Perfect Security

A while back, I was at a little cove with our dog, Ripley. Ripley loves being in the water. He especially likes trolling around like Gollum, watching for any movement on the water surface – little sticks, or bugs, or bubbles. And often, when he spies a likely target, he lunges at it and tries to bite it. This sudden movement in the water invariably sends up a spray of droplets. And when those droplets plunge back down into the water again, they make a little splash. Ripley sees that splash and, thinking it could be another deserving target, he lunges again. And again. And again.

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Arnold Wolfers was an old-school scholar of international relations. He wrote a bunch of great stuff, but many of the young academics being churned out by grad schools these days wouldn’t even know he existed. And if they did, many would turn up their noses and dismiss him as “just another realist.” Well, one of the things he wrote about is the ambiguous nature of national security. He argued that some states will establish forward bases and security zones in an attempt to secure their values and interests. After a very short while, those bases themselves become interests that need to be protected. And so the state extends another ring of bases and security measures to protect them. And again. And again. As Wolfers phrases it, “Pushed to its logical conclusion, such spatial extension of the range of values does not stop short of world domination.”

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Kafka wrote an amazing short story about a burrowing creature. This creature is afraid of potential enemies, both those who might find his hidden entrance and invade his warren from the surface, as well as those subterranean foes who might burrow their way into his lair. In order to keep himself safe from these predators, the creature has hollowed out an elaborate and complex series of tunnels and chambers. While he would like to relax more, and perhaps spend more time resting and munching on tasty morsels from his vast store of food, he is unable to unwind. He has started to hear noises whistling and echoing off the walls of his tunnels. He convinces himself that the noises are caused by the breathing and digging of his enemies as they invade his home and hunt for him. He concocts new plans and sets about digging new tunnels. Ultimately, the creature becomes trapped by his own angst and paranoia. The menacing noises of his approaching enemies are really just the echoing sounds of his own frantic digging and the rush of blood in his head from his sustained physical exertions. The pattern repeats itself. Again. And again.

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In an age of terror, we have raised up a vast and sprawling architecture of surveillance and police power and military might. And we like to think that these forces are harnessed to ensure our security. But their very operation creates new enemies where there were none. And their focus, inevitably it seems, eventually boomerangs to settle on a domestic target, looking for quislings and fifth columnists in our midst.

Perfect security is a myth. But more than that, the effort to achieve perfect security plays a counterintuitive trick on us and leaves us broken and vulnerable. The more we set about trying to insulate ourselves from all threats, the more insecure we become.

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The perils of dissenting

This link will take you to a truly remarkable video (I tried to embed it, but had no luck). If you have the time (less than five minutes out of your life) and stomach for it, I would highly recommend it.

The clip shows a law student directing a question to a panel of “experts” on US national security. The panel members are discussing the Benghazi incident and sharing heated (some might say paranoid) accusations of US government inaction and cover-up. However, their discussion is clearly framed inside a broader critique of US foreign policy in the Middle East. Anyway, this student poses a question about the substance and direction of US foreign policy in the region, a question that (I think) is germane and of crucial importance to the topic:

“How can we fight an ideological war with weapons? How can we ever end this war? The jihadist ideology that you talk about – it’s an ideology. How can you ever win this thing if you don’t address it ideologically?”

The response from panelist Brigitte Gabriel (she’s a real gem) is very telling. Rather than actually engaging the question, she turns it around and launches a tirade against the student. She lambasts the student for having the temerity to ask a question that does not fit within the panel’s narrow, partisan and self-serving Benghazi narrative. She twists and disfigures the student’s question beyond recognition in order to give her own response more punch and simplistic, rhetorical appeal. She effectively questions the student’s loyalty and morality for posing a question that was not properly mournful of the death of four Americans at Benghazi. And, in the end, she indicts the entirety of Muslim America for not doing more to condemn radical Islam. Not a bad day’s work for just one response!

Again, to be clear, the student’s question is not out of bounds. Not in any way. She is making the relevant point that bombs and bullets are probably not the most effective way to address the threat of a radical ideology. In short, she thinks the US response to terrorism suffers from a lack of ideological considerations.

But here’s the thing: the premise of the student’s question is actually incorrect. While the United States is indeed fighting this war with military force (drones, anyone?), it is fighting it at an ideological level too. However, while the military component is most certainly aimed outward towards Muslim countries, the ideological effort is aimed inward towards US citizens. In other words, the ideological component of this war isn’t aimed at “radical Islam” or “the Islamists” or “the Jihadists” or “the terrorists” or (my favourite) “the Islamo-Fascists.” And it isn’t even aimed at moderate Muslims in the Middle East. It’s actually aimed at Americans.

In fact, in this clip, the ideological response is aimed directly at the student who asked the question.

The approach to national security revealed in Gabriel’s scathing jeremiad, and embodied by the panel itself, is designed to support and embolden an ideological worldview in which the US accumulation and exercise of overwhelming military force is not just made possible, but rendered the only logical course of action. This is the essence of the neo-conservative agenda. And the first step in enabling this political program is to effect ideological closure. This ideological component of the so-called “War on Terror” is designed to banish domestic dissent. It attempts to construct a single, coherent and entirely homogenized response. The end goal is to ensure that those who disagree or pose questions are shouted down, silenced or marginalized.

If you watched the video, you saw how Gabriel played the crowd, a crowd that erupted in nationalistic fervour part-way through the aggressive dismissal of the student’s question. That’s the precise response that Gabriel’s jingoistic tirade was seeking to achieve. But the intended audience isn’t just the one sitting in a single Heritage Foundation lecture hall (that would be low-hanging fruit, to say the least). The real intended audience is the one comprised of the entire spectrum of the US population.

That video has gone truly viral and sparked a social media sensation. When I last checked, the version that came across my Facebook news feed (which is presumably just one of many that are now circulating) had been shared over 440,000 times in under 6 days. That specific version, originated by a Facebook user named “John Adams,” carries the telling caption, “I’m guessing this woman wishes she had not asked the question.” This is the ideological component of the War on Terror hard at work.

(For any masochists out there who might be interested, here is the whole Heritage Foundation conference on Benghazi in its brain-numbing, 3.5 hour entirety.)