Dr. Peter Lock
European Association for Research on Transformation e.V.

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Dr. Peter Lock
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letzte Änderung:03.01.2011
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Implementing the Hague Programme
Operational and Legislative Functions on Justice and Home Affairs[1]

Anti-terrorism and Effects on Freedom of Movement- Assessing the Concept of Progress in the Fight against Terrorism

Contribution to the Panel on Security and Antiterrorism by Peter Lock (EART e.V. Hamburg)

Terrorism and democracy

The main fault weakening the idea to fight against terrorism rests with the very definition of what constitutes terrorism. Though some consensus appears feasible of what constitutes a terrorist act, it is impossible to unambiguously identify who is a terrorist or describe the boundaries of "terrorism". Though once being upgraded to "war", anti-terrorism becomes an open-ended activity because it is intrinsically impossible to define criteria, which would unequivocally permit to declare victory and put an end to this war.

This ambiguity turns out to be an infectious threat to the foundations and values of western democracies. The way and speed with which the current governments of western democracies have suspended legal norms and international laws, which had cumulatively matured in reaction to two disastrous wars and dictatorial regimes during the entire 20th century is truly breathtaking. The "war against terror" incrementally reverses the institutional hierarchies of democratic political systems in favour of surreptitious executive branches and paralyses existing "checks and balances". The ever-expanding institutional security network gains the upper hand over the due process of law and established administrative rules. Ill-defined terrorist dangers suffice to legitimise capricious governmental interventions.

The institutions charged with carrying out the "war against terrorism" emerge as powerful bureaucracies with their own corporate agendas. They are often capable of eclipsing from parliamentary oversight. It plays to heir advantage in their drive to achieve dominant positions in the state apparatus that many of their activities are shielded from scrutiny for asserted operational reasons. Their claims of effectiveness cannot be measured as the full dimension of their task is by definition unknown as long as the unbounded concept of terrorism rules political discourses. Their persistent exigency that they must be entitled to carry out covert operations at their own discretion is inherently difficult to monitor. Confronted with imagined terrorism as opposed to defined political challenges in a populist political climate elected bodies are not inclined sufficiently challenge the agendas of the institutional security network. The executive is capable of launching a dynamic of circular causation by imaging a hypothetical terror network, which is delineated as invisible (and hence unknowable). Politicians are not inclined to take risks and do not define, how much production of alleged security is enough. As a result measures adopted in the fight against terrorism acquire features of self-fulfilling prophecies. Putin's Russia would be a case in point among others.

For the time being the governments leading the way in this self-destructive process can count on broad populist support as recent parliamentary and presidential elections have confirmed. However, the current political leadership in many western democracies seems for the most part to neglect that the evolution of the legal norms and the codified international law, which hitherto prevailed, had laid the foundation to the political process, which allowed democracy to prevail as the preferred form of governance towards the end of the twentieth century.

Accepting terrorism as the common enemy introduces an unconditional logic into all government actions labelled as self-defence not unlike the McCarthy era when the enemy was defined as a totalitarian regime. The characteristics ascribed to (Islamic) fundamentalists as the dominant personification of terrorism match the features of the constructed enemy during the McCarthy period. Defining the Soviet Union, as a totalitarian enemy did not allow for substantive political engagement, because by definition such an enemy cannot but aim at the annihilation of all other political systems and unfailingly aspires to eventually dominate the entire world.[2] In the ahistorical political logic of anti-totalitarianism it was imperative to assume that the enemy is not bounded by any norms in the pursuit of its totalitarian ambition to rule the world and thus could under no circumstances be trusted. Distrust becomes the First Commandment of governance in such circumstances. The democratic political process enters into loops of self-destruction. The enemy is everywhere, he attacks from the outside and from within. Incidentally Latin American dictatorships during the 1970ies used the same logic to justify their intervention in neglect of the respective constitutions. The ideological formula "seguranša nacional or seguridad nacional"[3] depicted military intervention as imperative to fend off the onslaught of international communism The nation was portrayed as under attack by a totalitarian enemy, who would prevail if the military were not to act pre-emptively. The pretended national emergency legitimised the military take-over defying the constitution. The violation of basic human rights transmuted into acts of national salvation.

A curious leftover from the self-destructive phase of McCarthyism was still in place in the Pentagon in the late seventies. In the lavatories small "Orwellian" signposts read: Don't talk to your neighbour, he may be a spy. Social cohesion is replaced by defensive mistrust. Current announcements of this kind are much broader in scale. The executive branch of the American government arbitrarily assumes the prerogative to illuminate the entire public space with the changing the colours of terror alert. It also drafts the entire population as auxiliary sheriffs. This self-entitlement on behalf of the GWOT (Global war on terror) stifles social relations and political activities. An invisible fog of suspicion paralyses society and isolates the individual.

In its absolute and ahistorical form the defence against a totalitarian enemy is obligated to lean towards policies based on the assumption of the worst case. Thus, political measures declared to be taken in defence against the threat of terrorism can not effectively be questioned any longer. The implication being that heeding moral boundaries in case of pre-emptive "defensive" action is perceived as dangerous and could amount to suicide. As a result the defence against an enemy portrayed as totalitarian, a property ascribed to terrorism in the current political discourses, leads to a fatal systemic assimilation of the parties involved in such a conflict.

At this point a strange logic sets in. Total intelligence suddenly emerges as a minor evil under the condition that the distinction between we and they is part of the political message selling the new security paradigm. The intelligence takes the form of permanent surveillance, biometric identification becomes acceptable, because it is a necessary tool to make the separation or rather polarisation between we and they operational.

The current anti-terrorism has developed into a priority commandeering other policy fields. The enemy is portrayed with features that resemble totalitarianism. To the extent this rapprochement takes effect governments lose their capacity to politically engage the perceived enemy constructively. Offensive intelligence, pre-emptive covert or open military action, costly high-tech commodification of defensive security, even more expensive human controls regularly requiring changes in laws and curtailment of civil liberties already are the gloomy footprints of anti-terrorism in the social fabric in western societies.

Freedom of movement

The current trend of globalisation and its reflexive sibling shadow globalisation are marked by a stark contradiction. On the one hand the neo-liberal regulation of the global economy advances the free flow of commodities and services, on the other hand the GWOT aims at radically improved laws and technologies to control and reduce the flow of people. The liberalisation of trade usually is based on reciprocal agreements, while the freedom of human movement is highly asymmetrical in favour of citizens of wealthy nations. The GWOT has further increased this asymmetry. People living in the OECD-world take this asymmetry for granted and do not question the humiliating imperial connotation of this anomaly. In the process governments deliver the promised distinction between we and they by tightening border controls and imposing more restrictive visa regimes. With respect to freedom of movement the contrast between human beings and commodities in the process of regular globalisation intensifies. To the extent the laws reduce the freedom of movement, transnational networks of in the sphere of shadow globalisation thrive. Their businesses are illegal movements of commodities and people.

There is little empirical evidence that the intensification of border controls has a measurable impact on the volume of illegal movements. The push and pull factors of south-north migration in the Western Hemisphere are as strong as ever and secure continued high levels of illegal migration, which implicitly forms an essential part of the economic model pursued run by the current American government. It is in this context that in spite of an extraordinary growth of the security bureaucracy at all levels the number of repatriated illegal workers in the United States shrank radically after 2001. Similar conditions prevail in Western Europe, pull and push factors operate across the Mediterranean Sea and the Eastern borders of the EU. Criminal networks thrive. An unambiguous indicator of expanding flows of illegal migration is the steadily growing volume of remittances. They constitute already the biggest positive position in the balance of payments of many countries outstripping export, aid and foreign investment.

As pertains to legal movement and migration the changes due to the GWOT have counterproductive effects. The educational industry in the United States and the United Kingdom suffer from significant losses of customers from the they-universe as a result of tightened visa regulations. In the process the political awareness of the imperial dimension of visa-regimes begins to sink in and leads to new non-western geopolitical preferences in they-world. Instead of attracting young people and exposing them to democratic forms of governance, the anti-terrorism climate estranges young elites from western political cultures.

Marginalization of politics

Most experts agree that the toughening of border regimes does not impede the capacity of individuals to carry out terrorist acts on behalf of transnational groups instigating such acts in the pursuit of their ideological agenda, which is more often political than religious. Though the current pursuit of anti-terrorism tends to be unable to properly decipher the political dimension, which motivates people to commit terrorist acts. Instead causally unrelated political agendas like poverty reduction are loaded onto the bandwagon of anti-terrorism and are portrayed as valuable contributions to the fight against terrorism, which supposedly tackle the root causes of terrorism.

However the show of tough measures is meant to impress the we-society and lend legitimacy to the executive power relentlessly pushing the security doctrine of the GWOT. The visible production of seeming security is vastly displayed, not least to make sure that the citizens feel insecure and become grateful for the often-capricious expansion of "protective" manoeuvres. Since the enemy is by definition invisible, its size or danger is circumscribed at will by the defensive measures undertaken. For the time being the power of definition lies in the hands of the executive branches of governments and as long as this circle of arbitrary and often false projection is not broken, the incumbent rulers face little challenge to their hold of power. The political dimension of defence is completely lost in the course of anti-terrorism campaigns.

At the logical end of projecting the GWOT into the future a vision of an automated state of security prevails, based on total surveillance and sophisticated technologies to strike pre-emptively. The discretionary capacities to calibrate strikes at will (MOOTW=Military Operations other than war in US-army speak) are part of these envisioned scenarios, which inspire the security bureaucracies to continuously ask for larger budgets. It comes as a certain irony that a perfection of such visions implies also an "end of history", but distinct from the one Fukuyama had heralded at the end of the Cold War.

The ideology of we and they, deeply ingrained ideology in our political cultures, is the indispensable foundation of the security state based on anti-terrorism. The failure of the recent NPT-review conference possibly marks a beginning of dismantling the dominance of this ideology as hitherto accepted we-notions of world affairs began to be challenged by the community of they-nations. The collapse of this conference finally highlighted the political and moral double standards reflected in the NPT-treaty.

In selling GWOT to the people WMD play an important role, because they are seen as the ultimate weapon for terrorists. The possession of WMD by a small number of we-nations is deemed acceptable or even indispensable to deter or pre-empt evil states or non-state terrorists from using WMD. In contrast, all they-states are deemed to bear the risk of inherently acting irresponsible in case they come to possess nuclear weapons for example. WMD inculcate irrational fear.[4] They include, however, rather different destructive means, many of which are rather impractical when it comes to commit a terrorist act. The only common denominator is the fact that the military of powerful nations deemed these destructive devices not expedient to be assimilated into their own war fighting doctrines.

However, the ways WMD are discussed and the importance given to restrict their proliferation is instrumental to maintain the current world order. It is thus not accidental that Iran, as an emerging power virtually encircled by nuclear powers as no other nation in the world, is accused to belong to the axis of evil and to support terrorist groups elsewhere. This combination of ascribed features allows to circumvent addressing the question whether denying Iran access to nuclear technology as it chooses, does imply moral racism, as long as oneself is not prepared to dispose of ones own nuclear weapons. Fortunately there is absolutely no proof that the proliferation of nuclear weapons as it occurred so far has made this world more insecure. Thus, at least from Iran's perspective the notion of moral racism appears not altogether absurd.

This apparent detour is intended to point to the already deeply embedded we and they bias in our interpretation of international relations which preceded the anti-terrorism politics. However, this bias was a precondition for the rapid transformation of the political landscape, allowing incumbent governments to (ab)use the paradigm of terrorism as a means to stabilize their power. Crises of governance are likely to be compensated by an intensification of terrorist threat perception, Russia being the most straightforward case, but by no means the only one. The measures against terrorism disguise profound changes in governance to the detriment of democratic control. From an empirical point of view the fight against terrorism focuses on maintaining power. In such a context it is virtually impossible to measure progress in the fight against terrorism. In a political climate where it is not possible to scrutinise terrorist acts for political motives, in order to design defensive strategies, which include both protective police actions and political engagement of the "terrorist argument", progress in the fight against terrorism cannot be measured and is unlikely to occur. The absence of terrorist acts even over long periods of time is no meaningful measure of progress, as it is likely to be interpreted as merely the build-up of extreme pressure and the preparation of more sophisticated acts intended to send a political message.

The key problem concerning the concept of progress in the fight against terrorism can be described as different wavelengths of the parties involved in perceived confrontations with terrorists. Without deciphering the political content of terrorist acts, even if they appear senseless, a comprehensive anti-terrorism strategy is not feasible. The reluctance to look for the political element in terrorist acts impedes initiatives at the political front. If one does not accept the fact that there is always a political notion involved, terrorism can be definition be eradicated only by killing all perceived terrorists. As a result the measures taken to fight terrorism are not likely to render much result given that defensive precautions alone are not capable to deliver progress.


[1] Centre of European Policy Studies (CEPS) 30th June and 1st of July 2005

[2] This feature was at the time epitomized in Arthur Koestler's famous novel 'Darkness at Noon'.

[3] The far reaching implication of this ideology is analysed in: Joseph Comblin, El poder militar en América Latina, Salamarca 1978. The School of Americas was instrumental in disseminating this ideology among the military elites in Latin America. See: Lesley Gill, The School of the Americas, Durham (Duke University Press) 2004.

[4] The Anthrax finds in the United States, whose source was never officially identified, were instrumental in securing a free hand for the executive branch to launch the GWOT, no matter how flimsy the intelligence serving as the basis of the respective action taken was.