The Great Con of National Security

It may have once been the case that being attacked by another country was a major threat to the lives of ordinary people. It may also be true that there are still some pretty serious dangers out there associated with the spread of nuclear weapons. For the most part, however, most of what you’ve been told about national security and all the big threats which can supposedly kill you is one big con designed to distract you from the things that can really hurt you, such as the poverty, inequality and structural violence of capitalism, global warming, and the manufacture and proliferation of weapons – among others.

The facts are simple and irrefutable: you’re far more likely to die from lack of health care provision than you are from terrorism; from stress and overwork than Iranian or North Korean nuclear missiles; from lack of road safety than from illegal immigrants; from mental illness and suicide than from computer hackers; from domestic violence than from asylum seekers; from the misuse of legal medicines and alcohol abuse than from international drug lords. And yet, politicians and the servile media spend most of their time talking about the threats posed by terrorism, immigration, asylum seekers, the international drug trade, the nuclear programmes of Iran and North Korea, computer hackers, animal rights activism, the threat of China, and a host of other issues which are all about as equally unlikely to affect the health and well-being of you and your family. Along with this obsessive and perennial discussion of so-called ‘national security issues’, the state spends truly vast sums on security measures which have virtually no impact on the actual risk of dying from these threats, and then engages in massive displays of ‘security theatre’ designed to show just how seriously the state takes these threats – such as the x-ray machines and security measures in every public building, surveillance cameras everywhere, missile launchers in urban areas, drones in Afghanistan, armed police in airports, and a thousand other things. This display is meant to convince you that these threats are really, really serious.

And while all this is going on, the rulers of society are hoping that you won’t notice that increasing social and economic inequality in society leads to increased ill health for a growing underclass; that suicide and crime always rise when unemployment rises; that workplaces remain highly dangerous and kill and maim hundreds of people per year; that there are preventable diseases which plague the poorer sections of society; that domestic violence kills and injures thousands of women and children annually; and that globally, poverty and preventable disease kills tens of millions of people needlessly every year. In other words, they are hoping that you won’t notice how much structural violence there is in the world.

More than this, they are hoping that you won’t notice that while literally trillions of dollars are spent on military weapons, foreign wars and security theatre (which also arguably do nothing to make any us any safer, and may even make us marginally less safe), that domestic violence programmes struggle to provide even minimal support for women and children at risk of serious harm from their partners; that underfunded mental health programmes mean long waiting lists to receive basic care for at-risk individuals; that drug and alcohol rehabilitation programmes lack the funding to match the demand for help; that welfare measures aimed at reducing inequality have been inadequate for decades; that health and safety measures at many workplaces remain insufficiently resourced; and that measures to tackle global warming and developing alternative energy remain hopelessly inadequate.

Of course, none of this is surprising. Politicians are a part of the system; they don’t want to change it. For them, all the insecurity, death and ill-health caused by capitalist inequality are a price worth paying to keep the basic social structures as they are. A more egalitarian society based on equality, solidarity, and other non-materialist values would not suit their interests, or the special interests of the lobby groups they are indebted to. It is also true that dealing with economic and social inequality, improving public health, changing international structures of inequality, restructuring the military-industrial complex, and making the necessary economic and political changes to deal with global warming will be extremely difficult and will require long-term commitment and determination. For politicians looking towards the next election, it is clearly much easier to paint immigrants as a threat to social order or pontificate about the ongoing danger of terrorists. It is also more exciting for the media than stories about how poor people and people of colour are discriminated against and suffer worse health as a consequence.

Viewed from this vantage point, national security is one massive confidence trick – misdirection on an epic scale. Its primary function is to distract you from the structures and inequalities in society which are the real threat to the health and wellbeing of you and your family, and to convince you to be permanently afraid so that you will acquiesce to all the security measures which keep you under state control and keep the military-industrial complex ticking along.

Keep this in mind next time you hear a politician talking about the threat of uncontrolled immigration, the risk posed by asylum seekers or the threat of Iran, or the need to expand counter-terrorism powers. The question is: when politicians are talking about national security, what is that they don’t want you to think and talk about? What exactly is the misdirection they are engaged in? The truth is, if you think that terrorists or immigrants or asylum seekers or Iran are a greater threat to your safety than the capitalist system, you have been well and truly conned, my friend. Don’t believe the hype: you’re much more likely to die from any one of several forms of structural violence in society than you are from immigrants or terrorism.  Somehow, we need to challenge the politicians on this fact.

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About richardjacksonterrorismblog

I am currently the Deputy Director of the National Peace and Conflict Studies Centre at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Prior to this, I was Professor of International Politics at Aberystwyth University in Wales, UK. I study and teach on issues of terrorism, political violence, conflict resolution and war. I have published several books on these topics, including: Terrorism: A Critical Introduction (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011; co-authored with Lee Jarvis, Jeroen Gunning and Marie Breen Smyth); Contemporary State Terrorism: Theory and Cases (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010; edited by Richard Jackson, Eamon Murphy and Scott Poynting); Critical Terrorism Studies: A New Research Agenda (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009; edited by Richard Jackson, Marie Breen Smyth and Jeroen Gunning); Conflict Resolution in the Twenty-first Century: Principles, Methods and Approaches (Ann Arbor MI: Michigan University Press, 2009; co-authored with Jacob Bercovitch); and Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counterterrorism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005). I am also the editor-in-chief of the academic journal, Critical Studies on Terrorism.
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