The Security State Created the War Zone in Ferguson

The militarization of security forces is based on a political process of threat creation.
The militarization of security forces is based on a political process of “threat” creation. (Flickr)

EspañolFollowing recent developments in Ferguson, Missouri, along with the many debates that this series of events has triggered, the issue of the militarization of law enforcement has emerged — or reemerged.

This phenomenon can be debated from many angles, but from my perspective, police militarization and the transformation of issues of public order into national security threats is a result of the securitization of the public — a phenomenon that has emerged on a global scale in recent decades.

By securitization, as Waever (1995) and Buzan et al. (1998) have suggested, I mean a process in which a political agent presents an issue that will give rise to the notion of an existential threat to security, identity, integrity, liberty, or survival of a group. Through subsequent political maneuvers and discourse, the agent convinces a particular audience of the existence of a threat severe enough that extraordinary measures are required to combat it.

The implementation of emergency measures following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the resultant global war on terror, represented a watershed moment for the militarization of domestic security and the expansion of the security and surveillance state.

Since then, security measures have intensified, accompanied by images and stories that presented many facets of life as potentially risky, dangerous, and uncertain. The populace, under the effects of a recent vulnerable experience, is naturally susceptible to these images.

Through the process of increased securitization of previously exempt sectors of society, new objects and actors are deemed threats, while other groups are identified as being threatened.

The threat is portrayed, by governmental policies and media messages, as an existential risk. The securitization discourse then develops into concrete actions and policies with the objective of identifying and combating these threats.

This process has the objective, on the one hand, of creating and perpetuating a permanent state of vulnerability, insecurity, and fear in a part of the citizenry toward the unknown, the different, and the prejudged. On the other hand, it is also used to legitimize the use of extreme measures that the gravity of this existential threat justifies.

Finally, rights and privileges are granted to political elites and security agencies comprised of (in)security professionals, such as police with military equipment. The threat is so vast that cracks in the rule of law and democratic order are also justified.

The management of insecurity becomes part of a political strategy. It is based in the declaration of emergency situations, as well as the criminalization of certain segments of society. Political agents define certain groups or individuals as dangerous, guilty, or threatening, even before a wrongful act has been committed.

Simply belonging to a certain group causes its members to be perceived as dangerous to public safety. Typically, these are immigrants, ethnic or religious minorities, racial minority groups, or certain social groups. Therefore, the focus of security is no longer the state and its sovereignty, but also the individuals within the state.

Evoking national security invariably becomes an ulterior rhetorical and political tool that cannot be appealed.

The images from the streets of Ferguson this past week, regardless of the reasons for the underlying conflicts, resemble the landscape of a community immersed in war, rather than a police response to street protests, even if there were acts of vandalism.

The disparity and asymmetry between citizens and representatives of the state — those that supposedly hold a monopoly over the legitimate means of violence — overwhelms and calls into question established values of democracy and liberal order.

Society is being transformed under the guise of public safety, stemming from a culture and politics of fear that legitimizes the use of extraordinary measures that are not subject to proper public debate. When voters are motivated by fear the resultant policies create a hierarchical model where certain rights and liberties are more important than others.

The politics of unrest call into question the concepts of citizenship, immigration, integration, identity, and cohesion, creating a societal schism. This is because the state, with its own goals in mind, administers public safety by breaking trust and social cohesion among the people.

The militarization of police forces and the exploitation of (in)security serve perverse objectives and are detrimental to development of peace and liberty over the long term. The securitization of the public has created an atmosphere of confrontation: a society at war.

Translated by Alex Clark-Youngblood.

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