Security for Whom? Thinking Critically about Human Bodies and Security

In January 2012 I attended a conference on public-private partnerships in security and disaster management here at Pace University, where I teach international relations. I was struck as I listened to the keynote speaker, former US Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, how he seemed particularly fond of anthropomorphic and bodily metaphors. We must manage the threat of “Mother Nature,” he said. America is a nation where “we’ve never thrown up our hands” or given up in the face of adversity. He spoke of the “backbone of the nation,” of supply chains being “lifeblood.” He suggested that the answer to disaster management coordination problems was “partnership, partnership, partnership” and wanted the public sector to “sit down with the private sector.” Regarding the concept of a common emergency communications channel he said he “just want[ed] the bloody system” to get up and running.

However, when asked about the expansion of the Department of Homeland Security, Ridge said the government needed “no more people, more technology.” Despite his language being rich with human metaphors, he deployed these mostly in description of nonhuman or abstract nouns—nature, the nation, supply chains, the private sector, a communications channel. But ultimately, for Ridge, building institutions of security and resilience is not a job for “more people” but rather, of nonhuman systems. His technophilia lies within a long tradition within the American security establishment that places its faith in security through technology—a disembodied or “unmanned” security.

I beleive such unhuman, and I would argue perhaps inhumane, discourses about security also underlie efforts to justify using anti-personnel weapons like landmines and cluster munitions — and more recently autonomous armed robots — that remove human deliberation from decisions about killing.

Instead, I think we must construct institutions for security that take as a given the innate rights and entitlements that are a condition simply of being a human. But in doing so, we must recognize that conceptualizing and practicing security cannot be separated from the question of who is doing the securing and who is being secured. This requires an embodied notion of security—resilience with a human face. This will not be an easy task, for it requires us to think outside common discourses, to query divisions between “Us” and “Them,” to risk difficult questions. It will require contemplation, reflection, and a willingness to be reflexive—thinking about our own role in creating insecurity for others.

To read the critical response paper I wrote for Pace University, just published this month, click here and turn to the chapter  “Security for Whom? Putting a Human Face on Resilience” on page 24.

~ by Matthew Bolton on 10 April 2013.

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