Everything That I Learnt About Security Theatre I Learnt From the Zombie Apocalypse

Everything That I Learnt About Security Theatre I Learnt From the Zombie Apocalypse

[Tamsin Phillipa Paige is a Lecturer with Deakin Law School and consults for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in relation to Maritime Crime.] 

In 2018 I had the privilege of interviewing Seanan McGuire (in her Mira Grant persona) as part of my research project on understanding social perceptions and impacts of issues of law and justice through popular literature. We discussed her bestselling Newsflesh trilogy, a political conspiracy thriller set ~25 years after the zombie apocalypse, as a social discourse text for exploring the impact of security theatre and post tragedy law making on society. That paper is forthcoming in Law and Literature. In this post I would like to discuss how we can use the almost two decades of security theatre learning to help us better analyse the measures being implemented to combat the spread of COVID19.

Before we begin on this exploration of security theatre and how it can be used to interrogate COVID19 response measures it is worth noting that these are predominately transnational (cultural) phenomena that play out in the domestic sphere. That does not mean that it is outside the purview of the international lawyer. So much of what plays out in security theatre and the COVID19 bio-security response is intimately linked to international law. From the regulations regarding pandemic responses, to restrictions of human rights in relation to a state of emergency, to questions around international duties for states to cooperate in response to disasters. These issues might be playing out in the domestic sphere, but it clear that they are and should be matters of concern for international lawyers.

The post-9/11 world has shifted security dynamics in palpable ways, changing security regulations’ focus to ritual and theatre. In this dynamic, security takes on a Butler-esque performative dimension, whereby the populous are reminded that it is the government who keeps them safe from external threats. To understand this performative aspect of security that is intrinsic to security theatre, an understanding of Butler’s work on the inherently performative nature of law is necessary. Butler, in the first part of Antigone’s Claim, generally posits that black letter law is the symbolised ideal of law, while law in reality is the social interactions that the ideal creates within society. When this concept is applied to security, the symbolised ideal is the legislation and regulations that articulate the frameworks and procedures that are to be implemented in a security space. One need only look to the security processes in airports, particularly to enter departure areas, or any other liminal space for transnational travel to see the implementation of these laws. From this symbolised ideal we have the social relations of the government officials performing security by enacting those regulations on the populous by either deeming them safe and free to proceed, or suspect and in need of further checking (noting that these procedures have racial profiling and other discriminatory practice embedded within them that actually undermine security). This action (or performance) of implementing legal procedure and regulations take the law from symbolised ideal to physical reality. Further, it is the public nature of this performance of security that takes it from being an ordinary act of performative law, into being a public spectacle – hence the term ‘security theatre’. In this dynamic, the spectacle of border security serves the primary purpose of heightening fear and anxiety in those who participate, casting the zombie/terrorist as monstrous and omni-present in order to heighten paranoia and generate a pliable populous. The spectacle itself is structured in such a way that it compels participants to feel that the threat faced is both external and numerous in nature, and that they are only safe because of the hard work of the government and the rigorous security that the government is deploying.

The then seemingly-natural, ‘just’, price of security then becomes surveillance.

The post-9/11 environment is unique in making theatrical compliance with surveillance ubiquitous, seemingly beyond national governments’ control. Security theatre’s scripts are almost identical regardless of the location, rendering them transnational. This both enables governments to disclaim responsibility for invading privacy (there was no alternative, and ‘those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear’), and compels governments to comply with the wider discourse lest they be deemed ‘soft of terror’. Meanwhile, government’s notional agents – the transnational bureaucracies controlling security spaces – are given the power to define the security threats. Theatrical security thereby creeps into every facet of life, demanding the right to regulate and normalise social behaviour. All divergence from the accepted norm is recast as deviance, and an inherent threat (‘if you see something, say something’). Within this framework, government then seeks to present living in a state of threat as normal, and highlight the threat itself as inevitable – a terrorist attack/zombie outbreak is not a matter of if, but when, we are told. Once inevitability is established and fear normalised, governments begin to sooth public anxiety (‘be alert, not alarmed’) through performative demonstrations of security, highlighting, as put by Anastassia Tsoukala, that the “government can and will control what is presented as essentially uncontrollable” (or ‘we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’). According to Andrew Tudor, the macro cultural phenomena of the fear response inherent to ‘security theatre’ leads to ready acceptance of modified social routine, and discourses that are grounded in cultural “truth” rather than fact-based evidence.

So the question that is left begging is what does this mean for COVID19? By all estimations, effective responses have been science-led, grounded in medical advice on addressing pandemics. We have seen travel book-ended by quarantines (where it has been permitted); we have seen social distancing, nation wide lockdowns, and (wherever possible) work-from-home protocols implemented. These processes, at least in Australia and New Zealand, have worked at preventing the pandemic from costing untold lives and running unchecked through the community.

So why am I reflecting on security theatre when thinking about bio-security responses to COVID19?

Because we have also seen a raft of laws to enforce these responses that dramatically increase police powers passed, and numerous instances of inconsistent applications of these laws that demonstrate targeting of these laws on minority groups and in poor neighbourhoods (for example, but not limited to, here, here, here, here, and here), further eroding public trust in policing. We have seen, in Australia, the government spruiking an app of dubious value as a key component to ‘re-opening the country’ (although that rhetoric has since been dropped and the app has faded into obscurity). We have seen attempts to use the pandemic to implement amendments to the criminal law that are frankly ludicrously disproportionate to the mischief they are attempting to address. In the UK we have seen Boris Johnson defend Dominic Cummings’ flagrant breaches of pandemic movement restrictions, calling into question the purpose of the restriction by the public. We have also seen world leaders defend right wing protests against lockdown measures, while using lockdown measures as a basis of attempting to prevent Black Lives Matter protests. Finally, we have seen muddled instructions on what these directions mean, which then opens the door misunderstanding-fuelled disasters. This is where our experience of security theatre is valuable.

Our experiences of security theatre give us a grounded starting point from which to analyse our current bio-security measures. They allow us to effectively question and critique those measures that are theatrical in nature and designed to further agendas of blind trust in government out of fear. They also allow us to see which measures are results-focused and fit-for-purpose, rather than ideologically driven. Most importantly, they tell us to be wary of supposedly-inevitable measures, especially should those measures begin to shift control of the implementation from medical authorities to security agencies. This last point is crucial when we consider the various lockdown measures in place in conjunction with police enforcement powers. Medical evidence has demonstrated the effectiveness of lockdown and border quarantine measures (especially when we consider how effective they have been in New Zealand), but the evidence related to police enforcement of these measures has shown issues of racial and socioeconomic targeting that has hindered rather than helped implementation. Our knowledge of security theatre tells us that this side of the implementation of COVID19 bio-security has fallen into the same pattern of theatre outline above in relation to border control, and is thus not fit for purpose. It is ideologically driven and designed to heighten public fear and pliability rather than being about keeping society safe. These are the sorts of issues that can be avoided (or brought to light) by examining new bio-security measures through the lens of security theatre theory.

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Featured, General, International Human Rights Law, National Security Law, Organizations, Public International Law, Use of Force
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