10 May, 2010Issue 12.2Politics & Society

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Locking Ourselves In

David Louk

foerLucia Zedner
Security (Key Ideas in Criminology)
Routledge, 2009
216 Pages
£19.99
ISBN 978-0415391764

“Security”. No word so instantly conjures to mind the opposite of its meaning. Home security systems are an ever-present reminder of the potential for burglary. Security guards at schools suggest to students that even their own peers pose a threat. And at airports, security screening is as much about reminding patrons of the imminent risk of flying in the post-9/11 world as providing assurance that planes are safe.

The various uses and meanings of security are not only personally troubling in everyday settings, but also academically challenging for those keen to define, study, and understand the term. In her most recent book, Security, Oxford’s own Lucia Zedner, professor of criminology at Corpus Christi College, dissects and reconstructs the significance of the term to contemporary studies in fields as diverse as law, criminology, philosophy, sociology, and international relations. This deconstruction covers an impressive range of topics, from the war on terror to risk management, from private security apparatuses to surveillance and biometric technology.

One of Zedner’s early goals in Security is to identify the contours of this “promiscuous” concept, one regularly deployed in contexts as varied as social security, private security, national security, and human security. Thus, her early chapters explore its use across time, space, and discipline, noting importantly that the imprecision of the term may at times be politically useful in defending policies that are themselves indefensible. In national security, the post-9/11 Bush administration’s quest to pursue absolute security at nearly any cost (Iraq, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, the Patriot Act) all too perfectly illustrates the political capital that this elusive term may yield.

Precisely because the term is so slippery, Zedner herself has difficulty pinning down a single working concept of security for any considerable length of the text. As a result, Security is both a sweeping and thin overview of the role that security plays in everything from schools to suburbs, anti-terrorism policies to anti-social behaviour orders. At times light on more empirical analysis, Security is most penetrating in its assessment of the rising private security industry that has married capitalism with counterterrorism. Zedner is particularly damning in her critique of the Bush administration’s attempt to “normalise” extraordinary procedures for ever-looming but ever-elusive threats to the state. Yet Zedner is not only concerned with the implications of private security forces in warfare and conflict zones; she is equally wary of the outsourcing of security within the domestic context.

It is here, in schools, neighbourhoods, and public places, that Zedner seems most troubled by the emergence of private security regimes. For Zedner, much of this expansion in the United States and the United Kingdom can be traced to the ascent of neoliberal domestic policy, the deregulation and decentralization of the state that began in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, private security forces are deeply integrated into securing the home, the school, the workplace, public places, and prisons. Counter-intuitively, Zedner observes, while the rise of private security has at times displaced the state’s monopoly on the claim of security, it has actually led to an unprecedented expansion in the penal state and the criminal justice system. Heavy demands for security have mirrored the rise of what Malcolm Feeley and Jonathan Simon have described as the “new penology”: the shift away from concerns for punishment and rehabilitation of the individual and toward a system of mass-incarceration that manages risk posed by aggregated groups through the expanded use of surveillance and custody mechanisms.

Zedner is at times shrewdly critical of private security systems: she highlights the paradox of an industry that, because it feeds on insecurity, must evoke the very feelings of threat and harm it is designed to eliminate—always for a price. In this context, she writes, “security has an unattainable quality”, with threats that may be reducible, but never eradicable. The existence of private security forces suggests the possibility of crime prevention, and so as the state shifts its focus away from the treatment and rehabilitation of fellow citizens and toward the mass prevention of crime, private security has facilitated individuals’ desire to isolate themselves from threats.

Yet Zedner could go further in describing the troubling emergence of private security operations, particularly the creation of a fundamentally inegalitarian approach to security provision that has transformed the citizen’s relationship to community and the state, especially in the United States. Clifford D. Shearing and Philip C. Stenning have argued that North America is undergoing a transformation toward a so-called “new feudalism”, where huge tracts of privately owned public spaces are controlled and policed by private parties. They have observed that the growth of privately owned shopping centres, residential estates, university campuses, and commercial and industrial complexes has facilitated the mass expansion of private policing. Because these forms of private property often function as public spaces, an increasingly large portion of day-to-day public life takes place in privately secured spaces.

Zedner’s chief concern with private security appears to be its potential to displace public modes of security provision. Yet more concerning is that the massive shift from public to private ownership of public space over the past several decades has also facilitated the retreat of truly public spaces. Unplanned neighbourhoods are surrounded by gated communities; downtown stores are subsumed in privately owned shopping centres. As a result, citizens have slowly grown accustomed to private modes of security in many facets of their public lives. A cynic would observe that since failures on the part of private security (in instances of mall shootings, gang violence, or even petty crime) still require public police intervention, when security breaches do occur, the state and society—not private security—ultimately remain responsible, and therefore culpable, for crime prevention failures in the eyes of citizens.

Concomitant with increased scepticism of public security has been a decline in and public support for the state. Those benefiting from private protection have less incentive to participate in and help to fund public policies that encourage the abatement of crime in those areas not privately secured. The rise of private schools, planes, and athletic facilities all increase an individual’s security while reducing his or her reliance on the government and the public sector. Zedner is right, in part, to blame neoliberalism: just as neoliberal economic policies have facilitated the accumulation of private wealth, so too do they promote private modes to secure it. In this respect, it is unsurprising to find that self-identified members of the seemingly populist, but fundamentally anti-government, Tea Party movement in the United States are of above average income.

This has implications beyond public finance and budgeting: private security may be viewed in many ways as both a cause and a symptom of the larger transition away from broad civic participation and a sense of vested interest in robust public institutions. Classics of American film and fiction, such as Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), both of which glorify adventures while hitchhiking with and befriending complete strangers in predominantly public spaces, are almost impossible to envision in a contemporary society where parents must get background checks before volunteering in their own children’s schools and Harvard law professor Henry Louis Gates is arrested for trying to open his own front door. The American sense of spontaneity, adventure, and trust in fellow citizens that was characteristic of these works of the early to mid-20th century are all but extinct 50 years later in the 21st-century world of fear and paranoia about crime and security.

Zedner astutely identifies problems with the emerging prominence of the concept of security in both domestic and international contexts, and her suspicion of the displacement of public security with private is well-placed. Yet the vast expansion of the security state, both public and private, is as much a result of the public’s distrust—with each other as well as with government—as with neoliberal decentralization, though the expanding gap between the rich and the poor only lends further credence to worries of “new feudalism”. Our chief concern should not be whether private security undermines government, but whether this quest for security helps undermine the very civic well-being and participation that gives the state its purpose and meaning.

David Louk is reading for a PhD in Jurisprudence and Social Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He graduated in 2009 with an MPhil in International Relations from Balliol College, Oxford.