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Ulrich Becks Theory Of World Risk Society Criminology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 3653 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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This essay seeks to study the explanation of the September 11 attacks through the key concepts of the World Risk Society. It will analyse how the presence of risks in the contemporary society, is driving the governments towards the incessant development of technologies and other sophisticated security systems in order to make their States more secure. However, the issue under discussion is that, is this tendency ‘to get feign control over the uncontrollable(Beck U; The Terrorist Threat; p 41); which is the central point of the world risk society, further adding to or leading to problems. Is this ‘presence of the future’ in the contemporary society in a way leading to a security paradox? To put it in the words of Keith Spence in World risk society and War against terror, “Both domestically in the guise of ‘Homeland Security, and in military engagements elsewhere, the pursuit of war against terror inevitably compounds and reproduces the conditions and anxieties that it purports to address.”

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To deal with these questions, the essay will start with the elucidation of the ‘World Risk Society’ Theory as conceptualized by Ulrich Beck. Moving further, the essay would discuss the underlying assumptions of risks that are at the ground level of the counter terrorism policies adopted by the World today. Taking the case study of War on Terror and the pre emptive actions adopted by the US administration, it will analyse how safer is the World with the adoption of such polices? Did the zero risk policies and the constant process of modernization help US or made it more vulnerable to such attacks, in other words, made it more insecure?

‘World Risk Society: Calculating the Incalculable’

Thinking of contemporary terrorism in the context of Beck’s theory of Risk Society, it can be defined as de-bounded uncontrollable risk characterised by a well connected structure, a continuous potential threat and difficult to trace to a single source.

Beck introduces the concept of risk as “a modern concept that presumes decision making.” He further explains that “as soon as we speak in terms of risk, we are talking about calculating the incalculable, colonizing the future.”

Beck emphasises on the fact that Risk Society has not arisen because of the presence of one or the other threats or dangers in everyday life but because of the ‘de bounding of uncontrollable risks’. According to him, de bounding has three distinct dimensions, i.e. Spatial, Temporal and Social Dimensions. By spatial dimension he implies risks or dangers that are not bounded by the nation state boundaries. The Temporal dimension signifies the long term dangers and finally the social dimension implies that the root of the problem cannot be traced back to a single agent, for instance, for problem of global terrorism, we cannot single out a country or an individual or group and blame it responsible for all terror networks. In the words of Beck, “‘Uncontrollable risks’ must be understood as not being linked to place, that is they are difficult to impute to a particular agent and can hardly be controlled on the level of the nation state.”

Ulrich Beck further explains that in the World Risk Society with the central problem of – ‘how to feign control over the uncontrollable’, have three axes of conflict ecological conflict, global financial crises and global terror. To say that the risk is global is not to suggest that everyone would be equally affected. It implies that the risks are ‘unequally distributed’; it might cause damage to different countries differently depending on the cultural and political variations. However, even if it affects everyone unequally but the truth, as Beck says, is that it affects everyone. And thus there exists a global problem for which a global solution must be found. This is where the global co-operation fits the picture. In his theory, terror seems to be the midpoint of interaction between other two axes of conflict. The development in technology and the increase in flow of money, in one way or the other increases the extent of the threat from the dark World of terror.( Beck U., The Terrorist Threat, p. 45) A distinction can be made between ecological and financial conflicts on one hand and global terror risks on the other hand. As Beck explains, ecological and financial conflicts are the unintentional side effects that come attached with the production of goods which in turn are the results of the central decisions taken by society. Explicating the shift from accident to intention, Beck concentrates on the axis of global terror. He describes terrorism as an ‘intentionally bad’ (Beck U., The Terrorist Threat, p. 44) activity which leads to a negative situation that the other axes of conflicts produce unintentionally. This change of accident in the industrial society to intention in the modern society is followed by a further replacement of ‘active trust’ to ‘active mistrust’. As the terrorist threat highlights mistrust and multiplies the risks, it weakens the relationship between the fellow citizens, foreigners and governments.

After looking at these characteristics of the Risk Society, it becomes quite easy to understand the basis on which pre emptive intervention policies, detentions and profiling are justified. As Kessler O. And Werner W put it in ‘Extrajudicial Killing as Risk Management’, it is justified in the face of rowdiness and unpredictability of the modern terrorist. Also, after the attacks of September 11, the whole World very well accepts the fact that the terror world today has access to all technologically advanced weapons and thus has the capability to harm more people and spread more fear and panic amongst people. The features of the modern terrorism fit the framework of the risk society.

Beck suggests that in the World Risk Society, it is increasingly becoming impossible for the States to protect the security of its citizens in the growing atmosphere of multiplying risks and active mistrust. The solution to the global problems of terror, ecological and financial conflicts lies in transnational co-operation. As he admits, this leads to a paradoxical situation for the nation states as in order to further accomplish their national interests, they need to ‘denationalize’ themselves. The global coalition against terror stands a witness to it. In order to uphold their constitutional promise of protecting the life of their citizens, in this situation specifically from the terror threats, the nation states came together to fight a war against the terror world. this can be attributed to the fact that it isn’t possible for nay country to fight the vast networks of terrorism, spread across the world, all alone. Even the superpower like US, which is most developed technologically and financially, had to call for the support of the other nations in order to wage the war on terror. Even though as a leader of global coalition it had to make certain policy compromises, nevertheless it went ahead to uphold its constitutional promise.

It is shift from accident to intention that is the basis of all the counter terrorism policies. The process of profiling and indefinite detentions has been justified on the grounds of intention. The government has started judging the people on the basis of intention. To quote Mythen and Walklate from ‘Terrorism, Risk and International Security’ government has taken more restrictive and invasive steps so that it can create an order that can tame the dangers to the detriment of people.

Analysing 9/11 and the policies thereafter through the risk society perspective:

Precautionary policies and the National security in the wake of New terrorism

“Responsible Science and responsible policymaking operate on the precautionary principle.”

Tony Blair (2002)

The policies used to approach the global problem of terror are dictated by the logic of risk management. The novelty of this approach, as Keith Spence puts it in ‘World Risk Society and War on Terror’, lies in the adoption of pre emptive approach. The adoption of pre emptive approach as a precautionary principle can be described as being based on four interrelated assumptions put forth by Claudia Aradau & Van Munster in ‘Governing Terrorism through Risk: Taking Precautions’, “zero risk, worst case scenario, shifting the burden of proof and serious and irreversible damage.” It is the worst case scenario and the thought of irreversible damage that drives the government to adopt zero risk policies. When struck with the 9/11 attacks, it was the thought of further irreversible damage that made the Bush administration come up with the pre emptive policy and the following invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq as States breeding terrorism.

The pre emptive approach reminds us of the Henry Kissinger’s observation that ‘the desire of one power for absolute security means absolute insecurity for all the others’ (Kissinger, 1961, p. 148; 1964, p. 2). The conduct and outcomes of such acts are not unpredictable but uncontrollable as well. The pre emptive approach adopted to fight terror spread more fear than it actually tackled due to the presence of uncertainty and unpredictability. In the words of Keith Spence, “In leveraging sentiments of uncertainty amongst target populations, pre emption like all mechanisms of terror, enlarges the impact of aggression, provoking fear that permeates the culture thereby constituted and reproduced.” (World Risk Society and the War on Terror, P.289)

The process of pre-emption follows the logic of absolute security. The adoption of pre emption undermined the UN laws and norms that supported use of force only under situations that justified self defence against actual threat.( Annan, K. (2003); ‘Secretary-General’s address to the General Assembly’; New York, 23 September 2003.) The pre emption approach on the other hand worked on the principle of eradicating possible threats. To quote Bush from ‘Remarks at West Point: New Threats Require New Thinking’, “to wait for the threats to materialize would mean that we would have waited too long.” The idea of the eradication of potential threats in order to provide absolute security are all significant features of a ‘catastrophic society’ as explained by Ulrich Beck in the theory of Risk society. The approach adopted, do not disappoint on the point of global solutions to the problems of terror. The solution that it provides again falls in the line of thought of Beck’s Wold Risk Society by abandoning the conventional norms of time, space and restraint. (Spence, Keith; World risk Society and the War on Terror; p 289)

The stated objective of the War on Terror, as stated by George W. Bush in the ‘Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People’ on 4th of July, ‘will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated’ cannot be satiated. Instead the approach of the administration leads to the development of more such networks than it actually eradicates. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s has aptly remarked in context of the Operation Iraqi Freedom, that ‘instead of having one bin Laden, we will have 100’ as a consequence of Operation undertaken.( Black, Ian and McGreal, Chris (2003) ‘Conflict will create 100 bin Ladens, warns Egyptian president’, The Guardian, 1 April, p. 4.) The manner in which the US conducts its response to terror would only lead to multiplication of terror networks rather than its eradication. The fact that the initial steps of the policy adoption actually led to the growth of the terror activities in North and East Africa, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, the Indian subject-continent and the wider Gulf Region brings to the fore Kissinger’s cautionary observation of absolute security.

Security measures as a part of precautionary principle: Homeland Security

The practices undertaken to fight away the terrorist networks under the label war on terror are too vast and discursive to fit into the framework of any theory. From Guantanamo Bay to biometrics and increased surveillance, or from extraordinary rendition to the categorisation of terrorist suspects as enemy combatants, the ‘war on terror’ has regimented a whole series of practices that showcase the reaction to precautionary risk. (Aradau and Van Munster, 2007; Governing Terrorism through Risk: taking precautions, (un)knowing the future; European Journal of International Relations; Vol. 13, No. 1, 89-115)

As a result of the terror attacks, US post the announcement of War on Terror, took a lot of steps in order to be prepared to shield the country from any unpredictable, unknown but inevitable situation. The website www.ready.gov created by the department of Homeland Security is another source for informing the people and preparing America for any ’emergency’. The site discusses the campaign ‘Ready’ which aims at educating and empowering the Americans to deal with any situation of emergency including natural and man-made disasters. (http://www.ready.gov/america/about/index.html) The Website states ‘Be ready!’ and carefully places a quote from the founding secretary Tom Ridge, claiming “terrorism forces us to make a choice. We can be afraid or we can be prepared!” The website goes to the extent of stating three simple steps – get the emergency kit, formulate a family emergency plan and be informed – to rescue oneself or at least be prepared to face the emergency situation. It warns the people about ’emergencies that can range from inconvenient to devastating’ and aims at empowering them by preparing them in advance. The department aims at preparing the people to fight the emergency but what exactly will be the emergency is unknown, the only surety about the unsure situation is its inevitability. The site puts in to place the key mechanism of the catastrophic society which makes the state of emergency institutionally established as a norm. (Spence, Keith; p 291). The states have marked emergencies from green to red and make sure that the drills take place regularly. As Keith Spence rightly remarks, the frenzy created by these drills and the supplementary activities leads to a persistent feeling of anxiety which is further responsible for a feeling of uneasiness and discomfort. (p.293)

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The adoption of the pre cautionary principle has led to a time where it is not the state which has to prove but the individual has to prove that he/she is innocent. Under such a precautionary principle, the people irrespective of the fact that they are innocent or victim, they are guilty unless proven innocent. To quote Keith Spence from ‘World risk society and War on Terror’, “Neither the conduct nor outcomes of such acts are fully predictable or controllable, and as war and terror overlap and blur so too do distinctions separating civilian from combatant, collateral from non-collateral, and innocent from other victims.” (p. 289)

Ardau and Van Munster aptly remark, “Among the technologies used to avoid a catastrophic future, war is just one. The ‘war on terror’ or the consequent war of Afghanistan and Iraq do not speak of a recent rediscovery of militarism, but of a govern mentality that activates all the technologies imaginable in the face of uncertainty.”

There is an interesting similarity between ‘Homeland’ and ‘Fatherland’. As Keith Spence points out the Jacobin Terror which was anticipated by the declaration of ‘Fatherland in danger’ on 11th July 1972 was the starting point for the nation state to assert its control and authority. In 1973 when the Committee of public safety was constituted and succeeded the Committee of Vigilance (Spence; p. 291), Danton proclaimed, “Let us be terrible so that the people will not have to be.” One cannot help but agree with T. Ridge (2003) when he remarks that if War on Terror has been announced for peace then ‘Homeland Security’ is just another name for the vigilance committee and has been formed in the name of freedom.

As Helene Guldberg puts it in ‘Challenging the Precautionary Principle’, to take regulatory action on the basis of possible ‘unmanageable’ risks, even after tests have been conducted that find no evidence of harm. We are asked to make decisions to curb actions, not on the basis of what we know, but on the basis of what we do not know’


As Ardau and Van Munster put it in ‘Governing Terrorism through risk: taking precautions, unknowing the future’, “9/11 has given way to more pro-active forms of surveillance of suspect populations, leading to a surplus supply of data and an over-prediction of threats.”

To quote Aas K. F from ‘The body does not lie’: Identity, risk and trust in technoculture, “in a globalised and anonymous world, where almost everyone can afford to cross the closest borders, biological identification seems to be the best solution for states to verify people’s identity.”

Biometrics is simply the measurement of the most unique parts of a human’s body i.e. the iris, the fingerprints, retinas, gait and voice. Application of biometrics in the field of security is just significant of the increasing trend of securitization of identity. The basic principle behind the biometrics is, as Aas puts it in’The body’, to eliminate bad by keeping away undesired people.

The US VISIT programme showcases the advanced and complex system of biometrics govern mentality i.e. a system of categorizing a person as legitimate or illegitimate with the support of technology collecting data biometric information of the human bodies.

The case of Guantanamo Bay:

As Keith Spence puts it in ‘World Risk society and War on Terror’, apart from the invasion of Iraq the archaic excess is prominently elaborated at Guantanamo Bay, where deterritorialization and pre-emption are materialized in a legally determined limbo beyond the reach of civil and international law. (p 291)

Guantanamo existence as a state of exception was made clear by the condition of the detainees of Gauntanamo. As Giorgio Agamben seeks to explain, “The detainees of Guantanamo are subject to raw power and have no legal existence.”( Agamben G. And Raulff U.; (2004) Interview with Giorgio Agamben – Life, A Work of Art Without an Author: The State of Exception, the Administration of Disorder and Private Life, German Law Journal) Implication of the risk perspective to the camp exemplifies dealing with an unrestricted risk in the spatial category. The Guantanamo Bay detention camp has been placed outside the regular US legal jurisdiction but it is not fully immune for this order. . To this extent, C. Ardau in ‘Law Transformed’ remarks, “The Guantanamo bay camp perfectly embodies the necessity of defining a new form of war, which breaks the habits of all previous sets.”

Guantanamo Bay stands as a perfect example of the aftermath of the conditions resulting from the implication of the precautionary logic of controlling the future in other words tackling something that is uncertain and unknown of. Even though Gauntanamo has resulted in making modern day terrorism as a novelty nevertheless it cannot be tagged as a place without any regulations. To put it in the words of C. Ardau, it has resulted in the creation of a place ruled by the dominant principle “of governing the social and taming the future.”

US itself has become a source of violence it wanted to fight by adopting the harsh policies to fight to it and Guantanamo Bay is just one example of this. The thought of taking over terrorism with the principle of pre-empt rather than dealing with risk often leads to a vicious circle by giving way to exactly what it had wished to extinguish. War against terror and the precautionary steps taken thereafter is symbolic of this phenomenon.


To quote Ulrich Beck, “September 11 drove home the lesson that we now live in a risk society, a society in which there are uncontrollable and unpredictable dangers against which insurance is impossible and where questions of compensation, liability and harm minimization have lost all their social and political significance.” The policies adopted and the measures taken post the attacks of 9/11 just makes this quote a lot more acceptable and suitable to the present situation.

Even after taking the precautionary steps and becoming increasingly ready by employing latest technologies for uncertain but inevitable emergency situations, US has not only made itself more vulnerable to such attacks but in a way has helped the terror world to spread across its message of fear and panic. The new technologies employed for security purposes are just new challenges posed in front of the terrorist. They might learn to overtake it in a while. The question that arises then is – What steps will US take then? It is really a vicious circle – the more it will try to secure itself, the more insecure it will become!


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