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9/11: more security, less secure

The world has been changed by the securitisation of everyday life and the Islamisation of security. The accompanying threat-complex has shifted American sensibilities, says Cas Mudde. 

The events of 11 September 2001 may have had a global impact, but for obvious reasons no country was affected so much as the United States of America. This was the first mass foreign terrorist attack on US soil; it struck at the most visible places of US commerce and government; and it made weapons of planes, which are part of many Americans’ travel routine (the equivalent of buses or trains in Europe).

It is therefore not surprising that the remembrance of 9/11 is a much bigger deal in the US than anywhere else. Many Americans (as well as non-Americans, of whom 372 died that day) have a personal or emotional connection to the events and to New York. In good American fashion, the tenth memorial is also a commercial goldmine; already at the beginning of the summer the first t-shirts went on sale at local supermarkets here in Indiana. Most of all, however, it is a domestic political battlefield, a chance to further whip up American patriotism and argue that your side was correct about how to respond and the other side was unpatriotic and wrong.  

In addition, serious journalists and scholars try to neutrally assess the consequences of 9/11 and the various responses to it by states. They examine attitudes and discourse (e.g. anti-Americanism, Islamophobia), legal and extra-legal actions (notably Guantánamo Bay and the Patriot Act), and military and security expenditure. A striking aspect of most accounts is how little we know.

For example, while many people speak of spikes in anti-Americanism and Islamophobia, both sentiments were hardly measured in surveys pre-9/11. Much of the state responses to terrorism is top secret and even information that should be readily available tends to be difficult to access or analyse; and the US is far from alone in this.

Hence, answering the questions David Hayes of openDemocracy posed to me is difficult; these responses are based more on personal assessments and impressions than on public information or scholarly research.

* What has been the biggest single impact of 9/11 on the public and political world?  

There is little doubt that 9/11 has led throughout the world to two interrelated processes (though they have played out variously in different countries and regions). First, it has led to the securitisation of almost all aspects of life; second, it has led to the Islamisation of security. What I mean to say is that almost everything - from immigration to transport, from the environment to the internet - is now perceived primarily (or at least secondarily) in terms of security and threat.

In turn, security and threat are almost always related to Islam and Muslims. This link was again painfully clear in the first reactions of “security experts” to the killings in Norway on 22 July 2011, which were directly linked to Islamism and al-Qaida, though they were in fact the work of a lone, white, Christian right-wing extremist. The securitisation of politics and the Islamisation of security are not limited to sinister right-wing forces; in more or less moderate form, and even in the more liberal media, they are staples of most discussions of politics.

* There has been so much loss. Have there been any winners from 9/11?  

Every event has winners and losers and 9/11 is no exception. More broadly, the larger intelligence-security complex has been the major winner. Throughout the world budgets for intelligence agencies and related security firms (often private) have skyrocketed. In Australia the increase since 2001 has been almost tenfold! At the same time, the influence of these organisations has grown exponentially, as a consequence of the securitisation of politics and the hasty introduction of new and often vague and thus far-reaching laws.

Another statistic tells much of the story. Before 2001 only a few hundred people per year were convicted of terrorist-related offences. In 2011, an Associated Press study finds that “at least 35.000 people worldwide have been convicted as terrorists in the decade since the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States”.

The report emphasises that many non- and semi-democracies have also used post-9/11 anti-terrorism legislation to stifle democratic and non-violent internal opposition, though it fails to report that there are many examples of similar arrests and harassments in established democracies (such as the scandal involving the wiretapping of US peace activists).

* Did the events of that day change you in any way you care to mention?

When the first plane hit the World Trade Centre’s north tower in New York I was having dinner in a restaurant in Edinburgh, where I then lived. I followed the fallout in the European press, and saw the discourse and politics change throughout the continent; most notably in my native Netherlands.

When I moved to the US in 2008, 9/11 had become much less central to political debates in Europe, even though the securitisation of politics and the Islamisation of security are still notable and relevant. In the US, however, 9/11 is still the defining moment of a generation; even my students, who were 8-12 years old at the time, consider America and the world now to be a completely different place than before that fateful day (which they can hardly remember). It has become part of the cultural frame of the whole nation, and has made a naturally naïve and optimistic people worried and afraid.

Many Americans now see the world as a hostile place, which hates America; they also identify intolerance (of either Muslims or Islamophobes, or both) as a threat to their country and the world. To be fair, this is not so far from many Dutch people, even though their 9/11 came with the murders of Pim Fortuyn and Theo Van Gogh. Here again, there are commonalities which play out differently.


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