Fearmongering and our national security
The discussions and general discourse emerging in Barbados over the past few weeks have opened more than a can of worms. Readily coming to mind are disturbing claims of the ‘rapid rate at which people are dropping dead’, the ridiculous rumour that toxic proportions of lead are in Barbados’ water supply, and the successful challenge to Government’s move to fingerprint Barbadian citizens on exit and entry at our ports.
Clearly, fearmongering and security (or insecurity) have together unsettled many persons in Barbados. The claims (false and ridiculous) have given rise to levels of fear among the population. These fears have exposed widespread ignorance existing within our society due to the proverbial procrastination that has become characteristic of the Freundel Stuart-led administration. Indeed, I am not entertaining anything terrible for the Stuart regime, but while officials may want to be cautious, particularly on life and death concerns, they must also be aware that the absence of information invites speculation and formulations of conspiracy.
In other words, given the absence of preliminary reports or formal explanations from the appropriate authorities and agencies, fearmongering has rushed to the forefront of national discourse. It should be understood that fearmongering is the action of deliberately arousing public fear or alarm about a particular issue, and this discursive practice usually comes in the form of rumours and deception. That being said, we must still be able to examine the issues with a more incisive definition of this thing we call security.
Accentuating an academic premise on our understandings, I share with readers some paraphrased sentiments excerpted from my doctoral thesis. My studies have convincingly led me to view security as a ‘speech act’ and fundamental to the construction of threats. In the thesis, I stated that, “security cannot be fixed a priori in its definition.” The manner in which “one conceives security is constructed out of the assumptions” (however explicitly or inexplicitly articulated) that make up one’s world view.
Furthermore, there is a complexity regarding what is security because the term security “covers a range of goals” so wide that, “highly divergent policies can be interpreted as policies of security”, and in real terms, security “points to some degree of protection of values previously acquired”.
In addition, there is the ‘common terminology’ indicating that security is “about being protected, being free from danger, and feeling safe from threat”, and one can further make the determination that “security theory and security practice are always reflexive” thus feeding back into each other.
While it may be fitting for Barbadians to draw inferences from what happens in the USA or Europe for example, there are some things that just will not gel regarding our determination as the things constituting a security problem for Barbados. We ought not to limit our thinking as to what constitutes security on the basis of what occurs elsewhere (Flint, Michigan for example). Nor should Barbadians take for granted for whom and by whose account a security problem exists.
Further to these points, ‘a one-dimensional understanding is inadequate’ regarding the issues that have fermented in Barbados over the past few weeks and that are causing concern in the society. Do we though our governing officials apply a security solution that is clearly controversial? In fact, the very option of invoking the word ‘security’ means the deployment of exceptional measures – beyond the ordinary – to combat whatever circumstances that have come to emerge alongside the discourses of danger and the need for security responses.
In addition, security narratives “are ostensibly written to provide safety, to counter danger”, and in practical terms, can also be seen as “attempts to impose order and certainty,” while being “understood as a discursive practice”. Put differently, when the public is presented with an issue – lead in the water and sudden deaths – that can be interpreted as a looming danger, and there will be need for particular measures to be implemented.
As in the case with possible acts of terrorism and the need for fingerprinting at our ports of entry and exit, it indicates that the Government and other officials are acting in a way as likely to ward off the threat or imminent danger. Surely, the boldness of the Freundel Stuart administration wanting to proceed with fingerprinting in spite of the verbal protests of individual citizens and groups believing that their rights may become infringed was a step into exceptional politics.
Prime Minister Stuart and Attorney General Adriel Brathwaite, in being adamant that fingerprinting was the policy direction of the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) Government, were of necessity seeking public support to legitimize their actions. Their insistence of introducing measures outside of the ordinary, notwithstanding the unconstitutional nature of their actions, was framed as a security reaction to something that could possibly spell danger for Barbados. Hence, the talk of safeguarding national interest, although no credible threat was evident.
However, the unsubstantiated connections between people dropping dead and their water supply were tantamount to ridiculousness of the highest order. To my mind, the only culpability here for the current administration was its culture of procrastination and the reluctance to provide timely leadership and information to the general public.
Certainly, there is little merit in governing officials sitting back silently while persons hastened to speculate that Barbados’ water supply was somehow tainted and could have contributed to the deaths of a few people whose medical histories were not made privy to the general public. Barbadians kept hearing silly talk; and the rumours of danger were eventually circulated and shared on social media.
All this action came without the authorities moving sufficiently quick – even through preliminary reports and updates – to ward off the spread of fear among a society requesting information and answers.
Truth be told, Barbadians in recent times, have increasingly become suspicious of people and things. Perhaps, they are more prone to be sceptical of political elites, particularly when members of the medical profession already have tied a faltering economy with stressors likely to cause morbidity or death.
In some ways, I share the view and have written elsewhere that “resource-scarcity and economic recession” have become synonymous with the DLP, while stress can cut down physically strong men and women. Inherently, economic and social nuances form part of a subtle messaging that connotes elements of danger within the Barbadian society.
It is nonetheless unacceptable that the fearmongering recently being spread, either out of malice or ignorance, should resonate so acceptingly within the contours of our nation. Be it the new water meters or the quality of the water, it seems fallacious and ludicrous to draw conclusions without provided facts. It is my contention that Barbadians will indulge in fearmongering and ‘invited’ security, but this at our peril.
The Barbados Water Authority (BWA), the Ministry of Health, and the general secretaries of the two political parties have done the right thing in attempting to get plausible and accurate information into the general public. Better late than never, although, late responses can really threaten our national security.
(Dr George C. Brathwaite is a researcher and political consultant, and up until recently, he was editor of Caribbean Times (Antigua). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org ).