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Public Enemy number one: terrorism, security, and Covid-19


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From the moment that the World Health Organization (WHO) warned us of the seriousness of the new Coronavirus in early February 2020, the disease has been depicted not only as a threat to our health but also to our security. In fact, on the day that WHO baptised ‘Covid-19’, the health body’s director general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, claimed that the virus presented a threat greater than terrorism; it was now ‘public enemy number one’. 

Covid-19 is certainly more lethal than terrorism. Fatal accidents on the road or in the home – such as drowning in the bathtub, to use a popular example – kill many more people annually than terrorists. Yet the public generally overestimate the threat posed by terrorism, due in large part to the spectacular nature of some attacks and their reporting in the context of a twenty-four-hour media. WHO’s proclamation of Covid-19 as a bigger danger than terrorism was therefore potentially terrifying.  

References to terrorism have since multiplied in descriptions of the pandemic, its effects, and the possible solutions to the crisis. As a historian of terrorism, I recognise that the use of terrorist imagery is a potent means to convey the gravity of the situation to the global public. Terrorism has long been framed as an existential threat to civilisation ever since the late nineteenth-century wave of anarchist assassinations and bombings. But I find these representations of the virus concerning, too. The depiction of the disease in language more familiar to matters of security – its ‘securitisation’ – has provoked a securitised response running parallel to the medical response. Measures to halt and control the spread of Covid-19, such as the restriction of civil liberties, as well as those proposed to defeat the virus, such as the mass gathering of private data, mirror those used in the fight against terrorism, with their attendant implications for democratic society

Health and security

The securitisation of health has intensified in the US and Europe since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Its effects include the refocusing of medical research and funding onto the potential use of biological weapons and the casting of disease in the same apocalyptic language as terrorism (with the pandemic being ‘Mother Nature’s WMD’). It is true that terrorism and disease have a lengthy history. Metaphors of illness have long been used to describe the terrorist threat as a pathogen, or an illness requiring radical surgery, like cancer. More unusual is the use of the terrorism metaphor to describe a disease. Moreover, public anxiety of bioterrorist attacks persists, thanks in part to Hollywood and the media. Covid-19 is not a bioterrorist attack yet the outbreak has amplified fears over terrorists’ use of biological agents

The securitisation process is part of a general trend to invest all global crises and threats with terrifying characteristics because, according to Joshua Busby, posing a problem as a risk to security is a powerful means to grab the attention of ministers and policy-makers. Other issues framed as ‘bigger threats than terrorism’ have included climate change, US gun laws, ‘fake news’, Donald Trump – and terrorism (‘2016 terror threat worse than 2001’, reported USA Today on the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11). 

Measures to stop Covid-19 reflect usual responses to terrorist attacks, from the grounding of flights to ‘lockdowns’. Comparisons with past incidents of terrorism – particularly the atrocities of 9/11 – have been used to measure the severity of the virus. American citizens can be charged under terrorism law if they are found to have attempted to spread the virus through coughing or spitting in close proximity to others. Even the British government’s ‘Catch it. Bin it. Kill it’ public information campaign about preventing the spread of infection (developed in 2009 in the campaign against seasonal flu) matches, syllable for syllable, the ‘See it. Say it. Sorted’ slogan ubiquitous in British railway stations and aimed at detecting suspicious behaviour. In both cases, the onus is upon the citizen to remain vigilant. 

A 9/11 moment?

Daniel Finkelstein predicted in The Times that the virus would be a ‘9/11 moment’, a ‘game changer’, that would sensitise the world to the dangers of a pandemic. In pondering the political landscape after the pandemic, Finkelstein noted: ‘The same debate we have had over terrorism will now take place over diseases. What is the right balance between security and liberty?  

Public health measures to contain the contagion have raised questions about the ability of democracies to fight the disease while upholding their own values. The Hungarian government has passed a raft of much-criticised emergency legislation that amounts to a power grab by the authoritarian Viktor Orbán.  Yet the idea that some form of authoritarianism is necessary to defeat Covid-19 has been expressed throughout the media. Channel Four newscaster Cathy Newman thus suggested that an authoritarian regime was more suited to containing the virus than a ‘capitalist’, ‘selfish’ and ‘globalised’ West (6 March 2020). Meanwhile, perceptions of Chinese success in stemming the contagion rest largely upon an appreciation of the communist state’s huge repressive apparatus, rather than the ability of its healthcare service to fight disease. 

WHO’s designation of Covid-19 as a threat greater than terrorism was perhaps considered a necessary wake-up call to the world at the beginning of the outbreak. Yet such representations heighten public fear and prepare the ground for the introduction of health measures justified in the name of public security. The case of counter-terrorist policies that encroach on personal freedoms and civil liberties may prove salutary given the construction of the virus as a ‘terrorist’. Could Covid-19 achieve what counterterrorism policy-makers have long desired but failed to realise: public acquiescence – demand even – for greater intrusion into their private lives to save them from a threat worse than terrorism?

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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