Six Years Since 9/11

Saskia Sassen

Saskia Sassen*, professor of sociology and member of the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University, and the author of Territory, Authority, Rights (Princeton University Press, 2006)

In the six years since 9/11, how has our thinking about "security" evolved, and with what implications?
The meaning of "security" as traditionally understood has changed. Traditional understandings of "security," while they never accounted for the full range of possible sources of insecurity, today account for even less. For instance, in the past, the larger and more powerful the armies, the bigger the open fields they needed to fight. That has not been the case for a long time. Going to war now means civilians and cities are likely to become the target -- both in the "enemy" country and in the war-originating country.

These new asymmetries are acute. When President Bush decided to go into Iraq, we already knew that urban combat -- which means civilian deaths -- was going to be part of it. And we knew about blowback, to use Chalmers Johnson's term. Today, this blowback effect hits civilians and cities disproportionately. There is a profound asymmetry in Iraq between the numbers of dead soldiers and destroyed armament, on the one hand, and the number of civilian deaths and destroyed homes.

Today cities are often the frontline spaces of war. When national states go to war in the name of national security, there is likely to be an inverse relation with human insecurity, especially in cities. That diversity can be seen in Baghdad and Beirut, but also in Madrid, London and New York. Beyond the direct bombing of enemy cities, today's new military asymmetries -- by that I mean conventional militaries taking on terrorist networks -- play out in cities worldwide, in an escalating triangulation of sites of destruction. The vast numbers of soldiers killed in World War II seems so far removed from today's intermediated wars. Yesterday's soldier deaths are today's civilian deaths.

You say that 9/11 and the subsequent "war on terror" have increased the likelihood of innocent people, particularly those who live in cities, to becoming the victims of political violence. Is that one of the main social consequences of the 9/11 attacks: having to cope with a sense of risk and insecurity in our everyday lives that we weren't aware of before?
The 9/11 events, along with others, have contributed to the notion of human insecurity (to use Mary Kaldor's term, which captures so well the effect of the new types of wars we see today). We can extend this to global warming, gang violence, and many other sources of insecurity in today's world. National security is today partly taken over by a more foundational notion of human insecurity -- often at the hands of national states!

One way of getting to the social -- always a bit of a fuzzy zone -- is to look at human insecurity in cities today. It has accelerated, intensified, and scaled up to global levels. This is a far larger subject than the "war on terror" launched by the Bush administration after the September 11th attacks. Cities are today the places where we are likely to find the most acute instances of religious, racist -- and now even anti-immigrant -- hatreds. They are also the place where economic insecurity in part due to economic globalization has driven people into despair, hopelessness, and new forms of violence -- from the new types of gang wars we see in São Paulo and in New York to the more political urban violence of the banlieue in Paris. These new forms of insecurity are beginning to circulate through transnational networks -- again, networks of cities.

Another angle into the social is a type of switching process that is taking place: well-established institutions (e.g., freedom of speech) cease being only what they are meant to be (e.g., foundational law) and become merely a sociological condition. I saw this in the big debate about the so-called Danish cartoons that derided the prophet of the Muslim faith, which led to massive demonstrations by Muslim groups all over Europe. It was a tricky situation for defenders of freedom of speech. In the context of a War on Terror, with a disproportionate identification of Muslims as the enemy, it was no longer simply a question of law but also of a particular sociological condition. Hence the response called for a different mix of elements -- where the legal was just one element, no matter how important.

Can you comment on the ways 9/11 has influenced debates on immigration in both the United States and western European countries?
The case I describe above, about the Danish cartoons, captures one change. In the context of a formal declaration of a War on Terror, long-term Muslim residents in Denmark felt marked as the enemy, and to some extent conducted themselves as thus marked. Again, the law defending freedom of speech became a complex sociological condition.

Generally, our image of the immigrant now includes -- I repeat, includes -- the idea that he or she is a possible enemy. This is bad. How can we forget that moment when the government offices in Oklahoma City were bombed and the assumption, and even initial pronouncement, was that Muslim terrorists had done it.

But it is a dialectic: a few Muslims, especially those already alienated -- often for racist reasons or reasons of economic inequality (rather than anything having to do with religion) -- evidently began to respond to the suspicions and accusations. The case of the murderer of the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh is an extreme example. He lived in the Netherlands for along time but only became a fanatic after the declaration of the War on Terror.

I find all of this tragic. It shows yet another way in which war is destructive. It enters the mind. It worms itself into more and more parts of one's subjectivity.

In addition, President Bush's declared war on terror has generated a whole new set of population flows: Iraqi emigrants, mostly illegal (half a million now in Syria, growing numbers in Lebanon, with Sweden being the main recipient of the developed countries and the U.S.A. being the least generous). And an estimated 2 million people are internally displaced inside Iraq -- one of the largest groups of displaced people in a world that has been marked by massive displacements.

As everyone knows, President Bush framed the 9/11 events as acts of war and responded with the "war on terror"; but was another sort of response possible? How might the last six years have been different if from the beginning the attacks had been understood instead as criminal?
I remember attending a Friday lunch at the New York Institute of the Humanities the week of the 2001 attacks. It was a very special time in the city, a specialness made very concrete in Greenwich Village area, downtown. We had a discussion about what had happened, and one big question was precisely the one you have asked: should this be considered an act of war or a criminal act? We were divided. I held then, and hold today, that it should have been addressed as a criminal act. I recall Ronald Dworkin also saying this -- though I do not know how he thinks about it now. And I recall Elizabeth Holtzman saying no, it should be considered an act of war -- though several months later, she told me she had changed her mind.

My reasons for arguing that the attacks should be seen as criminal were that our response would then rest on discrete, undercover global sleuthing. Declaring war meant a highly visible act, one that would mobilize vast numbers of groups and people that may not have identified in any particular way with the terrorists. In that sense, it meant escalating the matter to a highly visible and provocative event -- the ultimate recruitment tool for the terrorists, a second victory.

The Brits have been far more successful in deflecting potential terrorist attacks using good old-fashioned sleuthing, than we have been by bombing Iraq and making huge pronouncements about a clash of civilizations. In a way, when Bush informed the world you are either with us or against us, he was calling for global war, and that is what we have now.

Have you read any books this summer or in the past six months that have affected your thinking on any of the above questions?
Charlie Savage's Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy. I confess that the main reason for this is that he makes an argument I fully agree with -- one that has not been sufficiently recognized or at least highlighted: that is, the systematic effort to grow the unilateral and unaccountable power of the executive branch of the government, a project that began even before the war on terror. I have been working for years on this question, so when the "war on terror" was announced, I saw it not only as war but also as a sort of camouflage for a far deeper transformation that had in fact preceded that war. We are not only living through this terrible military war, we are also living through a highly destructive political war -- no less than a frontal attack on liberal democracy.

* Saskia Sassen commemorated September 11 by attending a forum in Mexico City with other public intellectuals -- including Cornel West, Tavis Smiley and Benjamin Barber -- on "Migration, Human Dignity, and Interdependence." Their talks culminated in declaring September 12, 2007, as Interdependence Day V.

Published on: Monday, September 10, 2007