cerelia athanassiou: Fear and the Unbearable Endurance of the Global War on Terrorism

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Hurricane Sandy hit the North-East US at a time of ongoing consolidation of the US nation-state and its militarised apparatus of governance that is the US national security state. It reaffirmed to many that times of emergency, whether man-made or environmental, prove the necessity of government, of a coordinated response that seeks to alleviate danger and hardship, and which provides a way forward and out of disaster.

What is not communicated through images of protector leaders embracing the visibly vulnerable subjects among us is that federal responses do not have to resemble military operations to succeed in getting through to as many people as possible. This counter-scheme was offered by the organised effort of Occupy Sandy, which still sees volunteers trying to reach as many of those left behind by federal relief efforts as possible. No military talk here, it would seem, and no hint of romancing certain governors of the opposition for the added benefit of re-election. Occupy Sandy imagines and approaches the project of security differently to the frameworks set out by the US government, frameworks that keep being exposed as in need of serious reformulation. Let me elaborate on this, by taking a closer look at government discourses seeking to form a post-9/11 US citizen that is ‘ready’ for natural disaster, terrorist threats and any other national emergency while promoting not change but an acceptance of the status quo.

This post-9/11 US citizenship that is promoted by the Obama administration is one which defines its national security most commonly by referring to 9/11 as the manifestation of the singular threat facing the ‘homeland’. This same citizenship defined by the Obama administration is also one which identifies very much as taking place post-war on terror, having elected into office (twice now!) a president who deals with the terrorist threat, but does so without the bombastic flamboyancy of the Bush warrior/cowboy era. Crucially, Obama also ‘does’ warrior politics, but much more subtly than his predecessor, but this is a theme for another paper. Anyway, let’s stick with the Obama administration’s discourse on homeland security for the moment.

Their politics of de-militarisation and of bringing back calm in the face of a politics of fear takes as a starting point ‘engaging the American people in our collective effort’. At the centre of re-defining US counterterrorism  has been the idea of rescuing a worthy project, one which was ‘motivated by a sincere desire to protect the American people’. Thus, Obama’s project of ‘change’ was geared not at dismantling the framework of fear propagated by the Global War on Terror (GWOT), but rather recuperating it so that it falls in line with the (or a?) rule of law. Central to this was the reconsolidation as well of the proper (middle-income) US citizen, one who would not be terrorised by government surveillance and supervision, but one who could be enticed to cooperate and to further the government’s aims: ‘For too long we’ve treated the public as a liability to be protected rather than an asset in our nation’s collective security’. The discourse of change promised to re-envision American society and security, and to review the relation of government to its citizens, against the fearful misinformation of the GWOT, but on obvious terms of subservience to priorities set from up above.

And this brings me to my central question here: how can ‘change’, or reversal, from the ‘politics of fear’ happen when the militarised framework sustaining such fear is left unchallenged? The answer to this might seem obvious, but at a time when governments are growing increasingly capable of soliciting support from their citizens through a variety of means that make them appear harmless, unproblematic and even cool, I think the question is pretty valid. Judith Butler’s interrogation into what makes the ‘frames of war’ hold observed that the recent US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan provided insight into ‘how affect is regulated to support both the war effort and, more specifically, nationalist belonging’ [Butler 2009: 40]. Fear was and is, understandably, present in how the social and political are framed; that it would be operationalised or ‘regulated’ by governments seeking to reaffirm their authority and distance from their electorate would also seem a logical conclusion. But it is crucial to question the ‘common sense’ that militarised government is necessary to fighting an identified ‘evil’. Not least because in the context of US politics and of US foreign policy, the common sense of militarisation weds itself to continuing politics of subjugation, disempowerment and imperial violence. For Patricia McFadden, this is a constant characteristic of the US’s ‘benign’ imperialism, as she sees it:

When making war is approached as if it were a strange and peculiar aberration on the part of a state, particularly a state that has long desired to become imperial – having been left behind, so to speak, when the rest of the white world ventured forth and became ‘civilized’ through military plunder and nefarious escapades of primitive accumulation in what is today called the South – it is easy to miss the fact that warmongering by present-day Western states was and remains fundamentally bolstered by the discourses and practices of enslavement, racism, classism, and gendered supremacy regarding societies that are ‘not white’ and/or are located predominantly in the Southern hemisphere [Mc Fadden 2008: 59].

For McFadden, the US is more an imperial power ‘in the making’ [Mc Fadden 2008: 57] rather than fait accompli, but the powerful point still stands, that ‘default’ recourse to violence and militarisation by this nation-state has severe racist, classist, gendered implications not just on its own citizens, but also on the vast ‘outside’.

With war (on terror) as a continuing possibility and the levels of preparedness envisioned to sustain it on the increase, we have a way into understanding the complex processes that make up militarisation, and its central role in the overarching framework of international, or Western, state relations. The crucial element of fear and its use by the US government occupies centre stage here.

‘Ready’ Citizens

The above-mentioned effort by the Obama administration to effect ‘change’ against a ‘politics of fear’ associated with a never-ending Global War on Terror has continued to normalise the threat of terrorism as something real, impending and requiring continued consolidation of executive sovereignty (and through this, its favourite instrument, that of the war machine). This process of constructing terrorism as something that is always (apolitically) there, and as something that always requires a militarised response, cannot operate without a continued exploitation of the workings of fear. In one of her first speeches as Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano explained that America now faces complex threats, and that a ‘much broader societal response’ is needed to combat these. So, campaigns like ‘Ready’ and ‘If you see something, say something’ come as part of a ‘refocus’ of the DHS’s counterterrorist policy:

to make it a shared endeavor, to make it more layered, networked and resilient, to make it smarter and more adaptive and to make sure that as a country, as a nation, we are at the point where we are in a constant state of preparedness and not a state of fear.

Information on what counts as a threat and the appropriate measures to tackle it is essential to transforming a fearful population into a universally prepared citizenry.

The more information citizens can access about the steps to take to prevent disaster from happening, the more empowered the nation as a whole becomes, the thinking goes. Throughout the ‘Ready’ literature, the citizen and the community are given the tools to identify, and prepare, for the risks that matter:

The whole system begins with you, the citizen, and your ability to follow good emergency management practices – whether at home, work, or other locations.

This is the surest, and most commonsensical, way to help authorities go about their job of protecting you, your community and your business. Risk (including risk of terrorism) is thus potentially made more tangible and understandable, and through this, more manageable, more normal. Moreover, citizens’ fears and vulnerabilities are used here to enlist their efforts into a larger and cohesive whole. You are made to feel part of a greater official effort. For example, the video here engages the audience’s fears but suggests that with only minimal public involvement these can be alleviated: http://www.dhs.gov/video/if-you-see-something-say-something-officials-psa. Different sports officials are shown in this video to communicate the role of citizen vigilance in maintaining security; we are told by a series of sports officials that ‘we all play an important role in protecting our community and you can help. If you see something suspicious, say something to local authorities’. Citizens are thus reassured that authorities are awaiting their input into these processes of community protection, this further confirming that vigilance (of the sort recommended by DHS) is a necessary minimum for a safe community and country.

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The increasing emphasis on community action against terrorism encourages further initiatives which inform a vigilant citizenry of what counts as suspicious activity. The expectation from DHS is that all citizens should be ‘vigilant for indicators of potential terrorist activity’. In doing so, they distance the urgency associated with terrorism, but they at the same time reinforce its spectral presence. In doing so, they reassert government’s primary role in arbitrating on, as well as providing, security, conflating their interests with those of the wider nation. The call of ‘If you see something, say something’ does not work without a public that is sold on the necessity for a Protector government to assume ultimate authority in identifying and fighting security threats while further distancing itself from its citizens. Moreover, this is a more acceptable deal for many as it is based on, and plays into, what many see as the ‘norm’ of American life and a democratic citizenship that is, first and foremost, loyal to the rule of law.


Part of the normalising process, as seen in the above screengrab from the DHS’s ‘Ready’ campaign website, is classing terrorism as, firstly, a ‘hazard’, and secondly listing it among other (?) disasters, such as natural disasters or pandemics. This normalisation depoliticises terrorism, so that it is not read as a political problem – or a manifestation of political grievances and antagonisms – but as an inherent life-threatening disaster that is as unavoidable and exceptional as other natural disasters or hazards. I can understand that this discursive move has come about as a result of an administration eager to get away from the destructive politics of hyped up fear levels that was so emblematic of the Bush administration’s reign. In this sense, normalisation of the threat can be seen as almost a positive move: to counter a militarised aggression that had previously been seen as all-too-easily getting out of hand, as François Debrix points out with the Bush-era loss of control over the ‘war machine’s’ workings [Debrix 2008: 121].

However, despite this understandable move by the US government and electorate, it is crucial to highlight the inherently problematic nature of the politics put in place. The reason for this is that the same purpose of protecting America from an almost-abstract notion of terrorism is served by the post-GWOT context, as it was during the GWOT. Although fear levels seem to be significantly turned down by such a discursive move, they are not completely switched off; indeed, a low hum of continued fear must be maintained so that preparedness can translate into security; so that ‘ready’ citizens can be secure. In this, such discourses of ‘preparedness’ or ‘readiness’, against any number of hazards facing the nation-state, are emblematic of what Richard Grusin identified as the media logic that has been symptomatic after 9/11, that of ‘premediation’. His definition:

Premediation works to prevent citizens of the global mediasphere from experiencing again the kind of systemic or traumatic shock produced by the events of 9/11 by perpetuating an almost constant, low level of fear or anxiety about another terrorist attack [Grusin 2010: 2].

Grusin bases this conceptualisation on earlier work done with Jay Bolter on ‘remediation’, which for them encapsulated the potentially conflicting logics of modern practices of mediation, aimed for both ‘immediacy and hypermediacy’ at the same time. Remediation is characterised by media efforts to firstly, ‘erase themselves’ in the complex process of mediation and secondly, ‘to proliferate multiple forms and practices of mediation’ [Grusin 2010: 1]. Premediation is a step further of erasure and multiplication that seeks to communicate a continuing anxiety in continuing anticipation of disaster. Grusin points to the run-up to the Iraq War and its exposition of the news media’s wilful participation in the government’s propaganda campaign [Grusin 2010: 42]. It is clear here that the ‘media regime of pre-emptive war’ (2010: 41) is a space that powerfully mediates and anticipates fear and propaganda. Debrix identifies this dynamic ‘tabloid realism’, a confluence of news media, popular culture and government policy, all working to reaffirm a violent and sensationalist geopolitics [Debrix 2008: 16]. The call for vigilance feeds into this powerful conflation of reality with virtuality, confirming individuals’ worst fears about ‘others’ they suspect (of nothing in particular).

A case in point here is a recent US Senate report on the uselessness of counterterrorism fusion centres – these are centralised spaces where intelligence (for example, resulting from a member of the public supportive of the ‘If you see something, say something’ campaign) are shared and analysed by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. Aside from the issue of the lack of clarity on how funds are used to support such fusion centres, the report found that more often than not these centres held information about citizens without linking them to any terrorist initiatives or even revealing possible terrorist plots they might be involved with. Recently, WikiLeaks has also helpfully uncovered emails from the private intelligence company Stratfor describing DHS fusion centres as ‘freaking amature [sic] hour’. Research on these growing hubs of counterterrorism information, linked to ‘ready’ and ‘preparedness’ initiatives, reveals the dangerous side of the normalisation of terrorism: that the logic of the security state takes over, unchallenged, and dictates its interpretations of ‘security’ and how that can be achieved. Crucially, these revelations directly challenge the sanitised appeal for citizen ‘cooperation’, as coming from the above videos, exposing not just the limitations of such information drives but also the very minimal role of citizen vigilance in an overbearing national surveillance network. A narrative that emerges from these is that citizens end up enlisted in operations that perpetuate fear and suspicion to a far greater degree than they provide security.

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Our reading of vigilance, preparedness and counterterrorism has to, then, be contextualised in the ongoing premediation identified by Grusin and the reigning consensus of low-level fear and anxiety. As Butler points out, it is these affective elements of the socio-political which are then operationalised for murderous, nationalist projects [Butler 2009: 40], and their social and political construction should be central in analyses such as this one, geared towards de-mystifying and disempowering their destructive effects. This is not to argue that fears are misplaced, or that dangers do not exist, but rather that discussion of these very often lacks an ethical self-questioning that turns the spotlight on how interpretations of threat – and tied with this, interpretations of what counts as a solution – reflect a wider politics and further continuities with what McFadden terms above the tendency to imperialism. Butler points to the emancipatory potential of such a self-questioning: that ‘how we interpret what we feel actually can and does alter the feeling itself’ [Butler 2009: 41]. In such an interrogation, I am not geared towards denouncing a reified concept itself – in this case, fear – but rather, the specific dynamics that are operationalising it to various ends of continuing subjugation and exploitation of ‘others’.

Unavoidable Vulnerability

In her interrogation into how ‘frames of war’ operate and are normalised, Butler points to how such framings offered by governments, whereby certain threats and certain responses are normalised, can also ‘normalize destruction’ [Butler 2009: xvii]. Thus,

our visual apprehension of war is an occasion in which we implicitly consent or dissent to war or where our ambivalent relation is formulated, where we also are able to pose questions about what and how war is presented, and what absence structures and limns this visual field [Butler 2009: xvii].

No area is excluded from the influence of, and on, war, she argues, powerfully foregrounding the importance of the conditionalities on which we decide to support, oppose, or participate in war. The recognition of mutual vulnerability – of the precarity of life – is crucial here, precisely because it so strongly articulates against powerful nations’ systematic argument that war serves their security:

[W]ar seeks to deny the ongoing and irrefutable ways in which we are all subject to one another, vulnerable to destruction by the other, and in need of protection through multilateral and global agreements based on the recognition of a shared precariousness [Butler 2009: 43].

She thus calls for ethical and political reframings of the need for war, and warns that this can only be achieved through understanding the fundamental vulnerability of all life as an ethical basis for social and political interdependence. A fundamental part of this has to be ‘how existing norms allocate recognition differently’ [Butler 2009: 6], so that some of us are seen as worthy of defence and some as requiring increased apprehensive attention. Butler thus exposes the state’s role in creating this meaning around who is what kind of person and what kind of threat they pose. Butler is adamant that her focus on reframing how we understand ourselves politically and socially, and thus how we understand wars being waged in our names or on our persons, is in the interest of opposing state violence ‘and its capacity to produce, exploit, and distribute precarity for the purposes of profit and territorial defense’ [Butler 2009: 32]. Precarity and vulnerability are articulated here not to further the cause of an abstract national security, but to provide a much-needed counter-argument to this entity’s claim that vulnerability is best addressed through an abrogation of rights to sovereign interests. This, of course, requires sustained criticality against self-assured narratives that guarantee protection, which translates to a continuing scepticism of state calls to ‘preparedness’ for its citizens.

Indeed, it is with such scepticism of the narratives of protection proffered that the lie of security can be unmasked. Iris Marion Young outlines the problematic and well-heeled logic of the security state:

Through the logic of protection the state demotes members of a democracy to dependents, a form analogous to the patriarchal household. State officials adopt the stance of the masculine protector [Young 2003: 226].

Within such a tradition, where the idea of  ‘masculine impermeability’ [Butler 2009: 24] reigns so that ‘security’ is usually associated less with ethics and more with strategic war-waging, vigilance is only demanded to further sovereign interests. Moreover, where war-waging ‘security’ is privileged, such vigilance as is demanded by citizens from the documents above can only operate by a subtly continuing politics of fear. After all, they depict a world in which catastrophes are imminent, ignorance of them is foolish and inaction results in grave consequences. Further, they refuse to define the catastrophes, or the action or knowledge required, leaving the outlining of these vague and clearly belonging to the realm of government.

Communal Support vs. Communal Vigilance

Can we begin to think of a post-9/11 that breaks more decisively with the cycles of violence put into life by some of the above narratives of security and protection? This would require different models of ‘security’, ones which do not simply solicit citizen support for frameworks that can only be enacted through executive decision-making. For the past two years, variations on the theme of ‘occupy’ and ‘occupation’ have been delivering the much-needed space to deliberate about what democratic participation should look like. They, thus, also allow us to imagine security differently from the definitions proffered by the US government, and to (counterintuitively?) embrace total de-militarisation as providing greater security than militarised war. They are worth exploring further, because they seek to address problems of security but without reasserting power inequality; rather, through their privileging of notions of community, equality and participation, they invite us to think against premediated fear and against its use by a government only interested in recruiting citizens’ help to further its own projects of security. Communal support rather than communal vigilance becomes the rallying cry against exploitation of vulnerability. That seems a promising step towards dismantling the enduring militarism of dominant (state-focused) understandings of security.


1. Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, Verso, London 2004.

2. Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable?, Verso, London 2009.

3. François Debrix, Tabloid Terror: War, Culture and Geopolitics, Routledge, London 2008.

4. Richard Grusin, Premediation: Affect and Mediality After 9/11, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke 2010.

5. Patricia McFadden, Interrogating Americana: an African Feminist Critique, in: Feminism and War: Confronting US Imperialism, ed. Robin L Riley, Chandra Talpade Mohanty and Minnie Bruce Pratt, Zed Books, London 2008, pp. 56-67.

6. Iris Marion Young, Feminist Reactions to the Contemporary Security Regime, Hypatia, vol. 18, no. 1 2003, pp. 223-231.


Cerelia Athanassiou is a PhD candidate at the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies (SPAIS) at the University of Bristol. Her research is on conceptualisations of security post-9/11, focusing specifically on the discursive strategies used by the Obama administration to disempower the Global War on Terror. She has a strong interest in post-structural and feminist approaches to political theory and intersections of security, popular culture and politics.

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