Role of 9/11 in the Increase of Governments’ Biopolitical Control of Citizens

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Table of contents

  1. The UK Government and Biopolitics Since 09/11
  2. The Case of Afghanistan
  3. Conclusion

Prior the terrorist attacks on 9/11 in the United States if you landed in an American airport the border control police would look at you, stamped your passport and happily said welcome to America! Now if you go to America the law enforcement authorities would hold your passport, look at you and ask why are you in America? The 9/11 attacks changed everything not only for Americans but for most of the world. It left a huge impact on the US approach towards the outside world. Business was not as usual inside the United States either. The US government designed robust measures to ensure the security of the homeland and foil any possible threats by going after the potential dangers.

The counterterrorism policies adopted for the homeland security included but not restricted to “ethnic profiling, coercive interrogation practices, preventive arrests and detentions and interception of communications” (). Other US allies in the world followed suit by taking more or less similar counterterrorism policies that included plans and procedures to grant more authority, resources and support to law enforcement agencies. In the United Kingdom and many EU member states, for instance, the enhanced security measures were put in place to protect their citizens from potential threats, even though these decisions came with a heavy price at the violation of human rights.

This essay examines the repercussions of 9/11 terrorist attacks on the policies of governments in particular the United States towards biopolitical control of their citizens under the name of security. I will endeavour to answer how biopolitics strategies and counterterrorism measures affected the security-liberty balance in constitutional democracies ().

To answer the main question, the essay will firstly discuss the nexus between biopolitics and governance. It will attempt to elaborate how (in)security paves the way for the governments to adopt policies that can increase more biopolitical control over their countrymen. Last but not least, it offers suggestions that re-establishing a balance between liberty and security is in the best interest of nation after a period of exception ().

The spectacular terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 that was coordinated to simultaneously target the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, United States Department of Defence Headquarters in the Pentagon and the Capitol Hill in Washington DC caused more than three thousand deaths and infuriated the United States to swiftly and harshly retaliate against direct perpetrators, their supporters and bring them to justice. The terrorist attacks provided substantial political and military justification at home and abroad for the Bush Administration to take action to punish Al Qaida, Taliban and their followers. It eventually did not take too long for Washington to launch Operation Enduring Freedom weeks after the attacks to go after Osama bin Laden and hit back at his Al Qaida network in thousands of miles away in the mountains of Afghanistan. Yet, another campaign was on its way back home to secure the citizens from any internal threats by increasing security measures in the streets and cities of America. Bush Administration adopted a strategy to rule over the Americans through management and administration of citizens life.

The new policy to monitor and prevent any potential conspiracies involved various aspects of population life in America. Bi-political control is form of political power that has assigned itself the task of administrating life (Foucault, 1979). It is to do with ‘subjugation of bodies and ... control of populations’ (Foucault, 1979). According to him biopolitics describes a power structure which is a useful means in the society to “normalize social acts and the conduct of populations” when it comes to governance. So, the influence of government officials gets distributed far down the society through “invading a widening array of social fields as a way of realizing the goal of managing and governing the life of the population” (De Larrnaga & Doucet, 2008). In such backdrop the the war on terror had to go through the citizenship policy and practices (Foucault, ). Thus, the first thing that Washington had to do was to improve the authority of the security agencies by giving the legal support and resources. Only 45 days since the attacks the US government easily passed anti-terrorism legislation Patriot Act in Congress to provide the legal basis for implementing counter-terrorism measures at home (DoD, ). It was the primary tools after 9/11 as a “bio-legal” document that paved the way for biopolitical means such as “pre-emptive decisions, exception and contingency in the current legal framework” ().

Patriot Act gave much authority to the executive branch of the government to act against any potential threat to the national security of the United States by investigating any person with any sign of being interest for the security apparatus. The US government basically followed the theory of biopolitics that was first coined in the current concept by Foucault. It appeared to bring about a shift in “the central focus of politics from territoriality and sovereignty to “life”. The Patriot Act was quickly designed after the 9/11 attacks and put into practice which was titled as “Uniting and Strengthening American” by “Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism” and it was announced to “preserve life and liberty” (DoD, ). The congress approved this act by a bipartisan majority and overwhelmingly 98-1 in the Senate and 357-66 in the House armed the security forces with new tools to detect and prevent terrorism. The act allowed law and enforcement agencies to legally carry out a wide spectrum of activities as following according to the Department of Defense:

  1. Allowing the investigators to investigate organized crimes and drug trafficking using the tools already available. Earlier the police were allowed to us this act against mafia and criminal gangs but not terrorism suspects. Patriot Act gave the permission to treat both categories equally. This meant that police were allowed to use surveillance against more alleged crimes of terror. Earlier, only at the approval of course law, enforcement agencies were allowed to do a robust investigation by electronic surveillance to detect document frauds.

Moreover, it paved the way for the agents to follow sophisticated terrorists trained to evade detection. Under the new act there was no more need for a federal judge to authorize roving wiretaps to apply to a particular phone. A suspect and all their means of communication now can be wiretapped. Further, agencies were granted permission to carry out investigations without any prior suspicion and out of the blue in order not to “tip off” the potential threats to flee. Also, law enforcement bodies were empowered to easily get the business record of individuals for the national security cases through the court.

  1. Patriot Act also enabled government bodies to share intelligence and information among themselves to enhance connecting the dots process. It was designed to improve coordination among security agencies to leave no stone untouched when an issue of interest was raised.
  2. The act updated the law to reflect new technologies and new threats by allowing the officials to get a search warrant anywhere a terrorist related activated believed to have occurred. It also enabled the officials to help those trapped in computer hacking in monitoring the trespassers ().

Patriot Act was a crucial legislative decision for the US government to draw attention on further regulation and protection of life of a population which was needed to be controlled (). Foucault argues that biopolitics is about “the population as a political problem” and it aims to establish a regulatory mechanism that are meant to prevent extra-systemic phenomena from disrupting the homeostasis of the system (Foucault, 2004) and given the extend of the threat, the US government moved towards controlling the life of its citizens for the “national security” matters. According to Foucault “Biopolitics deals with the population, with the population as a political problem, as a problem that is at once scientific and political, as a biological problem and as power’s problem” (Foucault 1976). Bush Administration intervened through disciplinary technologies to control and manage individual bodies while it also intervened at the level of the population conceived of as a “social or biological corpus defined by its own characteristics and processes such as birth rates, death rates and measures of health” ().

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Leaning on the new legislation and thanks to the public empathy that 9/11 created across the United States, the government took numerous measures for the sake of national security some of which compromised the respect for human rights. It actually led to the conflict between the civil society and security apparatus. The state of necessity, emergency and exception after the terrorist attacks on the US, in fact, created an atmosphere for which there was no response envisaged in the law and thus it required a political action not subject to the law and this compromised human rights (). ( Meanwhile, the US created the Department of Homeland Security only 11 days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to protect the country against any other major attack basically through all means and ways.

The department is made of a number of officials appointed to oversee the national security strategy against any potential terrorist plot by the process of intelligence and information gathering. It was upgraded to the status of a cabinet minister by 2002 as the result of Homeland Security Act passed by Congress. Expanding since the creation, it has now become the third biggest cabinet department.

The government started to closely monitor the citizens in the United States only 45 days after the 9/11 by passing the Patriot Act. The Bush Administration expanded unparalleled authority over the electronic communication of the people under the title of national security. The security apparatus got access to thousands of telephone conversation based on the letters issued by FBI so that the agents have access to the personal information of other people. Another scrutiny came into existence at the airports in the US and across the world. In the US for example, no long ques at the airports and security checks existed. Passed the attacks, the US government created Transportation Security Administration to increase the security measures and tight security continue to exist today.

Further, with the help from new technology it has become easier for the authorities to recognize restricted goods and confiscate them owing to the evolved screening and background checks. Despite increase in air travel safety, there are concerns that this scrutiny paves the way for officials to carry out racial profiling and invade privacy. However, the security scrutiny went well beyond the airports. Increase security measures impacted many schools, businesses and firms in the United States and advanced features were put in place such as keypads and locking doors (). Now it’s not easy to get into building, one has to register at the security desk only then the employees with a special key code can get access to the complex.

The balance of security and human rights in the constitutional democracy in the United States and those of its allies shifted towards security in the post 9/11 era (Postner, 2007). Although counterterrorism measures such as preventive arrests and intercept of communication may have been critical in foiling any terrorist plots, but it can greatly affect the basic rights of human being and increase the bi-political control of the government over its states. These security measures were in line with the issuance of a Fatwa by Osama bin Laden who urged his supports to target US and Western interests at different capacities. Strong evidences have been found in regards to violation of human rights in democratic states specially in the united states after the 9/11 attacks (). Walter Benjamin’s take on “the ‘state of emergency’ that says in which we live is not the exception but the rule” has been popular among scholars and experts on terrorism and counter-terrorism (Benjamin, 2003) as 18 years since the terrorist attacks on the American soil none of the laws or practices to increase the control of states over the citizens got relaxed to overthrown.

The politicization of life undermined the respect for human rights. And it was not very clear in the beginning that what set of action was permissible and what was not. Increased bi-political control over the life of people in the US and across the world were clearly the violations of human rights as the security-liberty balance was shifted towards security. Cases such as indefinite pre-trial detentions in the capital of democratic countries such as here in London, the US detention centre in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba where hundreds of people known as combatant enemy occurred without much legal outcome (). The activities of the government of the United States went beyond that though. It included from unsanctioned, pre-emptive military actions against harbouring states and rogue states and targeted military operations to support the ‘war on terror’, to extra-legal detention centres, state-sponsored assassinations, ‘extraordinary rendition’, deportation without due process, suspension of habeas corpus and indefinite detention, the contemporary moment certainly does not seem to leave much space for governance with a ‘human face’ ().

The UK Government and Biopolitics Since 09/11

State regulation of human life continued to extend to other continents after the US soil was targeted as the direct role 9/11 played in shaping a new order. Terrorism, of course, causes a fundamental organizing tool for politics and the UK was not any exception. Westminster stepped up its efforts to play a large role in the management of life in any form and shape possible. The UK government introduced a Counter-Terrorism Strategy (CONTEST) in 2003 that was came to be known as Prevent Policy and aimed fundamentally to prevent people of interest from being radicalised. Nonetheless, the core part of the strategy was to carry out surveillance on populations despite much denial from the authorities in that regard. The law enforcement authorities argued that to control future it will require the UK to act now and most of the target area for such surveillance was the Muslim communities in the country. CONTEST was rigorously applied after the London bombing in 2005. The policy was officially pursing three grand objectives: (1) respond to the ideological challenge of terrorism; (2) prevent people from being drawn into terrorism and ensure that they are given appropriate advice and support; and (3) work with sectors and institutions where there are risks of radicalisation (HM Government, 2011a). This, however, would not be possible without a robust biopolitical control. In this strategy, surveillance was the most important element which primarily changed the relations of the state with the Muslims of the UK. The point Prevent Policy made was that the any terrorist attack is the last element of a chain of activities that need to be addressed.

The chain had different steps that included idea, plan, preparation, coordination and implementation. Programmes to monitor such a clandestine process was suggested so that individuals with potential threat capabilities be identified. Prevent aimed to encourage alertness to figure out signs of behavioural change that could suggest an individual is taking the path to radicalisation (HM Government, 2011a). It as it was proven by the investigative journalist in the UK and here in the UK, the plotters are only a handful of people not the whole community. The states organised surveillance of specifically Muslim communities, businesses and activities. Ed Hussain of the Quilliam Foundation who worked with the Prevent programme said of Prevent ‘it is gathering intelligence on people not committing terrorist offences’ (Dodd, 2009). Also a top UK official said that ‘We get the intelligence much more from the Prevent strategy, which engages with local community groups, not through the police’ (The Guardian, 2017). The home office denies spying as part of the Prevent strategy, but it is one that has turned into a major part of the British counterterrorism strategy. Currently, the Security Service MI5 confirms that it has more than 3,000 subjects of interest (SOIs) on its watch list in the UK in 2019. Although the organisation is short of being able to keep watching them all the time 24/7. This figure is in addition to over 20,000 former subject of interest some with possibility of moving to violent action (BBC, 2019).

The Case of Afghanistan

As Afghanistan was at the centre of 9/11 attacks and subsequently the US war on terror, it would be interesting to examine how 9/11 attacks changed things there through increasing the biopolitical control of their citizens under the name of security. A country of about 35 million people, Afghanistan has lived much of its life traditionally rurally and away from the gaze of the government where tribes and ethnicities prepared to sort out their basic issues internally without referring to the government agencies. It had its traditional customs where the elders dealt with all sorts of disputes, allocation of resources and security measures etc. Only a fraction of people used to have passport, bank account or registered birth and death. Justification of wife beating is the country was 80 per cent without any government meddling and literacy rate according to the UN is one of the lowest in the world with only 31 per cent of the adult (). So, the influence of the government has always been limited. Prior to 9/11 every faction and military group had its own piece of land and type of ruling and in the lack of proper government establishment the relationship between the state and the citizen was minimal if at all existed ().

As the US carried out the invasion of Afghanistan and launched Operation Enduring Freedom to bring into justice the perpetrators of 9/11 attacks from their hideouts in the mountains and cities, the Taliban regime collapsed, and a US supported political establishment of Afghanistan under the name of Interim Government of Afghanistan came into existence. This newly order increased the role of government in Afghanistan massively in bio-politically controlling the citizens. The Afghan government started to unify the country by bringing all the tribal leaders in the capital Kabul to form the new state apparatus such as the national army and police, nulling the private armies. It started basic government services such as establishing clinics in as many places as possible, issuing ID cards, biometric passports, setting up surveillance cameras across the country. Despite increasing security threats posed by the Taliban insurgency to the government of Afghanistan, the government extended its control over the citizen to a large extended owing to post 9/11 attacks and international support. The Afghan government that was primary made of tribal leaders is now 40 percent in the hands of the young people (). The communication revolution that made its way into the country after the US invasion is another mean where the government controls the population security-wise. Afghan telecommunication industry now has now access to 90 percent of the population and 18 million people use mobile phones. The government representative agencies operate across the 34 provinces and the idea of governance has reached the most remote villages. Life in major parts of the country is now being influenced by the presence of government as the presence of Kabul regime is being accepted nationally.


Many states mostly in the west have increased their biopolitical control over their citizens in an unprecedented level. It was no more an exception but to a large extent a rule to carry out surveillance operations on large populations. Namely, the United States, passed laws and regulations to make things easy for the law enforcement agencies to intercept communications without court order under the name of thwarting potential threats. Preventive arrests and interrogations took place without any legal outcome for the security apparatus. The US setup of detention centre in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and imprisonment of people without trial shifted the security and liberty balance in favour of security apparatus. Under the name of national security hundreds of operations were launched targeting Muslim communities that affected the relationship between citizens and the state.

The Patriot Act with the purpose of protecting the populations against any potential threats by preventive tasks through interception of communications passed only 45 days after September 2011 terrorist attacks and now 18 years on is still in practice. In the UK too the counterterrorism strategy prevent was generally designed to carry out surveillance is extended and although it’s designed to assess and counter any terrorist plot in the initial stage before reaching the implementation process, provided the basis for the law enforcement agencies to monitor and intercept any “subject of interest” relatively freely. Other states too extended their control on the life of people owing to advanced technologies at the airports, on the streets, in the buildings, at the shops, online and offline after 9/11. The September attacks in New York and Washington were a landmark event that fundamentally changed the approach of states towards their citizens by trying to taking in charge of administrating their life.

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