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Be Very Afraid!


I arrive in New York, clutching my British passport. I hand it over. He looks at me, and then looks at my passport. I know what questions will follow.

‘Where are you from?’ My passport indicates my place of birth. ‘Britain’, I say. I feel like adding, ‘Can’t you read I was born in Salford,’ but I stop myself. He looks down at my passport, not at me.

‘Where is your father from?’ It was the same last time. The question seems to locate what is suspect not in my body, but that which has been passed down the family line, almost like a bad inheritance. ‘Pakistan,’ I say, slowly.

‘Do you have a Pakistani passport?’ ‘No,’ I say.

‘Do you have any other passports?’ ‘Yes,’ I say. ‘An Australian one.’

‘Where is it?’ I left it behind. Eventually, he lets me through.

The name ‘Ahmed’, a Muslim name, slows me down. It blocks my passage, even if only temporarily. When I fly out of New York later that week, I am held up again. This time it is a friendlier encounter. I find out I am now on the ‘no fly list’, and they have to ring to get permission to let me through. It takes time, of course. ‘Don’t worry,’ he says, ‘my mother is on it too.’ I feel some strange comradeship with his mother. I know what he is saying: he means ‘anyone’ could be on this list, almost as if to say ‘even my mother’, whose innocence of course would be beyond doubt. I know it’s a way of saying: ‘It’s not about you. Don’t take it personally.’ It isn’t about me of course. But my name names me, after all. It might not be personal, but that does not make it about just ‘anyone’.

The impact of fear

Fear is considered a largely negative emotion that anticipates a future threat. Yet fear can have very ‘present’ consequences. Fear may prepare your body for flight. Or it might stop you in your tracks. Fear also binds. It can be crucial to how groups ‘stick together’. Fear can make people consent to what they might otherwise resist. The events of 9/11 remind us how traumatic memory can become a political weapon. It induces mind-numbing terror over a potential repeat. Frightened people cling together, ‘adhering’ to the nation and its rulers. Adherence in this sense means both to ‘stick to’ and to give one’s allegiance. If fear acts as a glue, we need to ask – why do some people ‘get stuck’ while others don’t?

In my encounter at the borders of New York City, my Muslim name was enough to hold me up. Despite the ‘right’ kind of passports, such names are treated with suspicion. A Muslim name means a suspect genealogy; you are marked as a threat. And their suspicion becomes your fright. Each time you cross a border, you get stuck, held up. Measures that treat you as a security threat are measures that in turn threaten your security. Simply put, being feared creates fear. Frantz Fanon brilliantly describes this dynamic in his classic book Black Skin, White Masks. Fanon sees the ‘Black man’ as the object of collective fears. To be such an object is to become afraid oneself, afraid of what that collective fear will do: ‘hate stares’, name-calling or other forms of verbal abuse, physical harassment, violence or even murder. Fear circulates and accumulates. It sticks to particular bodies – slowing them down, blocking them, containing them.

Freedom and war

When George Bush articulates the imperative, ‘we must wage War on Terror’, he evokes our fear to suit his purpose. In his 2001 Address to a Joint Session of the US Congress he suggested ‘freedom and fear are at war’. He has repeated this phrase many times, most recently during his victory speech after the 2004 elections. ‘We’, of course, are on the side of freedom in such a war. There is an irony here for anyone who cares to look. Bush’s ‘national security’ involves the restriction of our most basic civil liberties. Not new restrictions, for sure, but 9/11 has allowed such restrictions to be extended and redescribed as a matter of life and death. Such political rhetoric would have it that, to be free, we must give freedom up. The ‘trusted’ state becomes the agent to defend us against others, those threatening our freedom with their fear.

But what kind of freedom is Bush evoking? Primarily he uses a negative model of freedom: freedom from fear. Fear is seen as stopping people from expressing their freedom – a kind of blockage or restraint to meaningful human action. But a positive definition of freedom is implied here as well: a freedom to. But freedom to do what? Freedom in this positive sense is of a particular and restricted type: a freedom ‘to do’ some things and exist in some ways, but not in others. Freedom to ‘go about your daily business’, freedom to travel, freedom to consume: these are all freedoms that ‘support’ the mobilities required by global capitalism. Positive freedom in this sense is reduced simply to the ‘freedom to move’.

The events of 9/11 remind us how traumatic memory can become a political weapon

Australian Prime Minister John Howard suggests that Osama bin Laden’s ‘hatred’ for the United States and for ‘a world system built on individual freedom, religious tolerance, democracy and the international free flow of commerce’ means ‘he wants to spread fear, create uncertainty and promote instability’. Howard then reads the acts of terror as attacks not only on the mobility of international capital, but also on Australians, and their right ‘to move around the world with ease and freedom and without fear’. This is a defence not only of a certain good, but also the right of certain ‘goods’ (including value systems and the people who support them) to circulate, or to move freely.

Freedom to move is not equally available to all. Some people might have access to such freedom precisely because it is not extended to others. For many (maybe most) people, the freedom to move is simply inconceivable: their lives are hemmed in by poverty and just sustaining the breath of life takes all their energy and material resources.

For others, movement is not about freedom at all. Movement is forced. Homes and nations must be abandoned without choice. Movement is about loss. Those fleeing persecution do so without the protection of law or state. They are held up at borders, forced to wait in detention centres for their ‘cases’ to be heard.

Such people claim asylum, as is their right under international law, but are assumed ‘bogus’ unless they can prove otherwise. They may even be considered ‘potential terrorists’. Australia’s refusal to allow the freighter Tampa into its waters (with its cargo of 433 asylum seekers, many from Afghanistan) was justified by its defence minister because those on board could be linked to Osama bin Laden. The containment of these ‘others’ is most violently revealed in the detention of suspects in official and unofficial prisons all over the world. Abuse and even death in such ‘containers’ goes unnoticed and unmourned, a chilling reminder of what is at stake in the global economics of fear.

Suspicion and prejudice

The politics of fear, then, involves the containment of movement. The events of 9/11 are used to justify the detention of ‘anyone’ suspected of being a terrorist. An Amendment to Britain’s Terrorism Act 2000 says that the Secretary of State may issue a certificate if they believe that the person’s presence is a risk to national security or if they suspect the person is an international terrorist. Many other countries have enacted similar provisions. Risk assessment becomes a matter of belief or just prejudice. Suspicion alone is grounds for detention. This extension of the powers of detention does not relate merely to the detention of terrorists. Because ‘anybody could be a terrorist’, we have extended the power of detention so that it can apply to all of us.

But this extension does not mean that everyone is affected in the same way. Certain ‘types’ of people have been detained despite very weak links with terrorist networks. Imagined links are based on similar origins or names, on shared places of work or residence. As law professor Muneer Ahmad describes, after 9/11 there was ‘an unrelenting, multi-valent assault on the bodies, psyches and rights of Arab, Muslim and South Asian immigrants’.1 Leti Volpp, another legal expert, suggests that the responses to 9/11 facilitated ‘a new identity category that groups together people who appear ‘Middle Eastern, Arab or Muslim’.2 The word ‘terrorism’ sticks to such people. Assertions that ‘this is not a war against Islam’ coexist with constant repetition of the phrase ‘Islamic terrorists’, which works to re-stick the words together, despite the official denials.

Fear without end

The story of fear involves movement for some and the containment of others. The containment is not always successful. Fear is usually directed towards an object that approaches us. But we become even more afraid when the object passes us by. We can no longer see it. It could be anywhere! Bodies engender even more anxiety if they cannot be held in place. The terrorist ‘hides in the shadows’. It is this fearful invisible terrorist that justifies the expansion of forms of intelligence, surveillance and detention. The threat of ‘could be terrorists’ and the ‘inevitable’ impending attack are what establish the politics of security as a permanent feature of the political landscape. The politics of security demand insecurity. The border is policed because it is perpetually ‘under threat’. The terrorists, who are on the edge of our horizon, are almost, but not quite, within sight.

This is not to say we have to invent terrorists. Attacks do happen, as we know, and the conditions for the emergence of even more terrorism are all too real. But even if fear politics does not invent terrorism, it is still inventive. It sees only some forms of violence as terrorism. Indeed, it only sees some forms of violence as violence. Violence is what is directed against ‘us’ by terrorists, who could be ‘anyone’, although we already suspect some more than others. We have to watch out for terrorists, to protect ‘life as we know it’. Being on guard is a perpetual task. The economy of fear works to contain the bodies of ‘could be terrorists’. But such containment can never totally succeed. It must always keep open the grounds for further fear.

Sara Ahmed is a teacher and writer with an interest in issues of feminism, identity and post-colonialism. Her last book was The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Routledge 2004.


  1. Muneer Ahmad, ‘Homeland Insecurities: Racial Violence the Day After September 11’, Social Text 72, 2002, p 101.
  2. Leti Volpp, ‘The Citizen and the Terrorist’, UCLA Law Review 49(5), 2002, p 1575

New Internationalist issue 376 magazine cover This article is from the March 2005 issue of New Internationalist.
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