Inderpal Grewal


On her book Saving the Security State: Exceptional Citizens in Twenty-First-Century America

Cover Interview of February 18, 2018

The wide angle

Security is often thought of as a topic for international relations or law and limited to topics such as policing, militarism or terrorism. Over the last decade, there has been a shift in the way many of us outside of the academic discipline of international relations have become engaged in questions of security. We focus on how it affects people in their everyday lives, how it changes the behavior of people in communities and families towards one another, and the costs of the focus on protection. While international relations as an academic discipline does not, with some exceptions, address questions of gender, race or class, I find those are key questions with regard to security.

There is an extended examination of policing and violence in African American communities (though never in so-called “security studies”), but this is of interest also in relation to the wars on terrorism. How do projects of state security against terrorism, a pervasive logic of recent wars, come to shape our lives and change our relationships to each other as citizens and as inhabitants of a region, a country and a planet? Many of us think that we need to be much more critical of this concept of terrorism and security and take the study of security out of the hands of the so-called “security experts.”

Security is an emotion, a feeling of fear and a desire for safety that we as humanists examine as crucial to political life. It changes families, communities, relationships. It sells products and weapons for protection. It maintains the power of masculinity, patriarchy and in a related way, of oligarchy. Feminism has long questioned how the rationale of protection has constrained and controlled women by positioning powerful men as both perpetrator and protector. Security creates fear that can allow authoritarian regimes and many corporations to profit from us. It is also a concept that is so open, because we can never have enough security, so it remains a powerful form of ideological control. It works through surveillance and suspicion of others around us or even of those far away from us. In the U.S., fear of immigrants, Blacks, Muslims, feminists and LGBTQ persons are seen as threats to the heteronormative “American” family and the nation.

Security is also a way to define the contemporary U.S. state and a kind of government that focuses more on state security, and one that uses policing rather than a safety net as a rationale for governing. Instead, the security state uses fear and policing to repress protests and it wages unrelenting war on those inside and outside the country. We see this authoritarianism not just in the U.S., but also in many other regions of the world, though the U.S. case is somewhat different in that it is a superpower, and the ways that Americans participate in the security project comes from a particular history of imperialism. As scholars and researchers, we need to think about what this security state is doing to us, and to examine its effects on ordinary people. How is it that we live in a country where little children have to practice lockdown drills in their schools because the government is unable to stop the proliferation of weapons on our streets? We are once again living with the kinds of fears that were engendered during the Cold War, though now what we see are endless wars.

This book comes from almost four decades of studying the effect of empires on ordinary people. I began my research career studying how British colonialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century affected both British and Indian women and created what could be called “imperial culture.” I then turned to studying U.S. imperialism, examining how it alters and shaped immigrants and citizens. My 2005 book, Transnational America, examined how the idea of America circulated around the world through concepts such as human rights, trade in American goods and the attraction of the American dream. In that book, I ended with looking at racism against South Asian Sikhs and Muslims after 9/11. This new book tracks how that context has now changed in the new century, especially as the notion of wars on terror have expanded to more regions around the world. Terrorism is now a concept that so many governments are using to repress their populations even as we don’t know clearly how to define it in non-racist ways. We now have draconian laws and military ventures based on a concept that few can describe clearly.