National security: a concept in search of a meaning?

Good morning folks.   It’s National Counter Terrorism Awareness week, and the government and police forces across the country are doing their best to remind the public of the gravity of the threats we face from terrorism, radicalization and extremism.   The UK ‘terror threat’ has been raised to ‘ severe’ and the prime minister has gone so far as to assure the public that a terrorist attack in the UK within the next few months is ‘inevitable.’

Theresa May has announced new legislation, including laws that will ban ‘extremist’ speakers from universities.   And today the tabloids and broadsheets have been blaring the main talking point of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s (ISC) report into the murder of Lee Rigby, that Facebook may have inadvertently acted as a ‘safe haven for terrorism’ because it didn’t report a conversation between Michael Adebowale and some other homicidal loser.

The aim of Counterterrorism Awareness Week is ostensibly to draw public attention to the threat of terrorism, and these efforts are invariably linked to two concepts that are constantly on the lips of politicians and policemen.  The first is ‘national security’.   And the second is the notion of public safety, often expressed by the idea that the authorities are intent on ‘ keeping us safe.’

Both expressions tend to be used as if they were interchangeable terms.   Yesterday for example, the ghastly Hazel Blears – the political incarnation of Ken Kesey’s Big Nurse for whom the term ‘gimlet-eyed’ might have been specifically coined – was on Channel Four News discussing the ISC report, which she helped prepare.

One minute Blears was pointing the finger at the ‘unnamed Internet company’ (Facebook) suggesting that a ‘proper legal framework’ would have to be devised to ensure that Internet companies gave data to governments when it came to terrorism, in order to strike the balance between privacy and national security.  The next she was arguing that the government was obligated to introduce such a framework in order to ‘keep people safe.’

Superintendent Gus MacPherson of the Scottish police made a similar conceptual elision when he announced that Scotland Highland and Islands Division ‘ is focusing on keeping people safe within our communities’ as part of Counter Terrorism Awareness Week.   These efforts include ‘highly visible patrols’ in Scottish ‘transport hubs’ such as Shetland, Orkney, Western Isles, Caithness, Inverness, Aviemore and Fort William

Superintendent MacPherson pointed out that ‘The Highlands and Islands is, and continues to be, one of the safest places to live in the UK.’.  Nevertheless, he inisted that ‘ we cannot be complacent when it comes to matters of national security.’

God perish the thought, and statements like this can always be guaranteed to produce suitably grim expressions, lowered eyes and hushed voices, because we all know that national security is a serious business, even if few of those who use the expression so freely ever seek to define what it actually means. Take M15 for example.  On its official website, M15 states that ‘ the role of the Security Service…is the protection of national security and in particular its protection against threats such as terrorism, espionage and sabotage…’

I see.   So what does M15 understand by national security?

‘The term “national security” is not specifically defined by UK or European law. It has been the policy of successive Governments and the practice of Parliament not to define the term, in order to retain the flexibility necessary to ensure that the use of the term can adapt to changing circumstances.’

So M15 is charged with protecting something that has no definition?  Correct, and not only in the UK, since

‘As a matter of Government policy, the term “national security” is taken to refer to the security and well-being of the United Kingdom as a whole. The “nation” in this sense is not confined to the UK as a geographical or political entity but extends to its citizens, wherever they may be, and its system of government.’

Got it now?   National security has no specific meaning or definition, in order to retain ‘flexibility’ in protecting the ‘security and well-being’ of the ‘nation’ – a concept that equates not just with the UK and its government but British citizens everywhere.

This theoretical vagueness has always been crucial to national security discourse.  During the Cold War the Latin American ‘national security states’ of the 60s and 70s conjured up images of international communist conspiracies and ‘subversion’ as a pretext for dictatorships, military regimes and a host of emergency measures designed to crush any political dissent.

In the 1940s and 1950s American governments raised the concept of national security to the status of semi-official doctrine to enact a semi-permanent state of emergency that continues to endure in a different form to this day.

Wherever and whenever it is evoked, national security acts as a pretext for enhancing and widening the power of the state and removing these powers from democratic scrutiny and accountability – in some cases by abolishing democracy altogether.   In practice national security really means state security, and the ‘national’ adjective is little more than a convenient cloak that enables the state to grip the population in an ever-tighter embrace while all the time presenting itself as the protector of public safety.

Within this context the vagueness and lack of definition is not simply a semantic oversight – it is politically useful. By refusing to define what national security actually means, the state is able to apply the term to whatever enemies suit its immediate objectives, both domestically and abroad, even as it removes its activities ever further from public scrutiny and accountability by raising specific enemies to the level of an existential threat to the security of the nation as a whole.

Consider the urgency on display this week.  The murder of Lee Rigby was a horrible and disgusting crime, and such crimes certainly need to be prevented in the future.  But such acts do not threaten the existence of the nation, despite what Hazel Blears may think.   And let’s suppose that an Isis suicide bomber or a member of Boko Haram made his way to the Isle of Mull or the Shetlands and blew himself up on a ‘transport hub’ and killed ten or fifteen people.   That would certainly be an act of mass murder, like the Birmingham pub bombings, but the existence and stability of British society and its institutions would not be undermined by it.

During last winter’s floods, both Ed Miliband and the then Defense Secretary Philip Hammond suggested that flooding and climate change were a threat to national security.  Using M15’s terms, global warming certainly presents a far greater threat to the ‘security and well-being of the United Kingdom as a whole’, but at no point has this threat ever received the same level of official attention as the ongoing terrorist emergency, which only this week Theresa May insisted once again will last ‘for years.’

Climate change is also likely to go on for years.  But unlike ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’ – two other terms that are often condemned but whose meaning is often left undefined –  flooded homes are not politically useful, and therefore do not need to be treated as a security priority.

National security on the other hand, is the perfect doctrine to accompany the era of endless war – wars that are always ‘preemptive’ and intended to protect us and ‘keep us safe’.  No matter that these wars often seem to increase the risks the public faces and fuel the ‘extremism’ that the government claims to want to eliminate.  It’s national security, Jake, and you need to be quiet.

And that is why we don’t have ‘National Counter-Climate Change Awareness week’, and why so few people want to say what national security actually means, but so many people in power are happy to use the term anyway.

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