Behind the scenes of counterterrorism

Prof. David Westbrook’s new book addresses what security means for contemporary life

Making your way through an airport these days, the apparatus of security – screening, patrols, locked doors – seems utterly ordinary. After the 9/11 terror attacks, such safety consciousness has become the backbeat of the traveler’s life.

But the broader structures of security, especially the elite squads that respond to terror attacks, have been little studied. As well, social scientists haven’t looked closely at how the public behaves in the critical first minutes after an assault begins and before help, sanctioned violence, arrives.

Professor David Westbrook’s new book, co-authored with Irish anthropologist Mark Maguire, cuts through some of the mysteries around counterterrorism in an effort to think through what security means for contemporary life, not just in airports. Getting Through Security: Counterterrorism, Bureaucracy, and a Sense of the Modern, forthcoming from Routledge Press, is the product of years of research, hundreds of interviews with counterterrorism operatives and survivors of terror attacks, and much philosophical wrangling between the authors, who brought to the project their distinct critical perspectives.

“Mark has been doing this for 10 years,” says Westbrook, “and the book is based on four or five years of talk on our part. We wanted to use airport security and counterterrorism to ask broader questions about how bureaucracies, and in particular bureaucracies that are sensitive or even secret, can somehow be made more publicly accountable. We’re trying to figure out, how do these people think?  What does that mean for how we, as members of the public, think about what they do?”

Partially because terrorism is a global phenomenon, the research was a globetrotting odyssey. Westbrook and Maguire teamed up for many interviews, meeting in such far-flung locales as Nairobi, Stockholm, Bermuda, London and Siena, Italy.

cover of Westbrook's new book, Getting Through Security: Counterterrorism, Bureaucracy, and a Sense of the Modern.
Maguire, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Maynooth University, the National University of Ireland.

Maguire, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Maynooth University, the National University of Ireland

Perhaps surprisingly, Westbrook says that those charged with responding to terror attacks were quite willing to open up to the researchers about their work. “In all sorts of situations, including some counterterrorism situations, once your bona fides are established, people want to talk,” he says. “And frequently they want to talk to an anthropologist. They have an idea of their culture or setting, the present situation, but they don’t necessarily know how their own situation fits together with others. 

This curiosity provides an opening for ethnographic conversation, what’s sometimes called “paraethnography.” One of the key things that you can offer is an amateur’s perspective. You’re not trying to get somebody’s job. It’s a little like being an outside counsel or a consultant. Hopefully, on really good days, such conversations can bridge perspectives.”

It helped that Maguire, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Maynooth University, the National University of Ireland, had previously trained as a counterterror officer in the United Kingdom, and studied the training in the process. He says: “I found myself with unexpected access, sometimes being called upon for an expert view, and more than once ethnography became something that senior individuals in different, sometimes antagonistic agencies could talk about and question together: what values do the ‘bad guys’ share; how do people behave in certain circumstances; how do we talk to the public that we are expected to protect?

Meeting in the context of “Global Foresight,” a multidisciplinary, multinational project run out of Stockholm University, Maguire and Westbrook began to talk about security as an engagement with an uncertain future.  Maguire had read Westbrook’s Navigators of the Contemporary, a book about using ethnographic methods to understand modern life, and counterterrorism seemed to present a good opportunity.  As Maguire says, “We began to wonder what would happen if the law professor and (helpful) critic accompanied the anthropologist as she or he did the work of ethnography, so David joined my fieldwork.”

The nuts and bolts of descriptive anthropology thus served as a springboard for further discussions of such issues as how we think about bureaucracy and the state exercise of power; how the sense of the “modern” manifests itself in the counterterrorism apparatus; and the uneasy relationship between the public, however defined, and the security specialists pledged to their safety.

In the end, Westbrook acknowledges, the issues the authors address are meant to spur real engagement. “Security, like education or justice, can’t be solved, but continually raises questions that need to be understood and managed as they unfold,” he says. “So the book inevitably presents more questions than it answers.”