Six Years Since 9/11

Gil Eyal

Gil Eyal, professor of sociology, Columbia University

In the six years since 9/11, how has the understanding of "security" evolved, and with what implications?
Today "security" designates and carves out an area of pure state power that is strictly speaking extra-legal (not illegal, but non-legal). Superficially, it may seem that matters of security can be brought within the rule of law, by simply "balancing" them against individual rights, but in reality security can always be used to suspend legal considerations -- e.g., the canonical "ticking bomb" scenario. What this means is that the status and treatment of certain categories of individuals is determined arbitrarily, outside the law, and by reference to their putative "riskiness." The state can eavesdrop on their conversations, hold them in secret detention, torture or kill them, with impunity. From this point of view, 9/11 is not a watershed. States have always laid claim to and practiced this form of power outside the law. But the danger always is when this form of power, which is justified as an exceptional response to an emergency, is made permanent and institutionalized, which is precisely what happened with the "war on terror." This, too, is not unprecedented. The state of Israel, for example, has never suspended the state of emergency declared in 1948.

If one can generalize from the Israeli example, then I would say that the most significant consequence of the 9/11 events is likely to be the formation of multi-tiered citizenship. While the rule of law in liberal democracies guarantees universal and equal rights of citizenship, a security regime that categorizes individuals by their riskiness is likely to differentiate the mass of citizens and residents, on a semi-permanent basis, into a continuum defined by the precariousness of their hold on their rights to mobility, privacy, livelihood, integrity of their bodies -- even their own lives.

Has 9/11 events influenced debates on immigration in both United States and western European countries?
The main influence of 9/11 was not so much on debates about immigration as on practices towards immigrants. Yes, the nativists could add the arguments of potential infiltration by terrorists, defense of the homeland, and the threat of homegrown Islamic radicalism to their arsenal; but they have never lacked for rhetorical weapons. It is at the level of practices -- of real weapons if you will -- where change has been profound. Understood as carriers of risk, immigrants become individuals exposed to pure and potentially arbitrary state power in the form of deportations, physical barriers, security checks that can last years, and so on. Even more importantly, understood as carriers of risk, immigrants, more than ever before, are profiled and treated on the basis of their membership in national, ethnic, racial and religious groups.

President Bush framed the 9/11 events as acts of war and responded with a "war on terror," consisting of invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as persistent rumors of a possible strike on Iran. How might the last six years have been different if from the beginning the attacks had been understood instead as criminal?
I have no sympathy for the idea that one could have understood 9/11 as "criminal," hence that the situation could have been defined any differently. I have no doubt that 9/11 constituted an act of "terror" or "terrorism," as the term is commonly understood. The planners of these acts clearly: a) identified what they considered to be the symbolic centers of American global power; and b) chose a mode of action which was calculated to terrorize decision-makers and ordinary citizens -- i.e., not by defeating them as would happen in a war, nor by directly depriving them of something they value, as in the case of crime, but by acting on public opinion so as to achieve a political end. This is classical terrorism.

But for this very reason, the mode of response to 9/11 was clearly badly miscalculated, just as a "war on terror" is an oxymoron (and with it came other oxymorons such as "unlawful combatants"). The U.S. reaction:

  • was vengeful, bringing larger circles of non-combatants into the fray (not least by the resort to the language of "clash of civilizations");
  • destabilized state structures and borders; and
  • involved suspending civil liberties at home.

This is precisely what terrorists the world over have always sought to achieve, and what the U.S. government's moronic (pun intended) "war on terror" simply handed over to them on a silver tray.

Instead, the last six years could have been dedicated to prudent reaction, which would have involved, no doubt, ruthless pursuit of the terrorist masterminds and destruction of their networks, but with the understanding that this is not a "war" that one wins decisively but a long- term struggle over hearts and minds. The last six years could have been used to address some of the major sources of unrest and grievance in the Middle East -- most importantly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- to have half a chance of succeeding in this struggle over hearts and minds.

What books or studies have you read recently that have affected your thinking on any of the above questions?
Carl Schmitt's Political Theology (1922) and Ernst Kantorowicz's The King's Two Bodies (1997). Put together, these two books demonstrate the profoundly theological and metaphysical nature of the most basic concepts of political liberalism, such as democracy, popular sovereignty, and most importantly, the "rule of law." They also clarified to me why concepts of political liberalism have been so ill equipped to deal with the new permanent state of emergency into which we were thrown by the U.S. "war on terror." This is illuminated by Slavoj Žižek's reaction to the debate about torture. The consistent liberal would undertake to specify when torture could be used legitimately, but this is to misunderstand the strategic situation. What point is there in setting boundaries when the power of "security" consists in precisely deciding when have they been crossed AND in keeping that decision secret? In my view, it would be better to resist all such talk from the get go: to keep the finger in the proverbial crack in the dam.

Published on: Monday, September 10, 2007