According to conventional political wisdom the first duty of a democratic government is to afford security and protection to all its citizens. This objective is often misleadingly conflated with the notion of ‘national security’ – a principle that supposedly incorporates the duty of protection but actually often overrides it. National security isn’t necessarily concerned with the protection of the public or even with the nation, but with the survival of the state.
‘National’ security has more inclusive and democratic connotations than the more fascistic-sounding ‘state security’, which is why governments prefer to talk about it in the first person plural, and invoke the principle of protection in response to acts of political violence. They promise to wage wars, or introduce emergency legislation and ‘Muslim bans’ in response to terrorist attacks or in order to preempt them in order to ‘keep us safe’.
The procession of sinister and shocking events of the last month have made it brutally clear that the British government is failing to keep its citizens safe. The attack on Westminster; the massacre at Manchester; the jihadist stabbing spree at London bridge, and now yesterday’s attack on the Finsbury park mosque – all these events are part of a barbaric cycle of vengeance, fanaticism, and murder that may be paving the way for even worse horrors to come.
These events – though the British government will never acknowledge this – are part of a continuum of violence that reaches back to the Iraq War, and includes a series of reckless and failed neo-imperial military interventions and black ops that have reduced the heart of the Middle East and parts of North Africa to violent chaos. However horrendous the events that we have witnessed these last weeks, they are only the most visible manifestations of the 21st century’s savage world of unwinnable wars and pseudo-wars that have no end in sight.
The governments that set this process in motion may not have intended these consequences, but the idea that their own citizens could somehow remain untouched by these events was never really viable. So if we take the governments that launched these wars at their word, and assume that they really were intended to protect us, then we are looking at monumental policy failure, because what these wars have done is exacerbate every conflict and every threat they were supposed to eliminate. They have created a series of failed states and ungoverned spaces that provide the perfect recruiting ground and battlefield for politico-religious fanatics. They have fueled racism, of the kind we saw last night, and the murders of Muslims that have taken place in the US, and ushered in a cycle of tit-for-tat murders and atrocities that shows no sign of abating.
Presented as humanitarian interventions, they have killed people in huge numbers that barely even feature in the imagination of the West, and made it possible for a succession of terrorist organisations to present their obscene acts of violence as legitimate acts of revenge, however spuriously.
But violence is not the only threat to public safety, and the entirely preventable tragedy at Grenfell is a testament to a different kind of security failure. It has made it brutally clear that there are some sections of the population who are not considered worthy of protection because they are poor, because they are migrants or because they are darker-skinned.
The stench of neglect at Grenfell is overwhelming, from the failure to respond to warnings from the local action group to the utterly inadequate official response that followed. And this neglect is itself the product of a wider failure of governance that reached a pitch of sociopathic delirium in the name of ‘austerity’, with its destructive cuts to vital services, deregulation, corner cutting safety procedures, and the gradual pulling away of safety nets and the essential struts that hold society together.
The result is that insecurity and precarity are now the dominant social forces – except for the minority of the population rich enough to take the future for granted. This is why hospitals and A & Es are closing down across the country, why firemen, police and ambulance drivers are being shed, why patients wait for hours on stretchers in corridors. It’s why the welfare system that was intended to be a safety net has now become a punitive trap and a form of humiliation for some of the most vulnerable men and women in the country. It’s why jobs are becoming temporary, part-time and zero hours. It’s why living longer is increasingly becoming a nightmare to be dreaded rather than a sign of social progress.
We rightly condemn the feckless, callous and grossly inadequate politicians who have presided over this process, but they are only the most visible expressions of a broader social process, which has increasingly ensured that no one is really secure except those who are able to afford it.
That insecurity is global and also national. We now inhabit a country – and a world – that is bracing itself for the next atrocity and the next massacre. It’s a world where no one is secure, where demagogues like Donald Trump promise to keep their populations safe by building walls and issuing blanket bans on Muslim immigrants; where Richard Littlejohn calls us to ‘war’ and Isis attempts to use the Finsbury Park attack as a justification for the ‘war on the UK streets’ that its own provocations have been seeking to promote.
It is not at all clear how we get out of this dystopian situation. It may even be that we can’t. But there is really only one possibility that offers any hope, and that is to acknowledge the failures of the last few decades, both at home and abroad and move beyond the shallow notions of national security that have been invoked too often for the wrong reasons.
We might also imagine a different kind of security, based on the human rather than the national, that goes beyond war, counterterrorism and the imperatives of the state, and places the notion of the common good at its heart, and the possibility of a better future as its primary objective.