Communist Party of Australia

We acknowledge the Sovereignty of the First Nations’ Peoples.


Journal of the Communist Party of Australia


State of emergency:

The militarisation of civil society and the decline of politics post 9/11

by Jude McCulloch

Two years ago Australia’s Parliament House — the country’s most potent symbol of democracy — was closed to the public and subject to a virtual military lockdown to secure an address to Parliament by visiting United States President George W Bush. Outside Parliament a massive and unprecedented security operation was used to shield the President and the following media from protesters. Inside the Parliament’s sergeant-at-arms attempted to eject two Green senators when they interrupted the President to ask him about the two Australian citizens held indefinitely without trial at Guantanamo Bay. These events are emblematic of the way “security” is shutting down politics as the “war on terror” and the extraordinary measures that accompany it become normalised as part of everyday politics.

In the post 9/11 “state of emergency”, coercion and repression have taken root at the heart of politics. The space for politics is under attack as threat, fear, and force come to dominate political discourse, the rule of law is replaced by the rule of force and military symbols and personnel become embedded at the core of political power. National security played an important role in last year’s elections in the United States and Australia. Bush and Howard worked hard to be seen as strong leaders in uncertain and anxious times. Both staged a number of “killer photo opportunities” in military settings and in military gear at strategic points in their campaigns. Military and ex-military leaders are increasingly elevated to important political posts. The proliferation of “counter-terrorism” laws post 9/11 that remove the presumption of innocence, imply guilt by association and aim to strike pre-emptively at “enemies”, are consistent with the suspension of due process associated with martial law. The erosion of the space between civil society and the military and the eclipse of politics this foreshadows hint at the garrison state that now looms on the horizon.

The garrison state represents the reversal of the democratic ideal of a state which is transparent and accountable and replaces it with one that rejects scrutiny and seeks to position itself outside and above the law. The walls of secrecy surrounding the garrison state are constructed of bricks manufactured in the furnace of national security. National security is used as grounds to shield the actions of states from the public gaze and to strip suspect subjects of due process protections. Justice that was previously in the hands of the civil courts is increasingly being overrun by military contingencies that categorise people as friend or foe and punish accordingly. The military prison at Guantanamo Bay represents the contemporary zenith in this shift. Detainees are held without rights while the United States maintains that it is free to probe the prisoners psychically and physically in whatever way, to whatever extent and for however long it deems fit. The original Guantanamo camp was called Camp X-ray. The United States military encampment outside the camp was called Freedom Heights. The juxtaposition between Camp X-ray and Freedom Heights captures exactly the relative positions of power of subject and state at Guantanamo. A significant aspect in the decline of politics and civil society is the progressive erosion of the boundary between the police and the military. The principle that the military is not used internally to repress citizens was customarily considered an important tenet of the liberal democratic ideal in Anglo-American countries. A close operational and ideological relationship between the police and military, on the other hand, was considered a hallmark of more authoritarian regimes. Until the 1970s the military was used almost exclusively against external enemies in times of war while the police were used domestically against citizens to enforce the law and keep the peace. Over the last three decades police have been increasingly integrated into national defence while the military has taken up an expanded role in internal security. The military and police traditionally acted under different operational and philosophical principles. The military were trained to kill enemies by use of overwhelming force whereas the police were, and remain, under a legal obligation to use only minimum force, and are bound to keep the peace and protect life. That this policing ideal was and is frequently and egregiously flouted, particularly in the case of minority communities, anti-establishment movements, and militant trade unions, does not detract from the point that the use of a civil police force for civil law enforcement provides significant civil liberties protections for citizens over and above those available where the military is used as a coercive force. The use of the military for law enforcement implies the suspension of the legal procedures, which protect individual rights and place limits on police powers, in favour of martial law and arbitrary state power. The deployment of police from western or developed countries in less developed countries harks back to earlier times when empires maintained colonial order against insurgent nationalist movements through imperial paramilitary policing operations.

The blurring of the line between the police and military has important consequences for civil society and politics. The development of hybrid policing and military functions was initially rationalised in terms of the need for an increased counter terrorist capacity and the “war on crime”, particularly drugs. In the mid-1970s paramilitary units were established within state police forces in Australia. This was done in secret due to the strong conventions against the integration of the military into policing. The establishment of these units was not announced publicly until after the Sydney Hilton bombing in 1978. Despite the establishment of the groups being tied to terrorism the paramilitary groups have been progressively integrated into everyday policing. The tactics of these groups have often proved controversial and in particular have been associated with in an increase in fatal shootings, particularly in Victoria from the late 1980s. These paramilitary groups typically train with the military, include former military officers and have a range of equipment and high-powered weapons more usually associated with military forces.

The military now engage in frequent joint exercises with the police and have detailed contingency plans for deployment in case of domestic crisis or widespread civil unrest. While publicly the need for these joint exercises and plans are tied to the terrorist threat, the terms “domestic crisis” and “civil unrest”, like the term “terrorism”, are broad enough to encompass widespread industrial action, civil disobedience and mass protest. The expanding deployment of the military at various events creates a context where a future call-out of troops in such circumstances is less likely to be seen as an affront to democracy and civil liberties. It has been announced that 1200 defence force personnel will be deployed in Melbourne during the Commonwealth Games in 2006. In addition police and Australian Defence Force personnel using Black Hawk helicopters will take part in drills around Melbourne in the months leading up to the games.

The change in the nature of the state’s coercive capacities from the 1970s presented a number of significant opportunities for powerful interests. The militarisation of law enforcement opened up significant new markets for the arms industry in the post-Vietnam era when it seemed that conventional military conflicts were in decline. The use of the military in law enforcement and counter terrorism also provided a basis to justify maintaining and increasing military budgets and an aggressive United States foreign policy as the Cold War waned. During this period the spectre of terrorism and crime provided a substitute for the communist threat of earlier times. The spectre of “narco-terrorism”, in particular, blended aggressive United States internal law enforcement with aggressive exterritorial military action. In addition, the “war on crime” and counter terrorism provided a mechanism to maintain hierarchical race and social relations internally and neo-colonial policies externally. Previously these power relationships were founded on notions of racial and social inferiority. With the advent of the norm of racial equality and equal opportunity the maintenance of unequal and unjust systems of distribution and power were maintained through processes of criminalisation under law and order politics and the targeting of a broad range of social justice and independence movements internationally as terrorists or terrorist sympathisers. Discourses around crime and terrorism provided the basis for a shift from the “inferior” Other to the “dangerous” Other. Groups that otherwise might be seen as “at risk” — racial minorities, asylum seekers, indigenous populations, the poor and disabled — and in need of aid and support were transformed through the rhetoric of law and order and security politics into “risks” in need of a coercive response. The sense of fear and insecurity generated around crime and terrorism also served as a politically useful distraction from economic and social problems created by dominant economic paradigms. The penetration of the military into civil law enforcement and the tendency of the western powers, particularly the United States and its close allies such as Australia, to act as the world’s globocops intensified markedly since 9/11. United States unilateralism and pre-emption under the flag of the “war on terror” conceives the globe as the United States’ sovereign domain, rendering all military action “internal security” and thus police action.

While the details of the script and cast of security politics depends on the history, culture, social structure and economic position of each nation, the dynamics of security politics are set in motion at a level beyond national boundaries. Politics is in the process of being militarised as globalisation and the willing embrace of neo-liberalism reduces states’ capacity to intervene economically to promote the welfare of citizens. In the face of competition for mobile international capital, states are increasingly unable to respond to the social demands that were traditionally expressed within the formal processes of democracy. Politicians with increasingly less to offer on issues such as health, education, housing and other areas that support community cohesion and well-being are quick to respond to, exacerbate and even create the fears that lead to security in its most repressive and coercive forms. Paradoxically security politics generates such a sense of insecurity that the wages of fear are now understood to be political success. “Security” is fast becoming the primary focus of state activity and the basis for political legitimacy as the economic state is eclipsed and the social welfare state repudiated. Security based on the insecurity of the Other has become official under Bush’s simplistic binary “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists”.

Internationally the pursuit of security under the flag of the “war on terror” provides an alibi for the crimes of empire in the quest for a new and reinvigorated colonialism. On the war’s home front, “security” smooths the way and provides cover for the immeasurable crimes of capital, manifest in the theft of life, happiness and future in the pursuit of profits unhindered by concern for human rights, the security and well being of individuals and communities or the environment.

Dr Jude McCulloch is a Senior Lecturer in Criminal Justice and Criminology at Monash University. She is the author of Blue Army: Paramilitary Policing in Australia (Melbourne University Press 2001) and many articles on security and counter-terrorism.

The above article was first published in the Summer 2005/2006 issue of Dissent.

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