The enemy within

In the face of international terrorism, the West fights for ideals, not geopolitical borders.

by Sylvianne Duval

While the notion of winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan may seem benign, the reality is problematic. As villagers line up for free health care and humanitarian aid, they are expected to co-operate with the Western military operation and “filter out” insurgents.

“My research shows that since 9/11, democracies find it a lot easier to suspend the basic freedoms and rights of citizens in the name of managing a diff use risk,” confirms Alexandra Gheciu, professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences.

She cites examples such as detentions without trial in the UK (the very nation that founded habeas corpus) and invasions of privacy such as the sharing of passenger lists for flights that pass over American air space. And we all know Maher Arar’s story.

According to Gheciu’s analysis, this form of risk management applied to national security is relatively new. Until 1989, national security was on a state-to-state basis. The West knew that the enemy was the highly militarized communist block and that the threat stopped at its geopolitical borders. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, organizations such as NATO redefined their roles by stating that national security would be well served if these fragile states became democracies, and they set about overseeing the conversion.

“Then came 9/11… sobering attacks on our culture and values,” says Gheciu. “The West realized that democracies may be harbouring a non-traditional enemy that is not working on behalf of a state.”

Who is the enemy then, if no longer a state? Other than being broadly defined as fluid, transnational extremist groups that may be involved in terrorism and may use weapons of mass destruction against Western societies, we do not know who it is.

“And that’s why managing this risk is so difficult,” explains Gheciu. “Our enemies don’t all live conveniently outside our community. What are the boundaries? Where does al-Qaeda end? How do you fight such an elusive enemy? The old methods don’t work.”

Indeed, until the end of the Cold War, the West thought it could manage the risk of war with a threat of annihilation (think nuclear arms race). Now the West must re-conceptualize the word “enemy” to include its own citizens and deter people who are not afraid to die. One solution Gheciu has observed being used is the new role of individuals and in-country organizations in what is now seen as a continual process of security. The price, she says, is the partial suspension of the very values around which the West defines its identity. 

“Many areas of life, both at home and in the states we are supporting, are now relevant to security,” says Gheciu. “New duties and tremendous burdens have been imposed on individuals and organizations. Banks must provide information on their clients’ transactions. NGOs cannot accept funds from groups or individuals who could be associated with extremists and must collect data on and surrounding their activities. Governments share more and more data on their citizens. It’s reminiscent of communist-style policing.” All this has wide-ranging implications on how we lead our lives.

The logic of risk management is that risk can always be invoked as a justification. Gheciu finds that no evidence is necessary, no habeas corpus; the mere sniff of risk is sufficient grounds for justifying extraordinary measures—for supporting mechanisms to weed out potentially undesirable individuals in ways that are contrary to Western values. That is how Maher Arar found himself in Syria. That is why Omar Khadr is languishing in an American jail. Both men are Canadian citizens. 

In some Afghan villages, supporting co-operative warlords led to the villages conveniently denouncing rival warlords for their own political gain and undermining the legitimacy of the central Afghan government—an unanticipated outcome far from the values of Western justice.

So where does Gheciu’s research lead? Policy makers, who tend to operate in crisis mode, sometimes find it useful to come to academics like her who have already done the analysis. “I try to connect the dots for them,” she says, “to link new techniques to the balance of freedom and security and to question how we perceive friends and enemies in a democratic polity.” 

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