Tuesday, December 08, 2015

The Fear Factor

At the outset, Seeking Security in an Insecure World develops a definition of "security" that begins with its Latin root, securus, which means "without a care." Insecurity, of course, is the opposite state, a condition characterized by anxiety and fear. There is a part of this opening discussion of security and insecurity in Seeking Security in an Insecure World that is, I think, worth quoting for its relevance to the psychological state of the nation in the aftermath of the massacre in San Bernardino, California last week:
Insecurity reflects the state of the world, but it is also a state of mind. Consequently, the proximity, in both space and time, of a threat can affect its ability to produce insecurity. There also seems to be a "dread" factor in insecurity. Humans often dread the unknown and the uncontrollable event, such as a random bombing, out of all proportion to the actual threat such an event poses. The social dimension of insecurity--the creation and spread of collective fears--adds another element to our understanding of the subjective aspect of insecurity. Not only do the conditions that produce insecurity change over time, collective understandings do as well. Security--and insecurity--are socially constructed.
There have been events--objective conditions--that have prompted feelings of insecurity: the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino loom large at present. But human psychology and the way it generates interpretations of these attacks is equally important to our efforts to understand the fear that is driving so much political rhetoric and social discourse lately. Considered objectively (that is, applying reason over and against emotion alone), the threat that terrorism poses is small. Terrorists, after all, fight the way they do because they are weak in comparison to the military and police forces marshaled by developed states. Terrorism is a form of asymmetric warfare, a way of fighting that seeks to avoid the powerful adversary's strengths. Hitting the soft underbelly of a society generally means attacking in ways that violate the collective norms of society--norms against deliberately targeting innocent people, for example--because even strong states, especially if free, expect that law and not force alone will do part of the work of providing security.

Terrorism "works" not by defeating (or evening demonstrating an ability to defeat) the security forces of a state like France or the United States but by getting into the minds of people who can influence the policies of the state. Unable to change the objective aspects of a powerful state's security, terrorists hope to alter the subjective aspects--the psychological terrain--of security. This is why, to terrorists, the victims of an attack are less important than the audience. Victims are chosen randomly; the audience is chosen very deliberately.

If it is true that "security--and insecurity--are socially constructed," then what we are witnessing right now in the United States is a political process--primarily (but not exclusively) the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination--that is actually generating much of our present insecurity. Most people could sense this already, but the point bears emphasis.