Today, we live in a climate of fear. On 15 December, the US Department of Homeland Security and FBI issued an intelligence bulletin to state and local law enforcement agencies warning that terrorists could target mass gatherings at major metropolitan areas during the 2010 holiday season, although US officials said that there is no specific and credible intelligence about planned terror attacks. In October, the US Department of State issued an alert warning Americans travelling to Europe to be cautious because of suspected terror plots to attack major European cities. At around the same time, the UK also said there was a 'high threat of terrorism' in France and Germany. In return, French authorities told citizens travelling to the UK to exercise caution as a terrorist attack on transportation systems and tourist sites is 'highly likely.'
Put things into perspective. In the 1970s, hardly a day went by in Britain without the threat of bombing campaigns by the Provisional IRA. Reacting to the 7 February 1991 Downing Street IRA attack, British Prime Minister John Major said coolly, “I think we had better start again, somewhere else.” Somehow Britain survived without the paranoia and fear characteristic of our time. Today, the extensive security apparatus in place cannot even tolerate a joke sent over Twitter. Paul Chambers was arrested for the tweet: 'Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!', which was deemed to constitute a bomb threat to Doncaster Sheffield’s airport in the UK.
Terrorism has been a fairly constant phenomenon over the past century. From extreme Islamists, and Marxist ultra-leftists to nationalists, a wide variety of militant groups and individuals will use violence to achieve their goals. But death by terrorist attack each year pales in comparison to death by other causes such as natural disasters and car crashes. Yet, governments go to great lengths to create ramified warning systems, security schemes and intelligence apparatus, magnifying terror and anxiety in the process. This may come from a genuine concern for citizens' safety: but a larger part of it comes from the bureaucratic desire to extend its reach and power.
If terrorism has been a constant rather than a recent phenomenon, could it be argued that a primary objective of the various security apparatuses is to heighten and maintain that threat? Perhaps this is a self-fulfilling prophecy created by security and military establishments of the western world to counter the end of Cold War. Instead of the Soviet Union, terrorism, insurgency, weapons of mass destruction and the 'axis of evil' are the new threats which sustain the emergency. This focus on 'lower-order threats' and 'low-intensity conflict' was clearly articulated in the US National Security Strategy of 1990, given a renewed impetus following the 9/11 attacks.
Security and military forces are dependent upon fear and secrecy. Max Weber first described the characteristics of bureaucracy in his work Economy and Society (1922). He concluded, "every bureaucracy seeks to increase the superiority of the professionally informed by keeping their knowledge and intentions secret. Bureaucratic administration always tends to be an administration of 'secret sessions': in so far as it can, it hides its knowledge and action from criticism. The pure interest of the bureaucracy in power, however, is efficacious far beyond those areas where purely functional interests make for secrecy. The concept of the 'official secret' is the specific invention of bureaucracy, and nothing is so fanatically defended by the bureaucracy as this attitude.. In facing a parliament, the bureaucracy, out of a sure power instinct, fights every attempt of the parliament to gain knowledge by means of its own experts or from interest groups.... Bureaucracy naturally welcomes a poorly informed and hence a powerless parliament - at least in so far as ignorance somehow agrees with the bureaucracy’s interests.”
The Wikileaks saga confirms the view that members of unelected officials in the high levels of political establishment have engaged in highly undemocratic practice, shaping foreign policy and international relations behind closed doors. It reveals a culture of secrecy where, for alleged security or procedural reasons, information is hidden from the public. This confirms Weber’s view that the bureaucracy has a tendency to operate outside the bounds of democracy in accordance with its own interests. Many of the spending decisions and schemes devised by the security establishment are passed without sufficient democratic oversights and justifications when their motivations are at least questionable.
Simon Jenkins of The Guardian has written of the 'extensive police and industrial lobby' in Britain which thrives on maintaining a high level of public fear. Hence hardly a day goes by without an official warning that an 'Irish-related' attack is 'a strong possibility', or that an al-Qaida attack is 'highly likely' and 'only a matter of time.' After ten years of soaring security spending under the shadows of 9/11 (2001) and 7/7 (2005), John Yates, Met's anti-terrorism chief, was quick to warn that any cuts to his budget would be exploited by al-Qaida and leave Britain 'vulnerable to attack.'
Fareed Zakaria of the Newsweek has discussed a similar US over-reaction to 9/11. Quoting a Washinton Post reporting project 'Top Secret America', he showed how Washington has constructed a vast new security apparatus since 9/11 while al-Qaida has been unable to mount a single major attack on the US: a 2.5 times increase on intelligence spending to US$75 billion, 33 new building complexes to house intelligence bureaucracies - equivalent to three Pentagons, and some 30,000 people employed exclusively to listen in on phone conversations and other communications in the US. Zakaria conceded that the US has built itself up for wars and assumed emergency authority in the past, yet always demobilised after conflicts. But the war on terror is a war without end: 'When do we declare victory? When do the emergency powers cease?'
In The Sorrows of Empire, American political scientist Chalmers Johnson predicts that emergency powers, once started, will not cease. As Johnson puts it, the war on terror has helped maintain high levels of employment and government expenditures on war preparedness. The war machine comes in various forms: in huge espionage and clandestine service apparatuses, in strategic research institutes in universities, in think tanks, in manufacturers of small-arms ammunition, etc. It has now developed into a vast web of vested interest which threatens the very fabric of democracy and civil liberty.
In Public Opinion (1922), Walter Lippmann wrote approvingly of the model of organised bureaucratic intelligence, in which a group of appointed officials in government bureaus help democracy work by providing expertise on parts of the world they are delegated to comprehend. Rather than dictating policy and serving special interests, the job of these experts is to help elected politicians to make decisions based on facts collected from the 'constituency of intangibles.' In Lippmann's view, the expert should separate himself from 'those who make the decisions’, and insist ‘upon not caring, in his expert self, what decision is made.' Drawing on the example of the British Foreign Office, he wrote, 'it is no accident that the best diplomatic service in the world is the one in which the divorce between the assembling of knowledge and the control of policy is most perfect.'
In retrospect, Lippmann expressed too much faith in the experts. Today citizens have no idea what this unelected, permanent military and security apparatus is doing, and there is no account of the vast sums of public money spent on them. All these in the name of national security and secrecy. As Wikileaks has revealed, the culture of opacity has become pervasive within governments. If security organisations depend upon fear and paranoia to sustain their existence, Julian Assange suggests using the same tools to hold them to account. He visions that systemic leaking would ‘induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie,’ weakening their power to conspire. This would ‘carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity.’ As of late, the self-serving military and security apparatus shows little sign of submitting itself to transparency and accountability. Failing a reform, Julian Assange shows us how the people could expose secrets, overcome the entrenched interests of the security complex and bring democracy back to life.