J. Peter Burgess: Few con­cepts have seized our polit­i­cal imag­i­na­tion in the last decade like secu­ri­ty. Few con­cepts have mobi­lized us to engage so many extra­or­di­nary mea­sures, to ded­i­cate so much mon­ey, and to change the lives of so many peo­ple as security. 

And the con­cept of secu­ri­ty has not at all remained sta­ble. It has­n’t remained at all aloof or untouched by this process. On the con­trary it’s mutat­ed, quite sig­nif­i­cant­ly. It’s evolved in near­ly breath­tak­ing and cer­tain­ly unex­pect­ed ways, impact­ing our expe­ri­ence of the world, realign­ing our knowl­edge of the world, and recast­ing in many ways our val­ue systems. 

In this talk I’ll begin by clar­i­fy­ing some of the pri­ma­ry char­ac­ter­is­tics of what I would call the new secu­ri­ty land­scape. Then I’ll point to what I would describe as a tran­si­tion in our under­stand­ing and expe­ri­ence of secu­ri­ty since the end of the 20th cen­tu­ry. And then final­ly, I’ll sug­gest that secu­ri­ty as a con­se­quence of these changes can and indeed should be under­stood as a kind of ethics. 

Now, if we start look­ing at this new secu­ri­ty land­scape, what is it that char­ac­ter­izes it? Well, pri­mar­i­ly and most sig­nif­i­cant­ly a cer­tain kind of glob­al­iza­tion of secu­ri­ty. Globalization of secu­ri­ty threats, and glob­al­iza­tion of secu­ri­ty mea­sures against these threats. Unlike the age of the Cold War, when the threat land­scape was rel­a­tive­ly sim­ple, the threats that we dis­cuss today, that we’re expe­ri­enc­ing today, and which dom­i­nate our polit­i­cal dis­cours­es are far dif­fer­ent. They do not respect nation­al bor­ders, they’re internation­al, intranation­al, transnation­al, they’re glob­al. We’re far more in an era of glob­al secu­ri­ty today. So the pri­ma­ry threats we talk about in our polit­i­cal dis­cours­es are for exam­ple cli­mate change, pol­lu­tion, pan­dem­ic health issues, and of course terrorism. 

As an illus­tra­tion, per­haps the first, inau­gur­al, most impor­tant expe­ri­ence of this new glob­al inse­cu­ri­ty was the Chernobyl dis­as­ter in April of 1986. Some will remem­ber that at that time the nuclear reac­tor melt­ed down, and there was an enor­mous explo­sion, send­ing a cloud of radioac­tive and poi­so­nous gas up over Ukraine, north­wards to Sweden, Norway, and then back down again to Germany and Central Europe. And on a humor­ous note, last year was the twenty-fifth anniver­sary of the acci­dent and there was a ret­ro­spec­tive doc­u­men­tary on Deutsche Welle, the German pub­lic radio chan­nel, play­ing back inter­views with peo­ple from Europe about their expe­ri­ences of it. And one was—a bit mak­ing fun of the French neigh­bors of the Germans—was say­ing well…it was a Frenchman describ­ing his expe­ri­ence of the men­ace, and say­ing that he was­n’t entire­ly con­cerned because indeed the cloud would most cer­tain­ly stop at the French bor­der and not cross. This is of course the her­itage of an old nation­al under­stand­ing of secu­ri­ty as a threat against state sovereignty. 

Let’s add to this prop­er­ty of the new secu­ri­ty land­scape a sec­ond prop­er­ty, name­ly what we could call the com­mer­cial­iza­tion of secu­ri­ty; the indus­tri­al­iza­tion or com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of secu­ri­ty. Security more than ever before has today become a com­mod­i­ty. A good. Something we can buy, and sell, exchange, and barter for. So the days when the state was the pri­ma­ry secu­ri­ty provider are long gone, and the state is now being sup­ple­ment­ed or in some places even replaced by a pri­va­tized net­work of secu­ri­ty providers. We can look at on the one hand the secu­ri­ty ser­vices that are a quite glob­al­ized, with secu­ri­ty per­son­nel man­ning the posi­tions at the air­ports and in pub­lic places, and in pri­vate enter­pris­es as well. And on the oth­er hand we can talk about the indus­tri­al­iza­tion of secu­ri­ty tech­nolo­gies, where to a large degree secu­ri­ty secu­ri­ty chal­lenges are under­stood as dri­ven by a secu­ri­ty tech­nol­o­gy indus­try, where the indus­tries of sur­veil­lance cam­eras, of dif­fer­ent tech­nolo­gies of pro­tec­tion and bar­ri­ers char­ac­ter­ize the very heart of our think­ing about security. 

Thirdly, giv­en this per­spec­tive of com­mer­cial­iza­tion of secu­ri­ty, we can point to a cer­tain dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion of secu­ri­ty. Whereas dur­ing the Cold War secu­ri­ty was one sin­gle thing—it was a nation­al secu­ri­ty, East/West perspective—we can now talk about a myr­i­ad of forms of insecu­ri­ties, from health secu­ri­ty, cli­mate secu­ri­ty, food secu­ri­ty, infor­ma­tion secu­ri­ty, human secu­ri­ty. There’s been a com­plete infla­tion in our under­stand­ing of secu­ri­ty and a mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of the num­ber of con­cepts of secu­ri­ty that we see. 

This final­ly leads to what we might call the pro­duc­tion of insecu­ri­ty through this dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion. Here we can remem­ber the Marxist analy­sis of sup­ply and demand rela­tions in the con­sumer soci­ety. Whereas com­mon sense would say that demand cre­ates sup­ply: it’s cold in the win­ter, I need a new coat. So that demand through the forces of the mar­ket would bring me togeth­er with some­one who can sup­ply the coat. 

Well Marx as we know turned this log­ic on its head and point­ed out the fact that to a large degree, sup­ply cre­ates demand. So the more that we offer goods on the mar­ket, the more demand and the need for these goods grows. And if you need any con­vinc­ing of this we can just look in an American super­mar­ket where should we say that we want to buy a bot­tle of sham­poo to clean our dirty hair, a clear demand that we need to meet with a sup­ply from the mar­ket, and we turn the cor­ner and find that in the sham­poo sec­tion of the super­mar­ket we’ll find 250 dif­fer­ent kinds of sham­poo, with Vitamin D, Vitamin A, with bal­sam, with cream, with per­fume, what­ev­er we want. And we leave the super­mar­ket know­ing that we now know that we did­n’t know before that we need­ed Vitamin D sham­poo. A demand is cre­at­ed through the avail­abil­i­ty of the products. 

By the same token, secu­ri­ty needs are gen­er­at­ed through the indus­tri­al­ized sup­ply of secu­ri­ty mea­sures. So the secu­ri­ty indus­try is gen­er­ous­ly present in our lives, remind­ing us of the dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed and mul­ti­ple ways in which we are inse­cure, and propos­ing to sell us ser­vices and prod­ucts in order to help this inse­cu­ri­ty, there­by point­ing out our own inse­cu­ri­ty to us. The log­ic is the fol­low­ing: tell me who you are, tell me what your iden­ti­ty is, and I’ll tell you just how you’re inse­cure and what prod­uct you need to buy from me to deal with your inse­cu­ri­ty. There’s a pro­duc­tion of inse­cu­ri­ty, in short. That’s essen­tial­ly the land­scape that we’re deal­ing with when it comes to secu­ri­ty and the pro­vi­sion of security. 

Now back to the con­cept of secu­ri­ty itself, the con­cept has a fas­ci­nat­ing con­cep­tu­al his­to­ry. What’s most remark­able about this the con­cep­tu­al his­to­ry is how very short it is. The way we under­stand secu­ri­ty today is very much the prod­uct of the post-Second World War peri­od. It’s that young, this con­cept. We can trace the cousins of this con­cept way back in Western European intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry, but its newest form is real­ly quite young. 

If we go back to antiq­ui­ty, for exam­ple, secu­ri­ty has a very inter­est­ing neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tion. Security is under­stood as absence of wor­ry, absence of con­cern, and thus not pres­ence of any threat but sim­ple absence of any wor­ry. The Middle Ages mor­al­ized this absence, this neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tion, by attach­ing it to a Christian vision in which if we have no con­cern it’s because we are not ade­quate­ly respect­ing and fear­ing the almighty God and there­fore we’re not being good Christians. So secu­ri­ty again is mul­ti­plied in a mor­al­iz­ing way to be a neg­a­tive thing. It’s lack of respect, lack of con­cern for the almighty God. 

In the feu­dal peri­od, to move quick­ly for­ward through his­to­ry, there was a proto-financialization of secu­ri­ty, where­in the European city-states a finan­cial arrange­ment linked the city state prince as a secu­ri­ty provider for those who were will­ing to pay forth through var­i­ous primeval tax­ing arrangements.

Then quick­ly for­ward to the post-war peri­od, 1947, and the National Security Act pre­sent­ed to the United States Congress by Harry Truman, in which Truman con­fig­ured the way that we under­stand secu­ri­ty through­out the Cold War by say­ing one sim­ple thing. He said that no longer were our inter­ests oth­er than nation­al secu­ri­ty. And by for­mu­lat­ing secu­ri­ty in this way, by mar­ry­ing it to the con­cept of the nation­al, Truman did two things in the nation­al secu­ri­ty strat­e­gy that year. He made it insep­a­ra­ble from the nation­al. So secu­ri­ty when­ev­er we talked about it through­out the Cold War was imme­di­ate­ly evoca­tive of nation­al secu­ri­ty. There’s no oth­er sense to the notion of secu­ri­ty except the nation­al through­out the Cold War. 

And the sec­ond way that it was struc­tured through­out that peri­od was that it was linked to the bipo­lar geopo­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion. So secu­ri­ty could only be thought along the bipo­lar West/East axis, and secu­ri­ty on oth­er lev­els and oth­er places was sim­ply not part of the discourse. 

All this changed, as we know, in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War bipo­lar ten­sion was essen­tial­ly bro­ken. Suddenly the con­cept of secu­ri­ty was explod­ed into a com­plex and mul­ti­lay­ered, mul­ti­leveled world of inse­cu­ri­ties, and we were sud­den­ly able to con­cep­tu­al­ize secu­ri­ty as some­thing more and some­thing dif­fer­ent than just nation­al and bipo­lar. For exam­ple on the ver­ti­cal plane we could talk about indi­vid­ual secu­ri­ty, group secu­ri­ty, sub-state secu­ri­ty, supra-state secu­ri­ty. On a hor­i­zon­tal plane we could talk about dif­fer­ent the­mat­ic vari­eties of secu­ri­ty and inse­cu­ri­ty such as iden­ti­ty secu­ri­ty, reli­gious secu­ri­ty, sexual/gender secu­ri­ty, and sim­i­lar things. So all along these two axes there was an immense mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of aware­ness of secu­ri­ty chal­lenges, and on a glob­al scale. This is the birth of glob­al secu­ri­ty under­stood in that very sense. 

It’s also not by acci­dent the birth of the con­cept of human secu­ri­ty. In the 1994 Human Development Report, the con­cept was launched and became very pow­er­ful in pol­i­cy cir­cles through­out the 90s and even in the ear­ly 2000s before the sit­u­a­tion was com­pli­cat­ed by both pol­i­cy and the­o­ret­i­cal cri­tiques of this con­cept. So we have a broad­en­ing and we have a widen­ing of the con­cept of secu­ri­ty imme­di­ate­ly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This year, 1989, was far more impor­tant for the recon­fig­u­ra­tion and the retool­ing of the secu­ri­ty con­cept than was 11 September 2001

Now, against that back­ground, we can iden­ti­fy a very clear tran­si­tion in a way of think­ing about secu­ri­ty, and cer­tain­ly the way that we under­stand and expe­ri­ence secu­ri­ty. It’s a tran­si­tion away from what I would call the pro­phy­lac­tic mod­el of secu­ri­ty. Security under­stood as a bar­ri­er. Security under­stood as a wall, divid­ing the world into us and them; inside, out­side; friend, foe; pure, impure; good, bad; etc. It’s the end of an era where we thought of threats as being out there, and has the aim of secu­ri­ty to keep them out there. To put up a bar­ri­er between the secure and the insecure—and this bar­ri­er need not be a phys­i­cal bar­ri­er, though it often is. It could also be an abstrac­tion, a way of think­ing, a way of con­ceiv­ing of secu­ri­ty pol­i­cy. But nonethe­less the idea remains clear that inside it’s some­how secure, and out­side it’s insecure, and the task of secu­ri­ty is to main­tain that dis­tinc­tion. The func­tion of secu­ri­ty mea­sures is to hold the bad, the inse­cu­ri­ty, outside. 

This era ends in 1989, and it’s grad­u­al­ly replaced—not imme­di­ate­ly replaced but grad­u­al­ly replaced—by some­thing we could reflex­ive secu­ri­ty. Reflexive secu­ri­ty is far more about us, far less about what is not us, what is the oth­er, what is the threat out­side our doors, and far more about us. Because if we start from the obser­va­tion that I start­ed this talk with about the glob­al­iza­tion of threats and the new threats, the new glob­al­ized threats, these of course can­not be held out by any tra­di­tion­al secu­ri­ty mea­sures. Globalized threats like cli­mate change, like pan­dem­ic, like ter­ror­ism, we’ve come to real­ize are among us. They’re here. Not only for the obvi­ous rea­son that they do not respect nation­al bor­ders like the poi­so­nous cloud of the Chernobyl acci­dent but also, if we look at the most famous ter­ror­ist attacks tak­ing place on European soil at least, these have been car­ried out by Europeans. So the threat is here, the threat is among us, the threat can­not be exter­nal­ized. So secu­ri­ty becomes far more a mat­ter of deal­ing with it, of liv­ing with it, of man­ag­ing our inse­cu­ri­ties and not of reduc­ing our inse­cu­ri­ty to zero by exter­nal­iz­ing the threats that may face us. Security becomes a reflex­ive mat­ter. It becomes about our soci­eties, about our groups, about our indi­vid­u­als, and how we design our activ­i­ties and our insti­tu­tions in order to live with the pres­ence of threat, in order to live with insecurity. 

So secu­ri­ty becomes far more trans­formed from being a tech­no­log­i­cal mat­ter in the sort of sim­ple sense of a phys­i­cal bar­ri­er or of an imag­ined bar­ri­er, to far more a mat­ter of human­ness, of pathos, of resilience, of robust­ness (under­stood in the human sense), of trust and dis­trust, of com­mu­ni­ty, of belong­ing, of not belong­ing. These more organic-type approach­es to secu­ri­ty have become more present in our lives, and more present in our con­fronta­tion of the threats that lie outside. 

So this tran­si­tion towards reflex­ive secu­ri­ty is also accom­pa­nied by anoth­er con­cept which has become quite pow­er­ful in our time, the con­cept of risk. There’s been a cer­tain rise in the notion of risk in the sense where risk is under­stood as a means for man­ag­ing inse­cu­ri­ty, based on the assump­tion that inse­cu­ri­ty is here to stay, that 100% secu­ri­ty is not an option. Risk is a kind of log­ic of man­age­ment of unde­sir­able things in our soci­ety. Management of the fact that some­thing unfore­seen may happen—may hap­pen tomor­row, may hap­pen today, may nev­er hap­pen. But how do we orga­nize our lives and our resources so that we can live with that pos­si­bil­i­ty. It’s liv­ing with a pos­si­bil­i­ty, an uncer­tain potential. 

Now, risk we know—the dis­course of risk—interestingly enough arose in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry in its strongest forms in the finan­cial man­age­ment sec­tor. So, those want­i­ng to deal with risk asso­ci­at­ed with the stock mar­ket and oth­er kinds of spec­u­la­tive mar­kets need­ed to find math­e­mat­i­cal solu­tions and human solu­tions in order to be able to con­tin­ue when there was risk present of fail­ing. And this finan­cial and eco­nom­ic dimen­sion of risk and risk man­age­ment has then become more and more cen­tral to a cer­tain lib­er­al way of think­ing. To lib­er­al­ism in gen­er­al but also the lib­er­al ide­ol­o­gy which says that risk itself is not an undesir­able, but that risk is a pre­con­di­tion for liv­ing in our lib­er­al soci­eties. Not only in order to make mon­ey through invest­ment and through dif­fer­ent kinds of cred­it arrange­ments but also in terms of mak­ing advance­ments in tech­nol­o­gy and in oth­er forms of devel­op­ment. So risk has become a core idea in our lib­er­al soci­eties and it’s linked close­ly to this idea that secu­ri­ty is a reflex­ive matter. 

Accompanying this we have the growth of what we can call the pre­emp­tive impulse, this idea that since we don’t know what is going to hap­pen in the near future, since we don’t know when threats may become real­i­ties, it’s impor­tant to act before­hand. Before they become real, before they become real­i­ty. This is par­tic­u­lar­ly used in the mil­i­tary set­tings, of course. It was famous­ly used as the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the inva­sion into Iraq at the begin­ning of the Iraq War. It’s also linked to what’s called the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple, which is essen­tial­ly a sci­en­tif­ic pol­i­cy prin­ci­ple which states that when we are unsure of what is going to hap­pen, when we have inad­e­quate knowl­edge about what might hap­pen in the future, it’s bet­ter to avoid neg­a­tive con­se­quences by act­ing on the grounds of inade­quate knowl­edge than not act­ing at all. So not only do we have action, polit­i­cal action, or social action based on inad­e­quate knowl­edge of the future, it’s the inad­e­qua­cy of knowl­edge itself which legit­i­mates and moti­vates the action. So inad­e­qua­cy is the rule and not the exception. 

Now based on this con­fig­u­ra­tion, first the back­ground of the new secu­ri­ty land­scape, sec­ond­ly the end of pro­phy­lac­tic secu­ri­ty and the rise of reflex­ive secu­ri­ty, we come to the fol­low­ing obser­va­tion. Namely that secu­ri­ty in the way it’s played out, the way it’s imple­ment­ed in the kind of secu­ri­ty mea­sures we take in our soci­eties, secu­ri­ty is an epis­te­mol­o­gy. Security is a kind of knowl­edge, a kind of orga­ni­za­tion of knowl­edge. It’s a cer­tain rela­tion­ship to knowl­edge. And in par­tic­u­lar that kind of knowl­edge which we call the unknown. Because secu­ri­ty is about deal­ing with unknown futures. It’s if you like, and to talk a bit para­dox­i­cal­ly, it’s knowl­edge of the unknown. A very strange kind of knowl­edge, we’d have to admit. It’s the sta­tus of the unknown, in our present where we have to deal with some­thing that is known. It’s a kind of trans­fig­u­ra­tion of an unknown future into some­thing that we know and can deal with today. 

Security is man­age­ment of the unknown. Unknown threats, unknown pos­si­bil­i­ties, unknown futures. It’s almost trans­formed into a sci­ence of the unknown. So it’s a counter-epistemology, if you like. And it admits that there’s a cer­tain pri­ma­cy today in our soci­eties of the unknown over the known. We don’t have time to wait for the known. We don’t have time, and we can’t afford to wait to see what will hap­pen in the future as found­ed epistemologically-sound knowl­edge. We have to act now, based on inad­e­quate knowl­edge. And this is prob­lem­at­ic for many rea­sons, but most promi­nent­ly it’s prob­lem­at­ic because sci­ence, as we know, is pro­found­ly poor­ly equipped to deal with the unknown. It’s much bet­ter at deal­ing with the known. 

This brings me then to the final point. That is that if secu­ri­ty is a mode of artic­u­lat­ing, of deal­ing with a future which is unknown, if inad­e­quate knowl­edge is the basis for actions that we take, then we’re real­ly deal­ing with what we could call a kind of ethics. Security is an ethics. 

Well what do we mean by that? Certainly not ethics in the Aristotelian sense where we’re try­ing to find the rules and the road to the good life. Not at all. If we under­stand ethics—in a bit of an idio­syn­crat­ic way, I would admit—if we under­stand ethics as mean­ing of action tak­en in the absence of ade­quate knowl­edge, then secu­ri­ty is most pro­found­ly a kind of ethics. Because secu­ri­ty is about a moti­va­tion, a mobi­liza­tion, an engage­ment to action which we must take before we’re ready. Before we know what will hap­pen, and before we even know a giv­en like­li­hood about what would hap­pen. Security is action based on some­thing oth­er than knowl­edge. And this space between action based on knowl­edge and action based on inad­e­quate knowl­edge is the space of ethics. It’s a space of ethics because it mobi­lizes not our ratio­nal­i­ty, not our knowl­edge in the con­crete sense, but oth­er fac­tors like our cul­ture, our social tra­di­tions, our expe­ri­ences, and oth­er foun­da­tions which are non-empir­i­cal­ly based. 

So if we know what’s going to hap­pen, if we know what to do about some event that’s com­ing along, if the threat is absolute­ly immi­nent, then it may be many things, but it’s not secu­ri­ty. If we envis­age our­selves face-to-face with a stranger in a dark alley and the stranger has a gun in his hand and rais­es the gun and we see the fin­ger squeez­ing slow­ly the trig­ger as the gun is point­ed at us, then it’s hard­ly an eth­i­cal prob­lem we’re faced with. It’s almost a mat­ter of auto­matic­i­ty. The eth­i­cal prob­lem aris­es when we meet the stranger in a dark alley and we see no gun, and we see no ill inten­tion. Where there’s a future of pos­si­bil­i­ties open before us fac­ing our rela­tion­ship to this stranger. Where we can imag­ine some­thing ter­ri­ble hap­pen­ing, but we have not ade­quate knowl­edge in order to know what will hap­pen. So there’s no trig­ger being squeezed, and yet we can imag­ine a trig­ger being squeezed. This is the space of ethics. Ethics is what shapes actions when facts are not enough, and when ratio­nal evidence-based pre­dic­tion is inad­e­quate, and when we have to rely on oth­er forms of expe­ri­ence in order to make our decisions. 

As a con­se­quence, and in con­clu­sion, prepar­ing for threats is about con­nect­ing the dots today in an entire­ly dif­fer­ent way than we once did con­nect the dots, and we would be served by under­stand­ing the value-based oper­a­tions, the eth­i­cal oper­a­tions, at the basis of secu­ri­ty gov­er­nance in our time.