How Now, Security Cow?

As we all know, I have a deep and possibly morbid interest in security theatre and the myriad forms it takes, whether it’s body scanning machines or government attempts to demand that all citizens use antivirus software or be kicked off the Internet. I think what intrigues me about this is the constant shifting goalpost of compromise, the delicate dance that happens as governments and other agencies push, delicately, at the edges, to get people to accept something before bringing out a rolling series of progressively more serious changes. Step five would never have been accepted at step one, but everyone goes along with it when it comes up because they’ve already been through steps one through four. They’ve been primed. They are ready to go.

What, exactly, is the point of security theatre?

The justification provided, of course, is that it is for safety. I’d be interested to see some actual statistics to back that up. Have rapes decreased in Britain since the widespread use of security cameras? Have hijackings and attempted hijackings (an already statistically rare event) decreased since the United States started mandating pretty complex security theatre in airports? Are historically violent neighbourhoods safer with increased law enforcement powers?

I’d argue that the answers to these questions are all variations on ‘well, no, actually.’ Because security theatre is a performance. It’s a performance that is designed with a very specific goal in mind. That goal is not so much safety of the citizens, but safety of the government itself. It is said that a government should be afraid of its citizens, not the other way around, and security theatre is pretty much a prime example of government fear. This is not done to protect us, to shelter us, to keep us safe. It is done because the government fears us, and because one of the most effective ways to manage fear is to lash out at the object of the fear, to build barriers to prevent it from reaching you.

And that is what security theatre is about. For every indignity people have to undergo, there is a reminder that the government is in charge, that the government has the power, that the government is the one that determines when we are allowed to move, where we are allowed to go, what we are allowed to do. This is, fundamentally, a function of fear. Look, for example, at the complicated residency process in China, where people are required to apply to move. The government literally controls where people live, and there are all sorts of justifications for it, but they boil down to fear and control. If you keep citizens controlled, they grow accustomed to a state of control.

And citizens accustomed to a state of control do not challenge their governments. They do not speak out about things that trouble them, leave them uneasy, make them question their belief in the government. To do so is to risk encountering the brutal end of security theatre, the side that has been on display routinely and regularly. All who break the silence do so with the very real knowledge that the government may be coming for them next.

It starts with minor inconveniences. Being flagged on every flight. Nuisances with paperwork you don’t remember having before. Where does it end? Wiretaps. Having a flag on your identity that causes endless hassles every time you are pulled over. Extraordinary rendition. Death. Any means justify the ends, because you are a threat. And it happens so very gradually that people may not even be aware of what is happening until it happens to them, until they are deep in the belly of the beast with no way out.

Security theatre is a delicate dance. The government knows that it cannot push too hard or too far. It knows exactly how far citizens can be goaded before they will start to snap back, and it uses this knowledge. Certainly there will be an outspoken minority that protests, but it’s the same one that always speaks up, and it can safely be ignored or silenced. There are plenty of shills who buy the narrative and will suggest that people complaining about draconian security measures don’t care about safety.

Safety, safety, it’s all for safety. And protection.

So why do so many people feel unsafe? Not just unsafe from the government, but from the world around them? If security is safety, why are law enforcement not our friends? If tighter security measures equal fewer risks, why can’t I walk on certain streets at night? Why don’t I feel personally reassured by the sight of cameras, by a passing cop car? There’s something to tease out, here, about the way that people think about governments and society and safety and security and what the role of government really is, what the function of governance is, and what our roles as civilians should be. What are we really doing here?

Sometimes I wish I bought into the security narrative. I’m sure the world would feel like a much safer and more just place. I could blame people personally when bad things happen to them because, well, gee, how could anything bad happen with all this security in place. I could scoff at people who protest when ‘minor’ changes to security handling are introduced because they clearly don’t care enough about safety, and don’t recognise that a small inconvenience is a meaningless price to pay for increased safety and security. I could smile and wave at police officers in strange cities, I would hear footsteps outside the house at night and not fear.