Last holiday season, my parents decided to buy me a new Samsonite suitcase, which would be big, sturdy and easy to handle. This was meant to ease their anxiety about my comfort during my frequent travels from Bristol to home in Nicosia – as well as guarantee that I could fit as many books and Cypriot foods into my luggage as I wanted. The seemingly mundane trip to the shops evolved into a full-blown political rant on the way back home when it turned out that my new Samsonite suitcase (and, in fact, all new Samsonite suitcases on sale) had an in-built TSA-function lock. This is a lock which has been developed by the US Department of Homeland Security’s Transport Security Administration (TSA) to be opened by airport security officials with a universal ‘master’ key. The aim of including such an in-built lock is – according to the shop assistant who helped me pick out my suitcase – to provide airport security officials easier access to my suitcase in the event of a detailed security check, so that they are not forced to destroy it in order to open it. Such are the times we live in. Although this functionality is meant primarily for travellers to the US, the ease with which privacy trespasses are being accepted as the way things are continues to astound. How does one make sense, then, of such a securitised suitcase?
The phenomenon of ‘securitisation’ was coined by a group of theorists, referred to within International Relations (IR) theory as the Copenhagen School of security studies. They argue that for an event to be understood as a security threat, it has to ‘meet strictly defined criteria that distinguish [it] from the normal run of the merely political’ (Buzan et al. 1998: 5). According to this post-positivist theorisation, potential threats can be placed on a spectrum which ranges from the (merely) political to the (extremely) securitised, depending on the articulation, understanding and construction of a given threat. Thus, one could argue that post-9/11 global politics has been increasingly securitised against the terrorist threat – my suitcase being part of this securitised response.
Critiques sympathetic to the Copenhagen School have pointed out that they present a welcome break from mainstream IR theory by privileging the speech act’s role in constructing a threat. However, they also argue that understanding discourse narrowly as only constituted by speech acts overlooks disadvantaged groups’ insecure silence (Hansen 2000). Lene Hansen argues that such a narrow understanding discounts the (gendered) populations which are marginalised, silenced, unable to participate in the official constructions of (in)security. She does not, however, question the distinction between the political and the securitised: the way to address the problem of silence, according to her, is to direct more security awareness its way. My immediate follow-up to this is to question whether increased security across a wider range of phenomena should really be the way forward? Can, for example, the terrorist threat be mitigated through TSA locks – among other securitised measures such as increased citizen sensitivity to ‘suspicious’ activity and readiness for any eventuality – or should we be digging elsewhere for answers?
Those acquainted with critical theory will not be allergic to critiques of the Copenhagen School model which emphasise the continuity between ‘mere’ politics and ‘extreme’ securitisation. They will recognise that in operating within a framework where we identify a suitcase as not explicitly relating to politics, we are already perpetuating a de-politicised ‘fascination with the manifold globalised and globalising technologies of order that have emerged to administer human beings’ (Dillon in Edkins 1999: 9). This process of technologization, or depoliticization as Jenny Edkins (1999) calls it, is only ever more pronounced when something has become securitised: the suitcase traverses from irrelevance to paramount importance in a process where any trace of the political (i.e. the attempt to establish social order, determining what counts as politics) is erased in favour of decisions being made only in technical and bureaucratic terms (i.e. in ‘politics’ terms). A situation where I pay for the privilege of having my suitcase broken into in an aesthetically pleasing manner (‘do not scratch the pink cover, please’) is one that demonstrates Edkins’ point perfectly: ‘securitization is technologization par excellence’ (11).
As Mark Neocleous argues, this impulse to privilege considerations of security and order is inextricably intertwined with the liberal state, and critical political analysis needs to take this into consideration if it is to constructively critique liberal structures of power. The TSA lock cannot only be thought of as an exception, or as a consequence of the Bush administration’s Global War on Terror, but has to be seen as an inevitability of liberal conceptions of the state, citizen and security. As Neocleous explains, ‘far from suspending the law, violent actions conducted in “emergency conditions” have been legitimated through law on the grounds of necessity and in the name of security’ (2008: 71). In other words, the laws which have apparently been so brazenly disregarded by the Bush administration in their pursuit of total security have actually laid the foundations for ‘the gulag of our times’ (Khan 2005), torture, indefinite detention, a widespread ‘state of fear’ (Napolitano 2009).
Where does this leave me and my suitcase? If we are to resist a culture of continual state intervention, then such action needs to go hand in hand with the realisation, in the words of Cynthia Enloe, that ‘the personal is international’ (2000). Boundaries of ‘inside/outside’ (Walker 1999) need to be broken down if we are to understand recurrent dynamics and their power over us. This means moving away from positioning security at the centre of our political concerns. Neocleous observes that the ‘fetishization of security’ means that security has been disciplined, and this disciplines us (academics, experts, knowledge-producers): how have we come to divorce ‘social security’ from issues of ‘national security’, for example? Doesn’t this boundary enable ‘political’ debate to continue along ‘technologized’ lines, and to separate considerations of what makes most economic sense, or what makes most military sense? So perhaps branding a suitcase as ‘securitised’ can point to what the object of liberal obsessions with security is: state rule, order, power. And this can help us consider: how was it possible for Samsonite and TSA to develop the above-described system of technologization; how is it seen as benign, or non-politicised; how can we move towards being less ‘secure’, more ‘precarious’ and inter-dependent (Butler 2006), and thus start constituting a truly international community?
Judith Butler, Precarious Life, Verso, London 2006.
Security: A New Framework for Analysis, red. Barry Buzan, Lynne Rienner, London 1998.
Jenny Edkins, Poststructuralism and International Relations: Bringing the Political Back In, Lynne Rienner, London 1999.
Cynthia Enloe, Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics, University of California Press, Berkeley 2000.
Lene Hansen, The Little Mermaid’s Silent Security Dilemma and the Absence of Gender in the Copenhagen School, „Millenium” 2000 vol. 29, no. 2, s. 285-306.
Irene Khan, Speech at Foreign Press Association, accessed: http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/POL10/014/2005/en/31217bcc-d4e5-11dd-8a23-d58a49c0d652/pol100142005en.html, 12/11/10.
Janet Napolitano, Common Threat, Collective Response: Protecting Against Terrorist Attacks in a Networked World’, Council on Foreign Relations, accessed:http://www.cfr.org/publication/19929/common_threat_collective_response.html, 21/08/09.
Mark Neocleous, Critique of Security, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh 2008.
RBJ Walker, Inside/Outside: International Relations and Political Theory, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1995.