The Danger of Beginnings: How Security Endangers Democracy

(By: conjuncture magazine)

January in Europe – Sochi is now a high-security area, entrance allowed only with special passes, to protect the Olympic games. Huge parts of Hamburg are a so-called “Gefahrengebiet” to protect the city. The NSA stores and analyzes about 200 million SMS per day, to protect the US. In Michoacan, the people take arms to protect society…

The wish to live in some kind of safety – to be somehow protected – is obviously a very strong one. Aside from the physical safety of the self, which can be described as pure survival, we tend to include the safety of friends, family, property or more generally, a basic order. Thus, looking at the news around the globe, just in the past month, should give us a warm feeling – there is protection everywhere you look.

But for some reason, this warm feeling of safety never takes hold. Personally, I would say, that all this protection provokes fear rather than the feeling of security. For people who express such fears or worries in public – the German police always have the answer: there is no need for fear if you haven’t done anything illegal. So – just some more protection for the country?

A short view in history shows that societies seem to be ready to give up some freedom in exchange for security or a system of order that gives the feeling of safety. Well known from the medieval times in Europe is that peasants gave up their whole existence to the hands of a baron or a king (in rare moments, to a baroness or a queen) – who, in exchange, promised to protect their lives.

Looking at this past, it does not surprise us that such a high price leads over time to revolts and protests. We even learn that in school. If the protecting part abuses its power, the protected part will withdraw from the contract that formed the current society. In the picture of the past it seemed to be clear, that safety is not a value by itself but just a value for an order or system that is worth being protected.

With a look at the situation in Hamburg, to pick a recent example from the last month, the question has to be asked, why it is so easy to judge a medieval system without thinking about our own? Or for those readers who think that times just change: why is it so easy to judge Putin’s Russia, without seeing the problems “in my own backyard”?

Therefore I will attempt a short overview of what happened in Hamburg between January 4th and January 13th.

On January 4th, the police in Hamburg declared the neighborhoods of St. Pauli, Sternschanze, Altona-Altstadt and most parts of Altona-Nord as “Gefahrengebiet“. (In these so-called danger-zones, the police have the right to stop-and-frisk, as well as to hold a person to check the identity without any reason) The reason given by the police was a demonstration that occurred in December 2013 which escalated short after it began, following an attack on a police station some days later. (The police reported that one of their most famous stations, located in the red-light-district was attacked by 30 to 40 masked agitators, dressed in black. According to police accounts they threw stones at the building at injured an officer).

So far, so good – violent protesters endangered society and needed to be stopped? The police just offer protection?

It is based on a law that had been adopted in Hamburg in 2005 with the intention to increase public order and security (Yes, this is precisely the name: Increasing of Public Security and Order Act). A core element is that the police can declare people in specific areas dangerous. With this declaration the people in this area lose the fundamental right to not be unnecessarily searched or questioned by the police.

Thus, under such conditions, the police decide if the police need more power. No judge is necessary, nor do not they need proof of its` necessity. They just need to suspect that a crime “of significance” might happen. This specific case from Janurary 2014 shows exactly where such a constellation leads.

The police suspected a risk of these significant crimes after the escalation of a demonstration on December 21st. Different political and social organizations organized a demonstration against the inhuman treatment of a refugee-group in Hamburg1 and the destruction of a housing-complex in the center of the city.2 In the weeks following this demonstration, there were various smaller protests, including those against police violence.

The ultimate legitimation used by the police to declare the “Gefahrengebiet” was the mentioned attack against the police station. The only problem is just two days after the report not even the most conservative newspaper believed this story– there had never been any attack. The officer got injured in a totally different context. After the fabricated attack against the police-station an analysis of the demonstration from December 21st lead to the question if the police also attacked the demonstration to provoke an escalation.

Then January 10th, 2014, after one week the police decided to reduce the “Gefahrengebiet” to something that is now called “danger-islands” by different German newspapers. The media reacted with satisfaction following the news that the Gefahrengebiet had merely been reduced and not done away with all together. This gives the impression that a small area without consitutional rights is acceptable. A similar problem becomes visible in the political debate of the law. Some elements were criticized, for example, that there is no time limit for the danger-zones but the strategy itself — that is, the abuse of power under the label of security and protection — is not questioned.

On Janurary 13th, the conflict came to a formal end when the police declared the annullation of the Gefahrengebiet. Finally! Can this be seen as some kind of victory? No. The very first point is that the claims people demonstrated for are forgotten in the public debate. No one writes about the refugees or the people who lost their homes. The reaction of the police completely underminded the public protest.

The second point is that there is still an uncontrolled police in Hamburg – “unchained” in the name of security. But a group of people with such dangerous rights like the right to carry weapons and the right to deprive liberty should be in strong “chains” to protect society from its powers. The imagination on which the law seems to be based is that the police serve as an instrument of protection, without reflecting that the police themselves are also political actors. The whole organization has its own interests and every police officer lives with personal preferences, prejudices and imaginations of society.

In the process of the lawmaking a central question was not asked. If better protection by the police is necessary, the following question must be: who will be protected by whom? A look at last month’s news with this question in mind might explain the described discomfort while reading them.

In Sochi, the state protects the Olympic games from the participants – taking in account that the event also lives from visitors. In Michoacan it becomes even more absurd: there the people take arms to protect society from society. This impression comes up when we think about the density of the conflict and the question how likely it is to get (illegal) firearms in quite a number without any contact to the local crime-scene. The NSA spys on almost everyone to protect the U.S. but from what? Even their own analysts say that they did not prevent any terror-attack, so maybe the NSA mainly protects its own exitance. And in Hamburg? In Hamburg the police protect their own influence on politics. And a critical look at this sentence makes clear that the word “protect” is not needed in this case. The police fight for political influence that is not what an ideal free society wants, but it is absolutely not a surprise if we analyze them as a political actor.

It’s surprising that these fights for power and influence are now legitimated with the word “security”. What kind of security is that? A security that puts my life completely in the hands of the state, in the hands of the armed forces of the state? Did we leave feudalism behind without any reason? A freedom that is defined by a small group with special rights is not a freedom but a police-state. Since Ovid we know that we should “resist the beginnings” but in this case it looks as if the magic word “protection” makes us blind to the dangerous dynamics that are hidden behind it. So if we do not question the concepts of security we are living with right now (some might say since 9/11) we will lose our already very limited freedom and with this, the security of everyone who does not fit into some kind of current norm.

1About the ongoing problems: (tri-lingual)

2For a deeper background of these houses: (german) an internationally known key-expession, that is related to this fight is: Right to the City.

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