Mechanisms of Power in the Age of Terrorism

by Carl E. Kandutsch

Do You Feel Safe?
Although American and European politicians still like to talk about “winning” the War on Terror [4], they rarely speak of “peace,” which seems an increasingly anachronistic notion. Instead, the question addressed to the American public around election time is: “Do you feel safe?” The question to be decided in national elections is, “Would America be safer under the leadership of candidate A or candidate B?” The theme is security, not peace, or rather, “peace” has come to mean nothing more or less than a feeling of relative security — when commuting to work, boarding an airplane, taking an elevator in a tall building, attending a concert or sporting event, visiting the shopping mall, packing the kids off to daycare, etc. The existence of the Security State seems to imply that its citizens are destined to live in a more or less normalized state of enduring personal insecurity that waxes and wanes as the government’s daily “threat level” is coded between red (“severe”) and green (“low”), on a scale in which yellow appears at the mid-point, designating “elevated” as the average level of anxiety appropriate to ordinary people on an ordinary day.
The Security State’s characteristic response to seemingly irrationally-timed eruptions of insurgent violence is to launch limited military “operations”, “incursions”, “surges” and other “security measures” designed to put down the insurgencies and pacify local populations, if only temporarily. But these operations are calculated to effect permanent changes in the perception of space and of time. On the one hand, America’s simultaneous military operations on the War on Terror’s multiple “fronts” (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Palestine, etc.) seem calculated to render the notion of geographical borders forever irrelevant. On the other hand, these simultaneous and ongoing operations ensure that military conflict does not enter America’s collective life as a traumatic interruption from outside, disrupting the flow of time. Rather, low-level conflict persists in time as an unfolding series of threats, warnings, emergencies, alerts, and counter-insurgency operations, all relayed into American living rooms and projected onto millions of household video monitors (cable and satellite-networked television sets) as a seamless fabric of more or less manageable crises, punctuated by commercial seductions, expert analysis from a growing subculture of counter-terrorism professionals, and “reality”-based regularly scheduled programming.
Ordinary life in the Security State is conceived as a protracted exercise in threat-management, based on a kind of circular logic of insecurity: If the State exists for the primary purpose of providing security, the state of insecurity must be continually present in order to sustain the State, implying that the State’s security measures must never be wholly successful (whatever that might mean); hence, the never-ending need for additional security measures. This logic dictates that the projected threats to domestic security must constantly be hyped and inflated, in order to ward off the boredom and indifference associated with television re-runs, and the government’s response to those threats must be continually escalated.
For this reason, Americans must continually be reminded, lest they forget, that “we are at war”, although that fact does not imply that normalcy is significantly interrupted. [5] We are encouraged to march quietly along through the airport checkpoints as full-body cavity searches are silently executed, implying that acceptance of our fate as potential suspects in connection with crimes not yet committed is a small price to pay for the government’s provision of security from random attack. Meanwhile, government bureaucracy focused on security issues, along with various sectors of the global security industry, continues to absorb ever-growing portions of the public wealth, with no end in sight. In 2006, USA Today reported that governments and business spent about $59 billion on anti-terrorism measures during that year, and the cost is surely much greater today. [6]
Conflict, and the insecurity it brings, must be normalized, but never to such an extent that it can be safely ignored. As Madison Avenue advertising executives have known for years, the consuming public must be kept in a “buying mood.”


While Israel has used the occupied territories as a kind of Petri dish for experimenting with regimes of legalism, the Israeli model has been largely adopted by the United States since September 11, 2001. “The more often Western states apply principles that originated in Israel to their own non-traditional conflicts in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, then the greater the chance these principles have of becoming a valuable part of international law.” Regimes of legalism are characterized by the replacement or transformation of the “rule of law” into a regulatory scheme under which the law may be violated, suspended, deferred, excepted, evaded, annulled and otherwise manipulated on an arbitrary but absolute basis, all in the guise of legality and in the name of “security”, so as to fundamentally alter the relationship between the sovereign power and those subject to its rule. When the law is or may be suspended or annulled at any time, those subject to the law’s rule can have no fixed expectations regarding its enforcement either against them or on their behalf, and in this sense, aren’t so much citizens as subjects, ruled not by consent but by the ever present specter of force.


“The point is not that Terrorism is morally justified, but that, considered as a general matter from the Western perspective, Terrorism doesn’t seem especially objectionable either. Perhaps the real reason why Terrorism cannot be analyzed rationally is that an honest analysis would tell us more about ourselves than we wish to know.”

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