In the wake of the Paris terror attacks this past November, François Hollande reassured the French public, “Terrorism will not destroy the republic, because it is the republic that will destroy terrorism.” He then pressed the French parliament to give his government the power to conduct warrantless raids and surveillance and called for a set of constitutional amendments that would extend these emergency powers indefinitely. Terrorism might not destroy the French Republic, but the policies in response to terrorism could.
Security has always been as much a problem for modern democracies as it has been a solution. In part, this is because we can never entirely anticipate or eliminate all threats to human life, making what Rousseau once called “complete security” impossible. It is also because the policies needed for a safe, stable society often run counter to the other goods a liberal democracy tries to provide: representation, civil liberties, due process, equality before the law.
The tension between security and democracy, safety and legitimate rule, has been at the center of modern politics going as far back as Hobbes’s leviathan state, where fear above all else “is the passion to be reckoned upon.” But since September 11, the pursuit of complete security has done considerable damage to our democratic process. Invoking the security powers granted to Truman in the 1940s, the Bush and Obama administrations have expanded executive power beyond anything we have seen since the end of the Cold War. They have reinvigorated old security agencies and, in Bush’s case, helped invent a new one. They have launched military and drone strikes without congressional oversight, and have intercepted millions of Americans’ phone and email communications without warrants.
This single-minded pursuit of security has found expression in the ways we police our cities as well as protect our borders. Our prison population has nearly doubled since Bill Clinton signed a series of anti-crime reforms into law in 1994, and we have also seen habeas corpus considerably weakened in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. Recently it was even revealed that the Oregon Department of Justice conducted “unwarranted investigations” on Black Lives Matter activists under the pretext of domestic security. One of the signal ironies of the past quarter century has been that our quest for complete security has harmed the people and institutions we hope to protect.
We will never be able to truly escape the risks and uncertainty of modern life. Rousseau was right: complete security is impossible. But if fear is to continue to be a permanent condition in our lives, then let’s make sure democracy is as well. As Auden insisted in the shell-shocked lines of Age of Anxiety, we need to let go of “security at all costs.”