After 9/11: Whose Security?

Against the Current, No. 115, March/April 2005

Johanna Brenner and Nancy Holmstrom

SINCE 9/11 THE United States has been obsessed with “security” in a very particular sense—protection from intentional threats to our safety and well being, as in “Office of Homeland Security,” “our national security,” “the conflict between civil liberties and security considerations,” “security was tightened,” or, more mundanely, “security guards.”

In the 1980’s and ’90s the racist “culture of fear” that fueled the rise of the U.S. prison-industrial complex amplified crime into an ever-present threat.  Now, it is “terrorists” and “rogue nations” that justify the expansion of a new arena for profit-making, the security industry—a major growth business here and in many other parts of the world, and an increasingly high-tech one.

Our daily lives have been transformed as people have to carry, even to wear ID cards, big concrete blocks line the sidewalks of many of our streets, and our access to countless public buildings is tightly controlled by phalanxes of security guards and video monitors.  But most of us pay little attention: the possibility of terrorist attacks has been normalized.

Yet protection against intentional threats to our safety is not the only way “security” is understood.  We have “security blankets” when we’re babies and “social security” when we are elderly—things that protect our safety and well being both in material and emotional ways.  This is security in the broader sense—safety and well being, both of an objective material and a subjective emotional kind.

Threats to security, in this broader sense of the word, are understood to go far beyond intentional acts by individuals or groups.  Generally speaking, however, most Americans’ concern today that is posed in terms of the word “security” is about intentional threats from people—the narrower sense of the concept.

These two very different understandings of the word “security” and threats to security are highly gendered.  When we talk of security in the narrow sense, as in “our national security interests,” we know that it is men who will be defending us against other men who are attacking us—and it is men who will be deciding when, where and how to attack or defend us. Although the sexual division of labor is amazingly variable through human history, one thing that does not vary is that men are responsible for warfare.  Even though women are now soldiers in the United States, on the ground and piloting planes, the pattern is basically unchanged.

In photo after photo of ordinary soldiers, military leaders, “experts” and politicians, women are out of sight—except for the occasional photogenic exceptions, like the good girl Jessica Lynch and her bad sister of Abu Ghraib.

The higher up you go, the more male it is. The civilian militarists of the arms industry and politicians are even more overwhelmingly male.  And today’s warfare is a very high tech affair, another masculine domain.

On the other hand, if we think of “security” in the broader sense of security blankets and social security, then women immediately enter the picture.  The other invariable piece of the sexual division of labor is that women do the bulk of caretaking—of the young, the old and other dependents, so that women around the world are providing the bulk of the ongoing material and emotional security that everyone needs.

This is not high-tech but simply caring labor, usually on top of other labor.  When the market threatens this security by not providing enough for a family’s needs, women pick up the slack; when public goods are cut back women’s burden increases.

In general, we could say that far more people are harmed by threats to their security in this second sense.  Far, far more people die from lack of health care, from poverty-caused malnutrition, from government inaction to prevent the spread of deadly disease, from pollution of the environment by industry, than from acts by individuals or groups who intend harm.

Yet in the face of this clear truth, it is the threats to security from intentional acts that capture attention and drive political action.  What might explain this focus on intentional acts rather than the really widespread and pervasive threats to our lives, health and well-being that are not intentional?

One answer might be that it’s because intentional acts do more harm—but that’s definitely not true.  So our focus on the narrow kind of security can’t be justified on these objective grounds.  To take just one example: around 8.5 million people were killed during the four years of World War I, but more than twice that many—20 million people—died from the flu pandemic in 1918-19.

Perhaps, then, the focus on intentionality has moral roots?  All societies have laws against harming people—and these reflect our moral judgment that harm done intentionally is the worst kind (except when the government does it in wars or in capital punishment—”state terrorism” doesn’t count).

Despite opposition from the United States, we are moving closer to having international laws and courts that can judge and punish these acts.  So perhaps we focus on intentional threats to security because we think that there are already, or will be, effective deterrents to prevent intentional acts of terrorism as well as judicial institutions to deal with them if they do occur.

Perhaps we could extend this explanation and say that we focus on threats to our security from human acts for practical reasons, because they are potentially under our control, whereas other threats to our security, like natural catastrophes, are out of our control.  This sounds reasonable; what is the point of focusing on threats that we can do nothing about?

Well, it is true that some natural catastrophes are out of our control—but only some, and certainly not all. The human causes of global warming are well documented and now obvious.  But many other apparently natural threats to security are also products of human action.

The recent cholera epidemic in South Africa, called a natural disaster by the government, was in reality due to the privatization of water that forced people to get their water from polluted rivers.  Or consider the drought in many parts of Africa, or the sand storm that came over Beijing a couple of years ago, both caused by cutting down too many trees.

Moreover, even natural threats that are not caused by human action might nevertheless be controllable by human intervention—as diseases are controlled in the richer parts of the world.  Thus some natural threats, like global warming or drought, which are clearly side effects of our economic system—collateral damage, one could say—are potentially under our control.

But we are all too prone to see the economic system as being like nature rather than constituted by human relations and countless human acts.  We listen to the stock market report in the same way we listen to the weather report, as something that happens to us, that we’re powerless to affect, rather than something we do. This distorted way of looking at the world is related to what Marx called “commodity fetishism,” the appearance of relations among people as if they were relations among things—which he saw as a very central aspect of the ideology of capitalism.

So long as we believe that something is out of our control, then it is. The focus on intentional acts has the effect of shielding the economic system of capitalism from scrutiny, and from being exposed as the major cause of insecurity for millions of people around the world

Why doesn’t this suffering and insecurity become a focus of concern?  Is it because it appears to be the result of acts that do not intend to do harm?

Yet in most people’s thinking about morality, doing harm unintentionally but with reckless disregard for the harmful consequences is considered almost as bad as it is to do harm intentionally.  This conviction is embedded in our legal system—a drunk driver who kills may be charged with manslaughter rather than murder, but still punished heavily.

Certainly doing harm “unintentionally but with reckless disregard” would apply to the ordinary workings of global corporate capitalism.  So there is little basis for saying that the focus on threats to our security from intentional acts is due to their being so much worse, from a moral point of view, than threats to our security from acts done with willful disregard for their impact on the vast majority of the people of the globe.

Perhaps also we’re more afraid of intentional threats to our security for psychological reasons.  Perhaps we are afraid, most basically, of someone trying to hurt us; this is more hurtful psychologically because it is a conscious deliberate rejection of who we are.

Also, with intentional acts, the danger tends to be sudden, to hit all at once, so there is no time to get used to it; the fear of the surprise also intensifies the fear of the harm and so when it occurs we experience shock.  Some researchers have suggested that the stress of waiting for the blow to fall explains why sometimes victims of domestic violence seem to provoke the violence.

The shock of the totally unexpected blow was multiplied many thousand times in the attack on the World Trade Center where so many people were killed all at once.  In contrast, the damage done by the absence of goods to satisfy basic needs tends to hit far more slowly; people suffer and die from malnutrition little by little over a very long time.

This makes slow starvation quite unsurprising; in fact, it just seems “natural.”  As Amartya Sen points out, in some contexts women suffering malnutrition seem not even aware that they are hungry.

Or, finally, perhaps the crucial issue explaining the focus on threats to our security from intentional acts is that when we speak about security, we have to ask “whose security?”

Perhaps it is mainly those of us who are fortunate enough not to have to worry about catastrophic threats to our safety and well being from nature, or from the everyday workings of the economic system, who focus on the dangers of people intentionally trying to hurt us, whether they be ordinary criminals or terrorists.

Thus it is especially North Americans, Europeans and the elites of the developing world who focus on security in the narrow sense.  Of course, people in war anywhere have to focus on those dangers; if they’re not alive, they won’t have to worry about clean water.  But ordinarily, poor people have more basic worries such as “food security.”

Whatever explains our narrowness in thinking about threats to our security—perhaps all of the above factors contribute—the effect is the same: We miss the most crucial threats to global security in the long run, and the best way to defend ourselves.  The focus on intentional acts is simply too narrow to provide genuine security, certainly for poor people everywhere in the world, but increasingly for the rest of us as well. 

Everyone knows the rough figures on the deaths from the WTC attack: upwards of 3000 people were killed.  Some of us know that at least the same number, perhaps more, civilians have been killed in Afghanistan by our forces (to say nothing of tens of thousands of Iraqis).

But few people are aware of the effects of the economic downturn brought on or exacerbated by the attack.  According to the World Bank, in countries without a social safety net, the downturn is estimated to be responsible for increased disease and malnutrition among children to the extent of causing an additional 40,000 more children to die than would have died otherwise.

More attention has been paid to how the economic and political forces of capitalist globalization create global insecurity than to the ways that patriarchal social institutions and cultural norms are also responsible for the threats to our security.

In the Global South, structural adjustment programs, including the privatization of formerly public services (health care, education, water, etc.) have the largest impact on the lives of women, who as family caretakers are most reliant on the state for security.

Patriarchal gender norms that encourage men to pursue sexual encounters outside of marriage, while loading onto women all the responsibilities for caregiving, undermine men’s ties to their wives and children.  When forced to migrate to look for work men find new sexual partners, creating new liaisons, even new families, and abandoning wives and children.

The ranks of single mothers are growing all over the world.  Meanwhile, without opportunities to earn money to support their families, many of these single mothers themselves migrate to seek work, sending back money to their own mothers and other women kin who care for their children.  In the Philippines, for example, remittances from women working abroad are the largest source of foreign currency, far surpassing exports.

Since 1995, women have outnumbered men among new immigrants to the United States; they come to work as caregivers not only for children but also for the ill, the disabled and the elderly.  Even with all this inexpensive immigrant caring labor, threats to well-being, security in the broader sense, are building here too. Women in the United States want and need to work for wages—and are doing so for more hours a week and more years of their lives than ever before.

At a time when women need more help than ever with the caring responsibilities that patriarchal social arrangements place primarily on their shoulders, the neoliberal (“free market” and privatizing) assault on public services is reducing that help, making their lives more difficult and the lives of their families more insecure.

The more insecure people become, the more they have to rely primarily on themselves, then the more vulnerable they are to sexist, heterosexist and racist ideas about who is the cause of their problems, who is a threat to their well-being.

So the real, but relatively small, threat that terrorism represents gets magnified as it carries all of the insecurity that people are experiencing.  It is far easier to imagine military solutions to external threats than to imagine challenging the power of the corporate system.

This displacement of everyday fears onto an external enemy is also encouraged by the pervasive racist “Americanism” that regards non-European cultures as less civilized, even barbaric.

Left to their own resources, without being able to rely on government or on their own communities, people feel that they have to compete with others to survive.  This sense of isolation is made worse as fewer people, in fact, participate in any kind of collective political activism—in unions, or community or neighborhood organizing projects, for example—where they could see themselves as connected to other people and having the power to challenge the corporate agenda, to change things for the better.

Thus their response to rising insecurity is not to join with others, to protect themselves through collective action, but rather to look elsewhere for a powerful force that can protect them.  They look for a strong leader—a powerful father—who can take care of them—not least by harnessing the awesome violence of the U.S. military.

This desperate search for a protector pulls people away from the new ideals of masculinity that had begun to emerge out of feminism’s critique of patriarchal culture, and instead reinforces the hyper-masculinity that underlies super-patriotism and nationalism.

It also fuels opposition to LBGT rights, because the LGBT movement challenges narrow definitions of gender, requires us to value “feminine men” and “masculine women,” even begins to force people to acknowledge that gender is somewhat fluid and in some sense unstable.  This is a frightening recognition if you feel that your safety and security depends on men who are hypermasculine, powerful figures who will protect you.

Conservative sexual politics joined with nativist anti-immigrant sentiment increases political support for the strategy of all-out militarism and preemptive war that is the centerpiece of U.S. response to terrorism.  Even in terms of providing security in the most narrow sense—protection from intentional threats—this policy can only have the opposite effect, to make us less secure.

Militarism, of course, has been part of U.S. history since our country’s inception, and a powerful military-industrial complex has been a driving force in politics since the 1950s.  But there seems to have been a significant quantitative and qualitative change in the past few years—the development of what Chalmers Johnson describes as an empire of bases (rather than the old empires of territory).

It is difficult to get an accurate count of how many U.S. bases there are, since many are secret, or not official (“informal leases,” etc.).  But the official count is 725 bases in 38 countries.  Whom do these bases protect?

In the Persian/Arabian Gulf the bases have two main functions—surveillance and guarding the oil. The oil companies that raced into the new independent countries around the Caspian Sea were quickly followed by the construction of military bases to protect their installations.  (Chalmers Johnson, 2004, Sorrows of Empire, 156-169, 216)

So oil company profits are made more secure by our empire of bases, but what about people?  Well, there are certainly groups who do benefit from military bases, which is one reason there are huge vested interests in preserving and expanding them.  But most people around the world of course do not benefit—since the U.S. military presence protects the corporate interests and supports the policies that have increased the global gap between rich and poor.

And contrary to the rhetoric of security that views the arms budget as simply the price “we” have to pay to defend ourselves against intentional threats, the government’s all-out aggressive militarism creates more enemies by the day. It gives thousands of people real grievances against us—and our arms industry supplies them with the means, including small nuclear weapons, to do us great damage, though 9/11 showed what could be done simply with box cutters.

The growing antiwar movement, protesting preemptive war, the occupation of Iraq, the state terrorism unleashed on the people of Afghanistan and other militaristic policies, does argue that the Bush administration’s strategies are making us less, rather than more, secure.

But we think it is also important to extend this challenge, to insist that security means much more than protection from intentional acts.  We propose to bring feminist politics into antiwar politics by arguing not only against militarism and empire, but also for government policies that secure our well- being by valuing caring work and supporting those who do it.

Too often, when people talk about the link between the global neoliberal corporate agenda and terrorism they focus on men. They argue that unemployed and underemployed men are the terrorists, the organizers of fundamentalist movements, the social base for anti-Americanism.

If men had jobs and roles of authority in their communities, they would take care of women instead of being rootless and violent.  In other words, to reduce terrorism, the government should pursue economic development that would restore men to the patriarchal positions in family and community that capitalist globalization has undermined.

We would make the link in a different way. The exploitation of women’s labor globally, their forced migration to provide cheap labor in the developed countries, may not threaten us physically, but does call upon us to act. The struggle against “sweat shop” labor urges working people in the United States to join with workers in other countries to improve pay and working conditions.

Similar bonds of solidarity can be built in the global justice movement by organizing to challenge the neoliberal policies that are so harmful to women and children in the global south.  We can support efforts by women in the global south to improve the conditions under which they do unpaid caregiving labor and struggle to meet the needs of their families and communities.

We can demand an end to the structural adjustment policies that force governments there to dismantle the welfare state and public services, and argue for abolition of the crushing debt burden that requires deep cuts in government spending.

The same neoliberal policies that are undermining the conditions of women’s work as caregivers around the globe are increasing the insecurity of our own lives.  Here at home, the sweeping attack on government and public programs are aimed at forcing everyone to depend on the market, to make us all ever more desperate so we’ll work for less, demand less, expect less.

By forcing us to rely on the market for help with our caregiving responsibilities (and by contracting out public services to non-profits and for-profit companies), these policies have created a vast market demand for cheap labor—a demand filled by women working for low wages, without health benefits and pensions.

These women workers—immigrant and native-born—as well as the vast majority of women who use the services that they provide as individual care givers or as workers in the service sector, deserve well-being instead of the increasing economic insecurity that now defines our lives.

Real homeland security requires a reversal of spending on the military and the tax giveaways to the rich, investment in public education and in a whole range of new public institutions—day care centers with high paid workers who are respected for their skills; a home care system for elderly people that is well-funded and pays home care workers a living wage, paid parental and family leave so we can spend time with those we love and care for.

Until people realize that the sense of security with which we are so obsessed is an extremely narrow one, supported by hyper-masculine ideology and capitalist interests, the majority of the world’s people will day by day continue to become radically insecure, in both definitions of that term.

ATC 115, March-April 2005