Theorizing the social foundations of exceptional security politics: Rights, emotions and community

Publication Date01 March 2018
AuthorLudvig Norman
Date01 March 2018
Cooperation and Conflict
2018, Vol. 53(1) 84 –100
© The Author(s) 2017
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DOI: 10.1177/0010836717716722
Theorizing the social
foundations of exceptional
security politics: Rights,
emotions and community
Ludvig Norman
This article theorizes the social processes through which purportedly liberal democratic states
compromise fundamental rights in times of perceived security crises. It has become increasingly
common to suggest that a general culture of fear serves both as the motor and the outcome of
exceptional security politics. This article suggests instead that the transgression of fundamental
rights in the name of security is intimately connected to collective feelings of humiliation and the
reassertion of self-worth through efforts to re-establish the integrity of imagined communities.
To demonstrate this, the article highlights the dual character of rights, having both a formal and
a symbolic function, associated with collective emotions. By theorizing the connections between
rights, emotions and belonging the article offers the building blocks for a more nuanced and possibly
more accurate understanding of why exceptional security politics tend to elicit such broad public
support in spite of its often-glaring contradictions to fundamental principles of liberal democracy.
Community, emotions, exceptional security, rights
The last 20 years have seen an intensified focus in security studies on how liberal demo-
cratic states enact exceptional security politics in times of perceived crisis and how excep-
tional measures shape the societies which enact them. This focus was given additional
impetus by the political developments after 9/11 in the US and in many western European
states. Discussions on exceptional security measures during this period focused on, among
other things, increasingly intrusive surveillance techniques, the legally sanctioned use of
torture and indefinite internment of terrorist suspects (Dunne, 2007; Guild, 2003;
Scheuerman, 2006). More recently, in the wake of several highly-publicized terror attacks
Corresponding author:
Ludvig Norman, Department of Government, Uppsala University, Box 514, 751 05 Uppsala, Sweden.
716722CAC0010.1177/0010836717716722Cooperation and ConflictNorman
Norman 85
in European cities discussions on exceptional measures have regained their salience. For
instance, the French government’s decision to enact a prolonged state of emergency have
been criticized for being associated with rights abuses, specifically against ethnic and
religious minorities (Human Rights Watch, 2016a). Similar criticisms have been directed
towards recently enacted practices in the wake of the 2016 terror attacks in Brussels
(Human Rights Watch, 2016b).
Related to these types of measures and in contrast to traditional assertions that secu-
rity is exclusively a ‘good’ that society should strive to maintain and reproduce, many
have argued that security practices, somewhat paradoxically, seem to have a recursive
relationship with perceived insecurity.1 Rather than diminishing fear these practices
seem to contribute to its social distribution. Fear, it is argued, is at the foundation of the
social mechanisms that enable purportedly liberal democracies to compromise funda-
mental rights and principles in the name of security (Amoore and De Goede, 2008;
Aradau and Van Munster, 2009, 2011, Huysmans, 2006, 2014; Mythen and Walklate,
2008, 2016; Van Rythoven, 2015).
This article argues however that the overemphasis on fear in its various guises
comes with the risk of misrepresenting the social and political processes that condi-
tion the imposition of excessively violent and repressive security practices. This
problem is instead considered through a renewed focus on rights, as both formal
rules and carriers of social meanings intimately connected to collective emotions of
belonging. The exception from this perspective transgresses fundamental rights, but
is also often legitimized as a response to perceived transgressions, such as terrorist
attacks. The compromising of rights, and the often-broad popular acceptance of such
breaches are explored here as efforts to regain a collective sense of self-worth. Such
efforts, it is argued, rather than exclusively being motored by fear, unease and anxi-
ety are also couched in a broader set of emotional states. Here positive feelings of
belonging, and enthusiasm are considered as central. Building on recent work in
International Relations on the importance of collective emotions as an analytical
category to understand security politics the article offers less explored ways to theo-
rize the social processes that condition the enactment of exceptional security politics
as a recurrent feature of liberal democracies.
The article proceeds by discussing recent additions to the field of security studies
that have theorized the social foundations of exceptional security politics. It is argued
that while this field has made crucial contributions to our understanding of excep-
tional security politics, its emphasis on fear as the motor of such policies supplies an
incomplete picture of why liberal democracies often respond to crises by restricting
and violating fundamental rights. In the following section an argument for refocus-
ing the discussion on how rights are associated with collective emotions is fleshed
out. The empirical implications of this move are subsequently defined by drawing
together studies that illustrate the specifics of the social mechanism through which
rights, emotions and community feed into the enactment of exceptional security poli-
tics. Finally, the article highlights the analytical implications of this re-theorization
of the social foundations of exceptional security politics pointing to new avenues of
research that flow from this argument.

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