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Essays, Justice

Boston and the Specter of the Total Security State

You know there’s something wrong with America when the Germans start lecturing you on the danger of a growing totalitarian state in your midst.

Recently columnist Jakob Augstein in an article entitled “Forever in a State of Emergency” in the weekly newsmagazine Der Spiegel blasted both the measures to which local and federal police resorted in apprehending the Boston Marathon bombers and the docile acquiescence of both the public and the media to their implementation.

However, a CNN poll released last week showed that Americans increasingly are unwilling to give up any more civil liberties to prevent further attacks on the homeland, and that they are increasingly suspicious of handing more power over to federal authorities. Indeed, some polls have shown that when it comes to terrorism, Americans fear the government more than the terrorists.

Columnist Harry Enten in the UK’s The Guardian makes a trenchant observation about what is happening in America and what it might signify for the future of domestic politics.

Enten points out that the rise in the visibility and influence of radical libertarianism, as personified by Rand Paul and his father Ron Paul who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for President in 2012, is shifting the political landscape in the United States.

During the Bush years and the promulgation of an open-ended “war on terror” it was Republicans, or self-identified political “conservatives” who, according to polling, favored restrictions on civil liberties. Now the trend has reversed, and Enten believes that the change is more attributable to who is currently occupying the White House than anything else.


However, the real indicator in the CNN survey is the attitude of self-styled political independents, who have swung en masse over to the libertarian side. The legislative battle over gun laws and the renewed threat of foreign terrorism on American soil suggest that a new and different kind of “culture war” is gestating in America – and perhaps in Britain and Europe eventually – and that it has little to do with the fight that lasted almost three decades from the advent of the Reagan Presidency in the early 1980s to Mitt Romney’s defeat at the hands of Obama a year ago.

Throughout the Nineties, in particular, the “culture wars” centered on the conflict between social conservatives, who wanted the government to legislate certain kinds of sexual behavior and to allow for the public display of religion in the public square, and liberals whose slogan was “free to choose”, a formula that still pervades the debates over abortion. But the decline of the influence of conservative evangelicals, the shock troops of the previous culture wars, in society along with the eclipse of the “religious right” as their political outreach has changed the equation considerably.

The incoming president of the National Rifle Association actually used the term “culture war” in rallying the troops to mobilize against revived efforts to enact gun legislation. But guns are only a small part of what is actually happening, and the NRA’s position does not reflect general public attitudes limiting and monitoring purchases of firearms, particularly assault weapons.

As Augstein points out, the real issue comes down to preference of a growing tranche of the American public for security over liberty. He underscores that such a political windshift historically has augured the coming of fascist dictatorship or other forms of totalitarian control. On the other hand, this kind of argument ignores the historical fact that America in times of war or severe social stress has tended to take extreme measures that today seem questionable in terms of the constitutional heritage itself.

Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War or Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese Americans solely on the basis of their ethnic identity are obvious examples of this selective regard for the Bill of Rights.

However, Augstein also rightly points out that the very nature of the terrorist threat – and of other conjectured menaces looming at the periphery of our vision – implies a “permanent” state of emergency, which indeed does comprise the historical ingredients for more severe forms of authoritarian government. “Americans want total security. However, what they get instead is the total security state.”

The yearning for total security was linked several generations back by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in his prophetic book The Irony of American History with a sense of total collective righteousness, a chiliastic politics that not only demanded the perfection of our laws and social arrangements in accordance with a project of uncompromising democracy, but also the demonization of whomever, or whatever, resists this order.

The same striving for political sanctity has prompted our penchant for “holy wars”, whether they are against the German “Hun” (as in World War I), the crusade against world communism that entangled us in Vietnam, or the current interminable battle against Islamist militancy.

Today America after many failed “wars to end all war” has given up largely on remaking the world in its own image. But its fallback has been the dream of a completely “just”, thoroughly pluralistic, rigorously egalitarian, and of course absolutely safe haven in which anyone can promote their own private pipedream of domestic tranquility.

America as Rivendell! A new politics of perfect peace perfected – and protected – by the profusion of vague slogans and the incantations of social media.

Such a millennial utopia, of course, requires a marshall presence (as we saw in Boston) , the occasional lockdown of entire cities, the patrolling of the streets by heavily armed and militarized phalanxes of police in helmets with assault weapons at the ready, and the occasional bursting into the domestic tranquility of a few private homes where “they” might be hiding out.

The essence of totalitarianism, as Hannah Arendt argued years ago, is what the Germans during the era of the Third Reich termed Gleichschaltung, the steady and peace-meal “adjustment”, or “co-ordination”, of the positive ideological elements of the culture (e.g., religion, patriotism, family values, the yearning for social justice) in order to ensure a “see no evil” attitude that allows the enforcers of the Sicherheitsstaat to assume total control.

The point here is not once again to cry “Nazi” in the face of what we seem to be unaware we are facing, which is nothing less than postmodernity’s own special rendition of crying wolf. Nazism was a singular historical case.

But totalitarianism, in all its myriad and still unimagined iterations, is not. Orwell’s totalitarian dystopias serve us not only as powerful literary archetypes and but also as constant reminders as to how the politics of security and narcissistic blissfulness (“everyone is happy in Brave New World”) can become malignant, and ultimately lethal.

Democracy and the security state are no more compatible than bears and beartraps. That is why Jacques Derrida, for instance, in his meditations on the consequences of 9/11 just before his death in 2004 slammed the notion that “justice” in the democractic sense can be allied with “harmony” and safety. Rather justice is associated, Derrida writes, “with disjointure, with being out of joint, with the interruption of relation.” (Rogues, 88).

The violence and instability of things nowadays, this new world disorder, offers far more the opportunity for what Derrida called the “democracy to come”, the messianic promise of true relationality, than the black fantasy of the security state with which we flirt in these dying days of the global consumer society.

Erchou kyrie.

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