Security states, heavily policed and run by surveillance gurus and juju men of the intelligence community, have more failings than meritorious attributes. If liberty is to succeed, then holes, sometimes gaping, will have to be permitted. Freedoms can be costly.
Even any crude assessment of France’s state of emergency since November last year would suggest that such political states are inadvisable and ineffective. The Bastille Day attack on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice suggested how artificial, and deceptively reassuring, such measures are.
Such a state is the default mediocre position for planners when driven to the edge. Scale and presence takes the place of sober examination and ground work. Muscular shows of force are taken as discouraging to future attacks. With the next bomb blast, the next spectacular killing, and executive actions are rushed through, states of emergency proclaimed.
Much of this is sheer laziness, an admission to administrative atrophy. According to Joseph Downing, French police tend to be “completely absent from the landscape or come in heavy handed in a very confrontational manner.” Suburbs of Paris and Lyon, primarily in the Muslim areas, have borne witness to that fact.
The French security establishment, in short, is a troubled one. States of emergency hardly help an outfit struggling with sophisticated crime networks where the ease of acquiring high-grade weaponry is already known. Gangland killings and retributions have been a feature, in one notable example, of troubled districts in northern Marseille. In 2012, mayor Samia Ghali requested military assistance to rein in the problems within Marseille. “Today, with criminals using weapons of war, only the army can intervene”.
The various states of emergency France has been subjected to may well have foiled some plans. There may well have been a host of possible attacks that never eventuated, though these could hardly have been because the French state was being more vigilant. But the overall sense in the aftermath of the Nice attacks, one expressed with indignant horror, is that there was nothing very secure about the security state as a truck ploughed through swathes of holiday makers.
Much behind this event was the prosaic nature of what was used. Ordinary instruments can become weapons of death. (This is the most noticeably striking thing about terror as a domestic, localised expression: the kitchen implement made deadly, a large trucking vehicle mobilised for murder.) Such implements can hardly be screened, let alone banned, though authorities have played a continuous game of suspecting the ordinary in anti-terrorism operations.
Since the attacks of September 11, 2001 on US soil, there have been varying obsessions about such items as gels or food stuffs which might become lethal in certain hands. Since the antics of Richard Reid, there have been concerns about security screenings of shoes, and how these might facilitate a bombing on a flight.
The murderous truck in Nice was a case in point, conforming to a tactic advocated previously by al Qaeda and ISIS forces. The use of ordinary items for extraordinarily devastating effects is standard fare in the terrorist cosmos. The impetus is then on state authorities to resist criminalising them, which is, paradoxically, an exceptional move.
Such weapons can also be employed by individuals who barely register a murmur on the intelligence landscape. They tend to keep quiet, the reticent figures of an invisible world that only comes to life in a murderous instant.
The driver, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, had hardly given any reason to be included in the top of the terrorist pop charts, though commentators prone to reasoning after the fact suggest otherwise. They point out that the police had records on theft and violence, and did nothing to ensure that these did not flower into something more insidious.
Such attacks are the demonstrable point that ideas transcend the immediate structures of monitoring, and rigid structure. French policing in that regard has failed, unable to gather French Muslims in the task of being reliable informants. Much to the contrary, the standard police informant, deployed by a Western intelligence service, may well be the text terrorist bomber, swayed by the siren song of martyrdom. That is the policy, not merely of domestic policing in France, but the foreign policy of the West in attempting to deal with the “moderates” of the Syrian conflict.
Such swaying and conviction tends to take place with greater ease in environments of profound, structural alienation. Parallel worlds, those of the outer and inner circle, make the radical incentive even more attractive. Defending a false sense of unity is a hard thing indeed.
The now common feature of what Loic Wacquant calls “government of social insecurity” provides fertile soil for individual violent action, and suggestions by such figures as Laurent Wauquiz, who has suggested concentration camps for terrorist suspects, exacerbate, rather than counter the problem.
Security establishments can never hope to mind read; they can only assume, draw often flawed conclusions, and hope for the best. Such work should be social, political and deeply holistic. All too often, it is scatterbrained and erratic. All these point to the failings, rather than the successes, of the state of emergency.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org