Roads Not Taken: Poets Rethink Security

How we think about ‘security’, argues Stuart Rees, depends on the language we use to describe it. Speaking up for justice and common humanity is insufficient without recognizing, as many poets have, the cruelty and coercion that characterise the national security approach.

Consideration of different forms of security – militaristic, control based or concerned with humane governance – depends on language in which some concepts are used, others ignored. Cruelty, for example, is seldom acknowledged to be a consequence of states’ worship of the God security.

This security-at-any-cost way of thinking started decades ago. In 1948, George Kennan the former Head of the US State Department’s Policy Planning staff, opposed what he called a liberal enlightened view of the new world. He said, ‘We should cease to talk about vague, unreal objectives such as human rights, the rising of living standards and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts.’

To highlight diverse ways of perceiving security, my book Cruelty or Humanity is peppered by insights from poets, as in the pacifist William Stafford’s Poetry where he depicts absolute control:  

Sometimes commanders take us over, and they
try to impose their whole universe,
how to proceed by daily calculation,
I can't eat that bread.

He was referring to the consequences of a top-down exercise of power which demands obedience and insists that representatives of state authority should not be held accountable. No-one knows who hides behind the balaclavas of Belarus state operatives, behind the visors of Hong Kong police, or the names of Australian secret service personnel who raid the homes of journalists.

When repressive security flourishes, people suffer. Sekai Holland, a dissident Zimbabwean Senator during the Mugabe years, was beaten up by state police. Many black or indigenous Americans, Europeans and Australians also have reason to fear police violence and persecution. Women who live in fear perceive the militarist views of security as irrelevant. Vulnerable peoples in Tibet, Palestine, Myanmar and Central America are made less secure by the repressive paraphernalia of state security.

To comply with vengeful US demands about security, a British judicial system holds the whistleblower journalist Julian Assange in a maximum-security prison. His offence was to publish evidence of US forces’ murder and mayhem in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The University of Gothenburg’s 2020 report Varieties of Democracy finds that over 50% of the human race now live under autocratic rule. US group Freedom House concludes that America leads regression in the democratic world, and President Xi Jinping claims that the National Security Law imposed on Hong Kong should be applicable world-wide.

These authoritarian perspectives are also evident in states’ attitudes to the possession of nuclear weapons, claimed to be the ultimate means of security, even if such policies have the potential to destroy life on earth. The July 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which will become international law in January, promises a different interpretation of security, but the nuclear weapons states refuse to sign.

Tying individual identity to state policies means that human rights can be ignored, freedoms eroded, not just in China where mass surveillance can spot any alleged dissident. In democracies as well as in dictatorships, interception, access, retention and hacking of citizens’ communications is justified as a way to combat terrorism.

Under policies to tighten countries’ borders and appeal to nationalism, international law is ignored, ethics drowned, compassion stifled, fences and walls erected. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights says that nation states that have previously respected human rights could become indistinguishable from the terrorists they are fighting. 

The security of some has demanded the insecurity of others. In declared and undeclared wars, security has been built on massive casualties. General Pinochet’s ‘caravan of death’ operated in the interests of national security. A genocidal war was fought in Vietnam. Indonesia slaughtered the East Timorese. In the name of national defence, Israeli snipers murdered hundreds of Gazans.

Fear of the other is so fomented, the only certainty is that no-one should be trusted. Citizens finish up living in a linguistic Orwellian universe where slavery is freedom, ignorance is strength, a reminder of an impending despair described by W B Yeats in The Second Coming where,

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

A language of morality is used to defend immoral practices. Australia denies freedom to asylum seekers but insists that mate-ship characterizes Australian culture. Israeli forces pulverize Gazan communities but their government insists that Israel has the most ethical army in the world. At the Mexican/US border, guards place hundreds of migrant children in cages but the Statue of Liberty at the entrance to New York harbour proclaims, 

Give me your tired your poor, your huddled masses
Yearning to breath free.

To learn a new language and thereby speak of different visions for humanity, a choice has to be made. In The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost explained the benefits of choosing an alternative to convention.

Two paths diverge in a wood and I --
I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference.  

Security could point to lives made safe by universal health insurance, by a guaranteed universal basic income, by access to affordable housing and to well-resourced primary, secondary and tertiary education.

The Extinction Rebellion and widespread School Climate strikes remind that nonviolent protest could secure a precious environment, and life support systems for animals and humans.

A language of security through humane governance advocates a restoration of faith in democracy, respect for human rights, and a willingness to abolish the worst effects of capitalism: massive social and economic inequalities, poverty, homelessness, abuse of women and the suicide rates of young people, in particular Indigenous youth.  

If militaristic interpretations of security depend on force, surveillance, cruelty, fear and deception, it follows that a socially just interpretation requires nonviolence, trust, a struggle for equality and for the ideals of a common humanity. Justice as a goal beyond current interpretations of security would require abandoning selfish visions of sovereignty and national interest.

In The Bread of the People, the playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht opposed fascism and other forms of totalitarianism. He recommended that lives be sustained by nurture from a particular staple diet:   

Justice is the bread of the people...
As daily bread is necessary
So is daily justice.
It is even necessary several times a day.


Stuart Rees is Professor Emeritus, University of Sydney, member of the ‘Order of Australia’ (OAM) for service to international relations, and inaugural recipient of the Jerusalem (Al Quds) Peace Prize. He was the founder of the internationally renowned Sydney Peace Prize.
Among many other books, he is the author of Cruelty or Humanity: Challenges, Opportunities, Responsibilities. Bristol: Policy Press, 2020.


The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.


Image Credit: Image by Reimund Bertrams from Pixabay.

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