These connections — international and interdependent – may be exposed to people with malign intent as well as to natural disasters.
The networked world created in the 1990s pre-dated 9/11, but the attacks in the United States did much to illustrate its vulnerability in the starkest of terms.
Did the West over-react? It is fair to ask whether the attack created an atmosphere in which governments felt it perfectly normal to label as security risks phenomena that they would have earlier described as simply natural hazards.
In a London lecture last year, the former head of the British Secret Intelligence Service Richard Dearlove said governments ought to be more discriminating in their analysis of threat. He suggested a sense of proportion had been lost.
“I think, since 9/11, we have had a number of graphic reminders that we live constantly close to the edge, and I think our awareness of that edge is becoming more acute,” said Dearlove. “I would characterise our age, in some respects, as one of significant public anxiety about this. ”
Dearlove says climate change and swine flu are prime examples of non-traditional risks that that have been bundled into the national security discourse at a time of public anxiety about security.
“Our national security policy, as we step into a fragile 21st Century, faces a rather fundamental paradox: our citizens are assailed by increased fears for their own safety, stoked by a 24-hour media, at the very moment when nation states apparently have a reduced ability to keep control of their own security.”
“Judged in an absolute sense, we have probably never been safer, but this sense of anxiety in the face of a multiplicity of threats, man-made and natural, is a remarkably striking characteristic of our times, and of course perhaps the most socially pervasive example of this is climate change.
“I think we are in danger of using the term to sweep up almost every issue that might worry or threaten the citizen, and perhaps we do need to be more discriminating.
He suggested governments need to distinguish between the threats to the viability of the state and the threats to the quality and safety of life of individual citizens.
Will this practice of bundling together traditional and non-traditional threats continue? If so, this may make it easier for governments to argue for continued high spending on security technologies and for expanded surveillance rights.
Equally, the budget crunch facing the West may force officials to return to a more traditional distinction, between classic security risks such as terrorism and what are natural hazards, and to identify what different instruments are needed to address them.