To Reassure, and Protect, After September 11

Security, as Jean Delumeau points out, consists of reassuring and protecting the public, not disturbing and worrying them. 1 But sometimes, in seeking to achieve the former we unintentionally produce the latter. Reassuring does not consist of conjuring up every possible danger in order to “sell” security, or of denying or minimizing genuine dangers. Rather, reassuring entails re-establishing the symbolic order– not in its original form, but by managing its transformation. 2

The myth of the impunity of the United States and the centers of international capitalism fell with the twin towers, and we must adjust to that. Everyone is equally vulnerable to determined attackers, and though technical measures can always be employed to counter this type of attack (strengthened air security, presence of lethal weapons on civilian aircraft, etc.), contemporary societies simply cannot be protected by impenetrable physical and electronic barriers. We must abandon the delusion of maximum security that always follows a murderous terrorist attack. 3 Antiterrorist measures that aspire to form an impenetrable “technological” shield imply a Northern Irelandization of Western societies, which runs counter to the real goal of security. 4 Reassuring consists of demonstrating the political impotence of such attacks and their counterproductive impact on those who initiate them.


While western politicians join families in mourning the victims of September’s attacks, they also must explain why the attacks occurred and resist the temptation to respond on a purely emotional level. If it was tactically important at the outset to avoid adopting a logic of revenge and to calm the situation to prevent domestic unrest, it soon became appropriate to explain how these attacks served counterproductively to paralyze negotiations in the Middle East, to the detriment of the Palestinians. Bin Laden may have resided in Afghanistan, but the core of his discourse is articulated around the liberation of sacred sites in Palestine, and it is not possible to isolate the situation in Afghanistan from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the same time, it became imperative to insist that the context created by the attacks in no way justifies security measures aimed at limiting immigration and asylum. To revive myths of absolute sovereignty and border impenetrability, or to pretend that technical solutions can completely prevent new attacks, is to ignore the powerful trends in contemporary societies toward the multiplication of flows (capital, ideas, information, goods, people) and the growing speed of their circulation. Not only are attempts to reverse these trends likely to fail, they also jeopardize important liberties by suggesting a hierarchy of rights, and invite a situation in which limits imposed by extraordinary laws become increasingly portrayed as ordinary.

Rather than the ambiguous discourse of politicians or experts who, in trying to reassure the public, conjure up an impressive list of vulnerabilities never imagined by this very public, we would do well to adopt the slogan of “living with terrorism.” As employed by General Dalla Chiesa to describe Italian policies in reaction to the annees de plombe, this was not a sign of fatalism, but of realism. 5 Dalla Chiesa was determined to avoid radically changing lifestyles, and sought to mobilize citizens in their everyday lives against what he called the image of the “great antiterrorist masses” invoked by politicians who typically had little of substance to say. 6 Reassurance requires a communications policy that does not deny the rationality of clandestine organizations, but demonstrates their contradictory (and often superfluous) nature, as well as the illusions they have about their own power. The social and political pointlessness of their acts, which will not move things in the direction desired by the clandestine organizations, must be pointed out. A more detailed study of the political management of “black terrorism in Italy” and of public reactions at the time could be very helpful in thinking about current events, despite the differences of scale and context.


Protecting is even more complex than reassuring. Protection, like security, is ambiguous — both warlike and humanitarian–and its meaning is rapidly changing. 7 The framework of “war between nations,” used by Raymond Aron and other thinkers to explain past forms of conflict, is outdated in a post-bipolar context. Nor is Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” more pertinent to today’s crisis. 8 In contemporary societies of risk, protection must rather be viewed from three interrelated perspectives: 1) the relation of the individual to the state and to transnational actors; 2) the relation of risk to fear and uncertainty; and 3) the relation of security to danger and freedom.

This means that protection can no longer be understood as static, or as operating on purely territorial or national levels. Protection is not limited to the defense of national interests against those of neighboring states, nor is it necessarily the protection of territory and infrastructures. Protection has to be understood in relation to solidarity and responsibility. It can entail the protection of individuals or of endangered social groups, of public or private actors, located within or outside national boundaries. It can be implemented via international collaboration. “Who must be protected?” “Who does the protecting?” “Toward whom are protective measures directed?” “Why protect?” These essential questions force us to reconsider traditional conceptions of protection, and move us away from an exclusive reliance on barriers, on strict border controls, or on the quest for a hypothetical “safe zone” located behind impermeable borders.

We must also transcend traditional intellectual frameworks that equate protection with prevention of territorial invasion. The idea of a Maginot line against clandestine actions, requiring total security of air space and of sea and land borders, is not only illusory; it is also prohibitively expensive in both human and monetary terms, and these resources would be better spent on more flexible and preemptive approaches. Clandestine organizations cannot be stopped by physically closing all borders, which must reopen sooner or later unless there are deep changes in the economic and political status quo.

The proliferation of border controls, the repression of foreigners, and so on, has less to do with protection than with a political attempt to reassure certain segments of the electorate longing for evidence of concrete measures taken to ensure safety. But protection must now be achieved differently, through modes that are more akin to the locks of a dam, which “channel and monitor flows,” than to the fortress logic that underlies reliance on blockading borders. The technologies that regulate flows are often less visible, but they also can be more effective. There thus needs to be public education conducted by the media on the “limits of the visible.” We must distinguish between visibility and the needs of democracy, and to ensure accountability we must reinforce the role of the judiciary to monitor application of these new techniques. The answer is not to eschew judicial oversight, or to relegate it to a post-facto validation of faits accomplis, as seems to be the present Spanish option. Judges must work cooperatively with the information services, and understand their needs, without awarding them carte blanche.

In a world of flows and constant movement, protection requires both a proactive capacity to anticipate these movements and creation of mechanisms that enable individuals and groups with different value systems to coexist in the same territory despite their diverse ways of life. This is one lesson to be drawn from the experience of Bosnia and Kosovo, and it can also apply where antagonisms are less acute, or limited to the potential explosion of tensions among social groups located within a country’s borders.

Rather than the never ending quest to identify and isolate possible internal enemies, as the fortress approach of sealed borders would imply, protection now requires mediation between groups and energetic insistence on the values that are fundamental to democratic socialization. Protection has to be mobilized every day, distinguishing appropriate roles of security professionals and the citizenry in order to avoid the twin threats of vigilantism and the uncontrolled proliferation of private security agencies. Protection must be understood as a dynamic, relational framework, but with no confusion of tasks. Finally, protection is not limited to national territory. The useful metaphor here is that of the Möbius strip, where there remains a border between the interior and exterior, but it is contingent rather than fixed. Transnational protection can be exercised either geographically (for example, by EU cooperation in granting visas), or temporally (by developing profiles or “morphing” activities). 9 This latter method is already used by some security agencies, and its use can determine the level of influence and importance of different information agencies. It is not new, but is connected to technologies and ideas developed at the beginning of the 1970s. The point is that the development of these techniques is not simply a consequence of transformations of violence over the last 30 years, but has accompanied them. The emphasis on remote surveillance technologies and the accumulation and filtering of information by database, sometimes to the exclusion of other technologies, is relevant to what happened in New York and Washington, DC — particularly if the bin Laden network is at the bottom of these attacks. Bin Laden had, after all, been identified five years earlier as a primary threat, yet was nevertheless able to carry on with his activities. We must therefore reevaluate the methods of protection used and compare their strengths and weaknesses. One of the weaknesses could be hyper-technology. 10

The most acute problem encountered by protection agencies in a risk society is being able to differentiate between an accident and the malevolent or strategic intentions of an adversary. Identifying adversaries that refuse to claim responsibility for or comment on their acts, because they are not looking to develop “propaganda by the deed,” is technically and politically difficult. Technically, this highlights the importance of human intelligence, long subordinated to high technology means of intelligence gathering. 11 Politically, it complicates the situation because popular opinion demands the quick identification of a recognizable enemy, while the genuine enemy might hide behind silence or under “false colors.”

Given the furtive nature of clandestine actions and the long-term situation that must be managed, it is inappropriate to react to every attack as if we were in a period of “international crisis,” namely with a high-visibility response that tries both to dissuade the adversary and allow a quick return to the previous state of affairs. 12: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1988).] The methods of foreign intervention that prevail during an intense and short crisis simply cannot be transposed to the emergent context of conflict, which is characterized be a number of features: asymmetry, depolarization and/or proliferation of fights, suicide attacks, the tactical invisibility of adversaries, the organization of transnational terrorist networks, and long term conflicts of subjectification. 13 In this context of “permanent crisis,” the appearance must be kept up of the stability and composure of governmental institutions. 14

Thus, contingency must be managed while at the same time avoiding symbolic overreaction combined with tactical impotence. In the constant oscillation of antiterrorist responses, which range from militarization, on the one hand, to criminalization on the other, the emphasis placed on military options must correspond to the danger presented by the terrorist organizations in question. 15 The militarization of policing issues in Europe, with the aim of increasing antiterrorist cooperation, must be accompanied by judicial protection for individuals and their civil rights, as well as by the judicial accountability of security agencies. In the case of September 11th, the secretiveness of the response is reasonable, both in terms of immediate actions (of special services) and long-term actions (infiltrations). However, this policy is tenable only if it is ultimately overseen by the judiciary, so as to avoid generalizing these kinds of actions beyond the organizations to be infiltrated, to, e.g., the surveillance of sympathizers far removed from them. The effectiveness of the post 9/11 response will also depend on ending excessive dependence on information technologies like satellites and the Internet, and a return to human forms of intelligence gathering. If we are going to allow for the application of exceptional counter-terrorist measures, then we must also employ a very restricted definition of the types of clandestine organizations against which such measures may be used. This emphasis on judicial oversight, even in international cases, has the disadvantage of constraining the response to an act of terrorism, but it also helps insure that the real culprit is sought, rather than revenge or merely dealing a blow to a convenient enemy. This oversight must accompany, or even limit, the militarization of action. Militarization alone, especially against an invisible enemy, can engender diagnostic errors and create conditions for counterpropaganda from the adversary.

Nonetheless, this seems to be the trend. Strengthened technology is increasingly touted as the solution to terrorism, whether in the form of surgical air strikes or intelligence-gathering techniques based on wire tapping, databases, and serializations. Yet excessive reliance on such measures probably accounts for the failure of American intelligence services, which gave up infiltration for “high-tech” methods. 16 By prolonging these trends, we are confusing the activities of domestic policing, antiterrorism, and intelligence, thereby increasing bureaucratic competition between agencies instead of setting limits on their actions and establishing a precise framework for their collaboration. If everyone is involved in antiterrorism, the resulting confusion will lead to increasing the loss of confidence, not to greater collaboration. The definition of terrorism is being expanded so that everyone can include their closest enemies in it, and thus develop a “consensus.” But this is being done in such a way that the legal definition of terrorism, which was already problematic, is becoming ridiculous, including both bin Laden and youth groups that participate in anti-globalization demonstrations. 17 What is needed is to study the impact of these new definitions of the antiterrorist struggle on organized crime, on clandestine immigration and asylum, on the surveillance of certain social groups (Muslims, Sikhs, Kurds, antiglobalization movements, hackers, etc.), and on public freedoms. So far we have analyzed risks of attacks in France and the appropriate stance to be taken with respect to clandestine organizations. But if we wish to understand fully the domestic repercussions of French participation in anti-terrorist efforts, we must assess how the application of exceptional measures is likely to affect social cohesion in France over both the short and long run.

In analyzing the relationship among risk, security and liberty, we have up to now emphasized primarily the first two components. But what about the relationship between security and liberty? Some measures taken in the name of the struggle against terrorism may themselves place social stability at risk by reinforcing existing social cleavages in French society. It would be ironic if carefully calibrated measures, which enabled France to overcome the challenges that directly affected it in 1986 and 1995, were now supplemented by a flood of legislative and regulatory initiatives intended to show its solidarity with and good will toward the US. Such wholesale reforms make sense only in settings that have not experienced terrorism and thus lack legal means for addressing it. That is not the case in France, which wields one of the world’s most comprehensive arsenals of judicial means for combating terrorism. And while some may disagree with the balance it establishes between security and liberty, many observers believe that it addresses simultaneously the need for efficiency and for judicial authority to limit possible abuses by intelligence services. To be sure, reforms are needed to diminish the excessive dependence of the French judicial system on the actions of individual judges. Nonetheless, if every terrorist attack in the world reinforced the trend toward heightening security and expanding powers of exception, the balance between security and liberty would be upset.

  1. Jean Delumeau. Rassurer et protéger: le sentiment de sécurité dans l’Occident d’autrefois (Paris: Fayard, 1989). See also John Mueller, “Scenarios catastrophe” in D. Bigo and J.Y. Haine, “Troubler et inquiéter, les discours du désourdre international,” Cultures & Conflicts, no. 19-20 (1995).
  2. On this point, see the anthropological work, particularly George Balandier, Pouvoir sur scéne (Paris: Seuil, 1981).
  3. On maximum security, see Gary Marx, “Société de securite maximale,” Déviance et société 2 (1988); Didier Bigo, “Conclusion,” Polices en réseaux, l’expérience européenne. (Paris: Presses de la Fondation nationale des sciences politiques, 1996).
  4. *Northern Irelandization* refers to the strict security measures taken in Northern Ireland to combat violence by extremist Catholics and Protestants. These measures have been generally interpreted as violations of fundamental civil liberties, with disagreement centering on their justification. (Ed.)
  5. The Annees de Plombe (years of lead) were a period during the 1970s and 80s when the Red Brigades in Italy carried out a number of attacks against leading figures of society. Perhaps most famously, they kidnapped and subsequently assassinated Aldo Moro, then Prime Minister. (Ed.)
  6. Discussion with the author. See report on behalf of GROUPS, Terrorisme: approches françaises, vol. 3 (1983).
  7. See “La fonction de protection,” report drawn up for the Centre de prospective de la Gendarmerie nationale, with Jean-Paul Hanon, Anastasia Tsoukala, Laurent Bonelli (March 2001).
  8. See “Nouveaux regards sur les conflits,” in Les nouvelles relations internationales, pratiques et theories, ed. Marie Claude Smouts (Paris: Presses de la Fondation nationale des sciences politiques, 1998); The New International Relations: Practice and Theory, translated from the French by Jonathan Derrick (New York: Palgrave 2001).
  9. On this point, see “Le visa Schengen et la police à distance,” report for IHESI by Didier Bigo, Elspeth Guild, Claire Sass and Helena Jileva (July 2001).
  10. On this point, see the analyses of General Christian Delanghe of the Centre de Recherche et d’etude de docturine de l’Armée de Terre, in L’action des forces terrestres au contact des réalités.
  11. France, in refusing all American and German technologies, has without a doubt maintained an advantage. It is not a question of modeling on more technologies, as proposed by NATO and the EU, but of defending an alternative vision.
  12. On the theory of international crises, see Patrick James, *Crisis and War* (Kingston [Ont.
  13. Didier Bigo, “Guerre, conflit, transnational et territoir,” in Badie and M.C. Smouts “L’international sans territoire,” Cultures & Conflits, no. 21-22 (Spring/Summer 1996). Available online on
  14. Didier Bigo, “Sécurité intérieure, implications pour la defense,” report drawn up for the DAS (May 1998).
  15. Daniel Hermant and Didier Bigo “Simulation et dissimulation. Les politiques de lutte contre le terrorisme en France,” Sociology du travail (October 1986).
  16. Philippe Bonditti, “La lutte antiterroriste aux Etas-Unis,” paper for the IEP de Paris (September 2001).
  17. See the draft proposal from the European Commision for a council framework decision on combating terrorism, in particular Article 3 and the justifying introduction.