What does it mean to be secure?


The recent Geneva popular vote to overhaul the local police organization has drawn enormous attention. The vote was emotional, politically dividing and extremely close. Were the police a state within a state? Did the police union have too much power? Would the person responsible for the police, Conseil d’Etat Pierre Maudet who initiated the reform, lose influence if he lost the vote? Many questions were raised.  But perhaps the most fundamental ones were not raised: What does it mean to be secure today? Who is responsible for our security?

Security has become an international buzzword. Instead of analyzing national defense, experts now talk of national security. Academics have created a whole new discipline called Critical Security Studies. Followers of the Copenhagen School analyze how “securitization” has become prioritized academically and politically. Post 9/11 the United States created a mammoth new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2002 that has 240,000 employees and a budget of $60 billion. Its goal is simply put: “Keeping America safe.”
Below the state and international levels, Switzerland now has a Division of Human Security within its Foreign Ministry. Its website says that it is “responsible for implementing measures to promote peace and strengthen human rights in the world. The concept of human security focuses on the safety of individual human beings and protecting people against political violence, war and acts of arbitrary violence.” In spite of its lofty goals, the budget is considerably more modest than the DHS’.
Beyond the institutional structures and name changes, there are deeper implications of what is going on here. Why has security become so important? What does it mean to be secure or safe? The answer to these questions is situational. Being from New York and having worked in difficult neighborhoods, I never had the feeling of being entirely secure or safe in my city. I don’t mean being afraid of being attacked by the Soviet Union or terrorists; I mean simply taking the subway or walking down the street. New Yorkers are always aware that danger is lurking, wherever they may be. To listen to the Genevois complain about how the situation has changed here is to wonder at how unusual it must have been at a certain moment to have no sense of fear or insecurity. (When I lived in Villars I never locked the front door, even when I went away on vacation.)
If people feel less secure today it is because the world has changed. But, it is also because there is a greater expectation that we can actually be secure. The threshold for safety has been raised. When an airplane crashes, for example, we are horrified because we expect all flights to be perfect even though statistics tell us that there are many more deaths per kilometers on the road than in the air. We expect flying to be perfect just as we expect our houses to be robber-free, and our neighborhoods to be clean and open. (I use the general term “we” here since even after 42 years in Switzerland I have not gotten away from certain reactions. When Swiss passengers got into my car in my former residence and indoor parking, they were amazed that the first thing I did was lock all the doors even before I started the engine.)
If the threshold for security has been raised, it follows that we have higher expectations for the police, those responsible for our safety. The police are supposed to ensure that we have tranquil lives – no domestic quarrels in the halls, no drug dealers on the corners, no break-ins to our apartments and houses. Just as school teachers have become the focus of many societal problems that we expect them to fix, the police have become the focus of our social needs for total security. We expect to have obedient, learned children, and that’s the teacher’s job to educate them. We expect perfect safety and tranquility, that’s the police’s job to guarantee. We expect our army to protect us from foreign forces, natural disasters, etc. That’s their job.
Are our expectations unreasonable? Are they too simplistic? When one listens to the police – as one should – they tell us how much of their time is spent not fighting crime but in handling domestic violence and filling out forms. Teachers tell us that they are responsible for what happens in the classroom, not what goes on in the home or on the streets. The army tells us that they are trained to fight, not necessarily to deal with disaster relief or protect Davos during the World Economic Forum.
Economists talk about comparative advantage. Each person or institution has a specialty, something that only it can do. The more we dilute the task at hand, the more the results are compromised. Since we can never be totally secure – indeed the term in and of itself is fuzzy – the more those responsible for our safety will be frustrated, as well as those who worry about their safety. The 50.02% vs. 49.98 vote in favor of the reform testifies to a lack of clarity about means and end. More fundamentally, the word “security” has a buzz, but little beef.

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