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Reasonable security a better bet than total security

  • 19 September 2007

The recent APEC Conference in Sydney put on show the logic that governs preoccupation with national security. It revealed that logic to be costly, ineffective and corrosive of the human values it claims to defend.

The problem lies in the desire to guarantee total security. This means that every possible threat has to be identified and explored, every possible protection installed. At APEC protection cost $260 million dollars.

When you want total security you necessarily focus on the threats to it. Before APEC we heard much about the danger of terrorism and even more about the danger of violent demonstrations. We knew that the guardians of security were ready for both, come what may.

The total security project, however, is marked by paradox. The security apparatus necessary to meet all imaginable threats is so complex that it subverts itself. It creates a climate in which sloppiness or even ordinary human common sense can both undermine the conditions of a reasonable security and corrode the values security defends.

At APEC the Chaser saga perfectly demonstrated the paradox. The Chaser team, complete with Bin Laden look-alike, were waved through a series of checkpoints. Those responsible for security then warned them that they could have been shot by a nervous sniper. The effect of security was clearly to create an insecurity that could have led to the loss of innocent lives.

The paradox was also illustrated in the case of Dr Haneef. Preoccupation with security led him to be detained. But the same preoccupation led to sloppiness and partiality in presenting and publicising evidence. The process was inconsistent with the respect for human dignity that security was supposed to defend.

This logic naturally brings the quest for total security into disrepute. It suggests that we cannot and should not attempt to guarantee total security. But in the logic of total security such failures are seen to demand an iron-cast security system.

Such a system would demand protection against its victims — heavier penalties for trespassers and whistle-blowers, more secrecy to prevent confidence being undermined, provisions to prevent security’s victims from being known. It would also rely on public fear of threats to security. Respect for humanity will finally be diminished by the security devised to protect humanity. This logic is evident in germ in Australia. Its fruits can be seen fully in the history of nations like South Africa. There national security became a priority at the start of