Feeding Fear: The New Security Culture

Disaster, apparently, is everywhere these days. The Bush administration recently urged schools to conduct safety assessments of their buildings and to rehearse emergency evacuation routines. Many schools are practicing lockdowns where students are kept in their classrooms, doors locked, blinds lowered, and police officers are posted at entrances. Drills prepare students for emergency evacuations, teaching them different escape routes and assembly points in case of a crisis.

The American Red Cross has even developed a curriculum, aptly named “Masters of Disaster,” to help teachers address emergency issues in the classroom. Tailored for elementary and middle school children, the curriculum includes a customized kit of lesson plans, a video, a large classroom poster, stickers, and customizable certificates. A recent addition called “Facing Fear” helps children and their teachers deal with “a new kind of disaster”—terrorism. Activities for students in sixth grade include “Finding your family,” where, as part of the learning experience, students fill in a mock “Family Message Card” – the postcards used by the International Committee of the Red Cross to let family members separated by war communicate with each other. Each lesson includes an activity for the children to do at home with their families. Discussions of security are now a necessary component of education, along with reading and writing, as well as part of the fabric of family life.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) web site does its part to prepare young people by offering them the opportunity to become “Disaster Action Kids”. Children are welcomed into the world of disaster preparedness by FEMA’s web site spokesmodel, Herman, a hermit crab. Herman tells a story of his search for a disaster-proof shell. On the site, children learn how, like Herman, to protect their homes from disaster, how to treat their pets in an emergency, and how to assemble disaster supply kits that include toys, books, crayons, games and their favorite stuffed animal. Being a Disaster Action Kid is not easy, the site warns, but it is worthwhile and even fun.

FEMA recommends that children act out disaster scenes with small figures and play vehicles such as ambulances, fire trucks, helicopters, dump trucks, police cars and small boats. Once they have successfully completed the online module, they can print out an official certificate. FEMA also encourages adults to assemble an emergency supply kit that includes not only water, food and medicine, but a host of other items ranging from petroleum jelly to tongue depressor blades, a tube tent, a compass and a small shovel to dig a latrine. Drills, lockdowns, following disaster curricula and gathering together emergency kits are some of the practices entailed by a new organization of security.


But security is not only about new routines; the “security measures” suggested by the Department of Homeland security and its agencies, have pierced into personal spaces, crept into workplaces and schools and seeped through the walls of private homes. The integration of these measures into daily routines is part of a phenomenon that we might call securitarianism – a combination of security and totalitarianism that affects the entire fabric of society and reaches into every corner of our lives. Securitarianism is not a planned and organized security network run and overseen by a central committee, but a set of measures that functions as if it were designed, organized and managed through a single organizing structure.

Securitarianism is not entirely new. The Red Scare and the Japanese Internment are both examples of vigilant security enforcement. What is new about the current securitarianism is not its focus on security or its emphasis on the need for public compliance, but rather the large number of institutions it acts through, the particular populations it targets, and the political aims it justifies in the name of a “war against terrorism”. The practices, routines, and habits adapted to the new security requirements are rapidly creating a new understanding of what it means to be safe. Security procedures affect how people feel about their safety. The “Masters of Disaster” curriculum, for example, teaches children how to behave in the case of a crisis and guides the ways they channel their emotions. But participants are also asked to rehearse their anxieties and articulate the fear of losing their loved ones. Most importantly, it cultivates in them a constant sense of danger, making apparent the perils and menaces they face on a daily basis.

Herman the hermit crab informs children that he is very important because he has learned to prepare for disaster and has taken up the responsibility of spreading his knowledge. FEMA teaches adults and children alike that a responsible citizen heeds the agency’s advice and manages his or her daily routines accompanied by a constant awareness of the possibility of an emergency. Food and water need to be replaced every few months. Medicine has to be updated. Emergency plans have to be revised continuously. Every change of habit requires consideration from the perspective of security: children must learn a new escape route, supplies must be moved and emergency contact numbers updated.

Securitarianism creates what we experience to be “the reality” of a terrorist threat. This is not to say that there is no “real” threat out there. Rather, this threat is always discussed in the new language of security. As we, along with our friends and families, come to see ourselves as potential victims of terrorist attacks, the national security state emerges to protect us from the threat. But fear and threat have come into being simultaneously; we can not imagine one without the other.

Consider the way in which the word “security” has been use by the defense industry. At a time when hundreds of thousands of people around the country are losing their jobs, some states are eliminating health care subsidies for the poor and support for single mothers is being cut across the board, security is undoubtedly a central issue on many people’s minds. Yet the security they are concerned about would include steady employment, social benefits, well-funded schools, and community services. Under securitarianism, however, the term “security” denotes only a military concept: protection and defense against armed terrorist aggression.

Imaginary threats

In the last two years, an entire architecture of security has been implemented around the country, most noticeable in transportation systems. Airports, waterways, roads, and bridges have been transformed by the new security imperatives: better bomb detectors and x-ray equipment line the inspection areas of the major airports. New baggage check policies are in place and searches of passengers have become a common-place in air travel. Major tunnels and bridges in metropolitan areas are under constant surveillance: police officers and state troopers search trucks, and mounted video cameras record every entering vehicle.

As these changes become commonplace, they become more concrete. The threat against which people protect themselves is vague, abstract and distant. The security measures on the other hand, are distinct, concrete and close. They are physical, guiding individual bodies through a daily routine, marking them as subjects of security. As there is little concrete evidence of what a next possible attack could look like, we are left to imagine the worst possible case. The mass media aids our imaginations by offering increasingly gruesome attack scenarios. The government conducts exercises that enact the present possibility of a terrorist attack.

In May 2003, the cities of Chicago and Seattle staged the largest domestic security exercise ever carried out by the federal government. The exercise that lasted five days was designed to test the federal government’s ability to deal with simultaneous terrorist attacks. In the scenario, Chicago was hit by a highly contagious pneumonic plague and Seattle by a "dirty bomb" that injured more than 100 people. Such exercises encourage those who witness them to imagine an emergency, reinforcing through the emotions and activities associated with them the present possibility of a terrorist attack.

Surveillance of dark faces

Surveillance cameras record millions of people every day, tracing their faces, their movements, their conversations. They accompany us on the bus, the subway, in the shopping center, at the workplace. The cameras remain invisible. Even though cameras trace all faces that appear in front of their lenses, some of those faces are of particular concern. The enemy has a rather specific profile. He is young, male, Arab by race and Muslim by creed. The images of the suspect all vaguely refer to cultural, ethnic, religious and geographical attributes contingently compiled and representing the Western image of the threatening Middle East.

The targeting of the Arab is partly an effect of the way the attacks on the World Trade Center have been represented. The American public is solicited to remember the face of the Arab as the face of the plotters behind the attacks. “Under the Circumstances, We Must Be Wary of Young Arab Men”. This was the title of an article published in the Wall Street Journal on October 19, 2001. With the help of the media, an image began to emerge among the American public of the perpetrator of evil. The faces of men of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent have been subsumed under the face of Osama Bin Laden. The evil that exudes from the latter’s face justifies the suspicion that has taken both official and unofficial forms. The association of Osama Bin Laden with Saddam Hussein has been crucial in the legitimation of the United States’ war on Iraq. Even though the Bush administration has yet to provide evidence for the claim that the secular Baath regime in Iraq had any connection to the fundamentalist crusaders of al-Qaeda, many Americans take such a link as a given. According to a New York Times/CBS News survey, 42 per cent of the American public believes that Saddam Hussein is directly responsible for the September 11 attacks. And an ABC news poll says that 55 per cent of Americans believe that Saddam Hussein directly supports al-Qaeda. The approval for the war on Iraq relied on a logic of substitution, where Bin Laden becomes Hussein, thus reinforcing the politics of fear.

People of Arab descent living in the U.S. who as a part of the population have long been invisible are now becoming visible. Yet their visibility is not a form of recognition, but merely the product of suspicion. While not every Arab man has been targeted as an enemy, following the September 11 attacks, they as a group have been marked as the antagonists in a fictive narrative in which the Middle East has insidiously crept into the U.S. in order to fight America from within. Because “they” allegedly do not share the liberal conception of freedom that represents “the American way of life”, “they” are seen as threatening to its existence.


Nowhere is the new culture of security more visible than when looking at U.S. borders and how they not only separate citizens from non-citizens, but also create a hierarchy of non-citizens. An example is the new National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, or NSEERS, which registers foreigners when they enter and exit the United States. NSEERS also requires that visitors from countries of “elevated national security risk” who remain in the country for over thirty days register periodically with the INS. This last element is also referred to as “special registration.” According to John Ashcroft, who announced the entry-exit system last June, by 2005 NSEERS will track virtually all of the 35 million foreigners who come to the United States annually. The new policies require visitors to be interviewed, photographed and fingerprinted before entering the United States. In the first phase of the program, this only applies to nationals of the 26 countries that the Department of Justice considers potential terrorist havens. Currently, male nationals (including those with dual nationality) of countries as different as Bangladesh, Tunisia and Indonesia are required to register with the Department for Homeland Security. By the end of April 2003, when this new practice has been in place for five months, 130 000 male immigrants and visitors have been questioned.

Those subject to the special registration are obliged to go to a designated immigration office to be photographed, fingerprinted and interviewed under oath 30 days after their arrival in the United States and every 12 months thereafter. The INS recommends that tourists bring hotel receipts and ticket stubs from sightseeing destinations and transportation. Those who are staying with friends or relatives are asked to bring envelopes or bills showing proof of their addresses. Aliens who are in the United States because of a job need to present payroll stubs and employment contracts; and students are told to submit their class schedules, identification cards and yearbook pictures. The special procedures also require notification of changes of address, employment, or school to immigration authorities. The regulation and registration procedures put the burden of proof on the individual entering the United States, and individuals who come from certain, Muslim and Arab, parts of the world are assumed to be guilty until they prove themselves innocent. NSEERS is not an isolated example. It is part of the institutional infrastructure of securitarianism and is only one instance of the proliferation of checkpoints, frontiers and borders that are part of the national security state. NSEERS is part of an effort to multiply border sites, to generate spaces within the United States where individuals are registered, their papers checked, their life stories examined and their pasts assessed.

The new policies applied to the Arab population are more than mere means to obtain information and limit dangers in the “war on terrorism”. The new measures also serve as effective means of intimidation. For example, Behrooz Arshadi, a forty-eight year old Iranian who has been a resident of the United States for 15 years, spent three days in prison when he went for his special registration with the INS in December 2002. He was released never having been charged, not even having been told what charge was being considered. A month after his jailing, his bail and notice to appear in court were cancelled and life was allowed to go on as usual. Arshadi never told his daughter about what happened - she knows that jail is “a place for bad people and criminals” and he does not want her to share in the humiliation of his detention.

For many, the sense of injustice at the treatment they receive is overshadowed by the fear of what else might happen to them if they protest. It is difficult to fight charges when they have not been named, and it is difficult to combat profiling that refuses the details and action of individuals in favor of stereotypes about entire nations. As a result, many immigrants of Arab decent are leaving the United States. In February 2003, hundreds of Pakistanis moved abroad when rumors of dragnets and new federal registration deadlines prompted a renewed fear of deportation. No one knows how many Arabs and Muslims are voluntarily or involuntarily leaving the U.S. due to these new forms of discrimination.

When directed at the non-Arab U.S. population, securitarianism creates a fear of terrorism with an Arab face. When directed at the Arab and Muslim population on the other hand, securitarianism produces the fear of deportation and arbitrary punishment. While the former are offered security as a trade-off for obedience, the latter are constantly made aware that they are the Other within the U.S. and that there is no secure place for them. In both cases, securitarianism delivers a pledge that cannot be kept. The more security measures are put into place, the more fear is produced. One should not let the wolf guard the sheep.


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