Resisting the Security State

by Thomas R Wells

Beretta_px4_tkLiberalism is a centuries old political project of taming the power of the state so that it works for the ruled not the rulers. Can it survive the security state midwifed by global terrorism? Only if we take back responsibility for managing the dark political emotions of fear and anger that terrorists seek to conjure.

How do we resist the security state?

First, by challenging its effectiveness. PRISM and the other opaquely named universal surveillance programmes seem to have been approximately zero use in predicting terrorist attacks before they happen; last year the TSA failed to detect 67 out of 70 weapons and explosives carried by mystery shoppers. Security expert Bruce Schneier characterises the counter-terrorism security measures that increasingly dominate our experience of public spaces as mostly theatrical, designed to “make people feel more secure without doing anything to actually improve their security”. (And actually they can't even manage that.)

Second, by challenging the cost-effectiveness of the security state even if it worked as it is supposed to. The loss of our privacy is not a small price to pay for preventing terrorism and saving lives. Firstly because we should be consistent. If we wouldn't give up privacy rights to reduce minor risks of death in other contexts (like installing government cameras in every bathroom to save people from bathtub slips), what rational reason do we have for giving up all our privacy to the government to reduce the risk of terrorism from almost nothing to possibly slightly less? Secondly because privacy is not an ornament but the heart of liberalism. In a liberal society the people should be mysterious and the government should be transparent; the more these are reversed the further we go towards despotism.

But there is a further problem with the security state besides its ineffectiveness and inefficiency: It is a fundamentally incoherent project. Its justification is to provide citizens with freedom from fear, yet in order for the security state to gain the powers and money to do this it must relentlessly terrify the public with claims about how real and significant the terrorist threat is! Thus, the security state is constitutively unable to achieve what it is supposed to do, and itself becomes a greater source of public fear about terrorism than terrorists themselves could hope to be.

Liberal critique of the security state tends to focus on the character of the trade-off between security and liberty. It is acknowledged that security is a universal need of citizens and a foundational duty of the state, and that it can trump other civil rights and government duties (on which see Corey Robin's excellent essay). The focus is on the means proposed, which should be precise; effective; limited to what is justified by necessity; accountable; structured in such a way as to cause the least possible infringement of other rights; subject to ongoing review (so that states of emergency can't become permanent); and so on.

The trouble is that even with such improvements the security state can never do the job it is supposed to do.

Terrorism is different from ordinary security threats, such as criminals or hostile states, because the point of terrorism is not the direct pursuit of material or geo-political interests, but the spread of the dark political emotions of fear and anger among civilians. The strategic aim of terrorism is to undermine the faith that ordinary people have in the ability of their governments to protect them, thus undermining the legitimacy of those governments and converting a tiny radical movement into a central political issue.

Because terrorism is about generating fear, rather than trying to achieve military objectives, it is a form of warfare that is more virtual than real (as I have discussed elsewhere). It takes place largely in the imagination of a citizenry rather than its neighbourhoods. Terrorism is thus both much cheaper for small groups to engage in and also much less of a real danger than to the state than more conventional military opponents. (Pakistan is correct to see India as a more existential threat than the terrorist groups that set off hundreds of bombs a year.) Nevertheless, the theatrical outrages perpetrated by terrorists, publicised so extensively and eagerly by our mass and social media, do lead citizens to demand government action to manage their own febrile emotional state. They demand not to feel afraid in their own homes. They demand vengeance against those who made them feel afraid.

But although governments can do much about risk – for example by regulating the safety of our food, medicines, airplanes – they cannot provide freedom from our own emotional incontinence, from our irrational fear. The lavishly funded civil rights trampling counter-terrorism programmes that have flourished in America and the UK (and now France) are therefore mainly exercises in theatre, just like the terrorism they purport to combat. They are there to show that the state is doing something – as citizens demand – no matter how pointless.

However this is obviously self-defeating. The sight of tanks outside airports and shoe-bomb detectors inside does not reassure us that we are safe. Rather, the more a state emphasises the need for security against the terrorist threat (tanks at airports; soldiers with machine-guns at government buildings), the more it emphasises the significance of that threat, and thus the more credibility it gives to our irrational fear. The security state thus succeeds only in using the enormous resources of the state to further the terrorists' project of frightening us out of our skin.

What makes the security state so dangerous is the positive feedback loop at its heart. The more resources it directs towards detecting and fighting terrorism and the more civil rights are suspended, the more it must play up the threat to the nation and our way of life to justify it all. Which makes it even more important that the security state be seen to be active. Which amplifies the original problem of terrorism yet again, fraying our trust in our fellow citizens and political institutions alike. This will go on until it can't go on anymore. Until it spirals into despotism or until we bring the system back to its senses. The longer we wait the more harm will be done, as we know from that other out of control security state born from our irrational fear of drugs.


The security excuse for illiberalism is baked into the liberal project from the beginning: As all the famous political philosophers acknowledge, security is the necessary foundation on which liberal projects like justice and dignity and markets build. Yet it is not the priority of security as a principle that is the problem but its overuse as an excuse. We have come to rely on the state as a security blanket to cling to whenever our feelings become uncomfortable. We have abdicated our responsibility as citizens to manage those emotions ourselves, together, and to make a reasoned judgement of when our collective security is really at stake. No wonder then that the security state that responds to our cries is incapable of protecting our free society and sees the rights of citizens as obstacles to be overcome.