Projecting Fear, Projecting Folly

Right now we're seeing increasing division and fear defining our politics. We can find another political narrative that re-frames that relationship. We may already be on our way, but it's clearly not an easy task.

Transcribed from the 4 May 2019 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:

Here be dragons” is once again being written across our maps. The fear of dangers lurking on the margins of the world is returning to us. That certainly is not new. It’s been with us for a very long time.

Chuck Mertz: We are all suffering from a new world disorder of ‘no-go zones’ created by the fears of the West and meant to contain what is perceived to be all its threats. Here to tell us what a world on fear looks and acts like, anthropologist Ruben Andersson is author of No-Go World: How Fear Is Redrawing Our Maps and Infecting Our Politics.

Ruben is also author of Illegality, Inc.: Clandestine Migration and the Business of Bordering Europe. We talked about that back in 2015, and named it as one of the best books to be featured on our show that year.

Welcome back to This is Hell!, Ruben.

Ruben Andersson: Thanks, Chuck. Great to be back on.

CM: You write about the “far-flung no-go zones of our new fearful era,” mentioning northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram operates, and, as you quote one Dakar-based aid chief telling you, “If your complexion is anything less than a Nigerian’s, you won’t really be going to that region.”

How new are these no-go places? How new is our fearful era that you write about? When did this begin?

RA: It’s been quite a shift, actually, over the past decade or so. In countries from the US to the UK, more and more parts of the world are being colored red on travel advisories. The UK had thirteen countries or parts of countries on its no-go list in 1997; fifteen years later that was forty. The US is on a similar trend. We’ve just had this red blob of risks spreading across our maps, areas we’re no longer supposed to be traveling to.

That’s a tragedy. Of course there are real risks out there; there are real dangers to deal with, but the way in which Western states in particular are dealing with them is very risky itself—it’s a dangerous game we’re playing, with the kinds of interventions that are being staged in these parts of the world, and with the divisions we are drawing across our maps, from bordering to drone warfare. There are certainly other ways of doing this, ways to reconnect these parts of the world that are now being separated.

CM: How much did 9/11 redraw our maps in this new fearful era? What started this new fearful era? Was it 9/11?

RA: Clearly 9/11 is a watershed in all sorts of ways. We saw big shifts after that towards fighting terrorists and terrorism-related weapons. The US-Mexico border, for instance, was suddenly becoming militarized even more acutely than before. Since then we’ve seen an expansion of the War on Terror that’s cost trillions of dollars—one estimate puts the cost of all the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, and beyond at more than three trillion dollars between 2001 and 2016.

It’s clearly not really working: between 2000 and 2015 there was a ten-fold increase in the number of terror attacks worldwide. The proliferation of fighters in terrorist-related groups more than tripled over the same time period. We’re seeing a stirring up of fear and danger around the world, proliferation of militant groups and insurgencies, and also a proliferation of militarized interventions from on high—drone wars and other forms of intervention.

So clearly it’s been getting a lot worse since 9/11. But we shouldn’t stare ourselves blind at the past couple of decades. Already in the post Cold War years, and in earlier colonial eras, there were certain tropes, certain ways of intervening in these parts of the world, resembling today’s. “Here be dragons” is once again being written across our maps. The fear of dangers lurking on the margins of the world is returning to us. That certainly is not new. It’s been with us for a very long time indeed.

CM: I want to read a short excerpt from your book because it really sets the tone. You write, “Look at the world today. Switch on Google Maps on your smartphone and search for Timbuktu, that one-time epitome of remoteness, and you will get car directions: three days and fourteen hours from my Oxford home via the N6, then a route that has tolls, includes a ferry, and crosses through multiple countries, as the app helpfully informs me. You can browse geoposition images from northern Nigeria and the Libyan desert or get customers’ restaurant recommendations for Quetta in the Pakistan-Afghanistan borderlands, a town that I once crossed on my way to India.

“Apparently, for a tandoori treat, don’t go here: ‘Usmania at Pishin Stop sucks! Their service is bad, prices unreasonable, and food tastes horrible.’ In fact, don’t go to any of these places—not if you are a white Westerner at any rate. These sites are all off-limits. They are re-blanked parts of the map at a time of disorderly globalization.”

What do you mean by re-blanked? What blanked them in the past? Is it the same thing that is re-blanking them today?

RA: It’s not quite the same thing. There’s an interesting historical dimension to what’s going on that we easily forget when we are obsessed with the latest news about, say, a terror attack or a border crisis. If we look at areas such as the Sahara desert—Timbuktu, in Mali, West Africa, on the Sahara desert’s edge, has always been the epitome of remoteness in the Western imagination, once held up as a prize for precolonial explorers: to be the first white Western explorer to set foot in this fabled city, and to make one’s way past all the numerous dangers that are supposed to come on the trip there (many actually didn’t make it back alive).

In precolonial times, this imaginary was already tied to these remote areas in terms of both the dangers lurking and also the prize, the glory waiting in the desert sand. Similar to other remote parts of the world, including in the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands today, it was once a British colonial frontier.

Some of these border areas, these remote places, are returning to the center of our politics in a way, occupying prime time news slots whenever an atrocity is staged or a bombing raid is conducted. And now again, as in those earlier times, we tend to attach certain emotions to these places: fear of what’s waiting for us out there, and also titillation, fascination with these re-blanked parts of the map, the parts of the world we “really shouldn’t be going to.”

CM: You write, “Switch on the news and it soon becomes clear that deadly threats are lurking in far-fetched corners of our maps, areas where the inhabitants of the rich Western world no longer dare venture. The first reaction of those of us sitting in well-furnished living rooms in richer nations may well be to switch the television off whenever we hear of misery in distant lands. Why should we care, after all? Afghanistan and northern Mali are nowhere most well-off Westerners would drop by on holiday—not now, at any rate.

“It’s easy to forget that Timbuktu was once firmly on the hippie trail. In any case, our economies do not hinge on what happens in these places. They remain comfortably out of reach, remote, and rarely any of our business.”

How are these economies out of reach under globalization? Has globalization not had an impact on them yet?

Migration is a major political obsession of Europe.

RA: Certainly these parts of the world are as globalized as any other part of the world today. There’s a geographical fallacy in a lot of our thinking and how we imagine these sites, and in how they are presented to us in the media: as ungoverned spaces, as dangerous sites without any control, without connection to the mainstream of globalization.

The Sahara desert is full of traders; there’s cross-border trade going on all the time. Only a few years ago, Timbuktu was still on the overland budget flight map from Europe. There were tourists coming in to blues festivals in the desert and so on. These parts of the world are certainly not disconnected. We imagine them as this outside source of danger precisely because they are so “ungoverned,” because they are not reached by our modern economies—which is not true.

On the other hand, framing these areas as remote and dangerous creates possibilities for various kinds of actors: for insurgents, jihadis, and other groups who want to stage uprisings or what have you, but also for the interveners, the counter-terror forces and border security operations—even the media. We see in these areas a stage for a certain kind of spectacle of danger and fear.

CM: You explain how your book pivots around the region known as the Sahel, the area from Senegal on the west to Sudan on the east that is the “transition zone between the Sahara to the north and the savannas of Africa to the south.”

Why did the Sahel end up being the sum of all the West’s fears?

RA: There’s quite a long story to this, going back to colonial times. But in the past few years, we’ve seen how the Sahel, certainly for Europe, is becoming the stage for security interventions and military interventions. A lot of this has to do with migration: the fear of more migrants and refugees arriving on European shores. After 2015, there’s been a huge expansion of the efforts that I wrote about in my book that came out that year. European border security is externalized to these states, to make African states crack down on migration already on their soil. It’s not a new thing, but it’s been stepped up massively, through conditional aid, through all kinds of financing programs and other pressures on states in the Sahel region to collaborate in controls. Migration is a major political obsession of Europe.

Then there is counter-terror. Since 2012, when a separatist insurgency was followed by a jihadist takeover of northern Mali (where I did some of my fieldwork), there have been counter-terror operations by France and a more long-running one by the United States as well. Counter-terror collaborations with the states in the region are taking shape. On all these fronts, more and more emphasis is being put on controlling what are seen as threats emanating from the region.

But Europe and the United States are not really acknowledging their own role in these problems. The conflict in Mali has origins to a large extent in local grievances, but also in the military campaign by NATO in Libya which unseated Qaddafi (who was a big patron of countries in the Sahel) and drove Malian Tuareg fighters back into Mali where they stirred up this insurgency, and so on.

The chaos generated in Libya by this intervention was similar with migration. All of these things can be traced back to the very Western powers who now see these regions as inherently dangerous and in need of control and containment.

CM: You write, “The idea that these no-go zones are on the global margins is a fallacy. In fact, remote zones of insecurity are becoming central to our new world disorder.”

What is revealed to us about what you call our new world disorder when we understand no-go zones as being central to that disorder? What does it show us about how the new world disorder works?

RA: It has to do with the politics of fear that we see domestically, like Trump’s fear-mongering around the supposed caravans and the building of the wall, which I don’t need to recount here. We have a similar thing going on in Europe around migration and terrorism. The politics of fear is extremely potent, and a lot of its potency stems from the geographical imagination that there are dangerous areas inhabited by people who pose potential threats to us, and that we need to intervene in various ways to contain and control that threat outside our borders so it doesn’t reach us, through drone attacks, counter-terror forces, proxy warfare, border security, and so on.

What goes on in these far-flung places really projects right into the heart of our politics. And let me just say, the other side of the equation knows this very well. Jihadis and insurgents know the power of the violence and horrific atrocities they stage in such remote zones. They know that it will be picked up on social media and on television, twenty-four hour news. They project it right into the living rooms of richer intervening nations. There’s a circuit here, connecting these far-flung places right into the heart of our politics, and it is not acknowledged enough.

On the other hand, these zones—and the types of interventions being staged in them—reveal a wider geopolitical shift in the world today. When we see a map of all these counter-terror interventions, the border security, and all the rest of it, it’s easy to think that Western powers have it under control: they are yet again extending their dominance, as in earlier historical times. But this focus on danger, fear, and risk in these parts of the world—and the wrongheaded way in which interventions are carried out and keep leading to a proliferation of the dangers—indicates a loosening of control in these parts of the world formerly colonized by Western powers, as other actors step in with different kinds of projects, China not least, gaining different kinds of economic dominance.

A lot is going on here; if we look at Timbuktu on the world map, it takes us right into the heart of the political and economic shifts in the world today.

CM: You write, “This book is the dark tale of global distancing and endangerment. For a start, the relationship by remote control forged between powerful interveners and crisis-hit areas of the planet is a tragic case of failed connectivity. As new technologies are supposed to be bridging geographical divides, as global risks expand, and as the climate is heating up, peoples and governments need to be more connected, not less.”

Why did that happen? Why did that cultural connectivity not happen with the internet? When the West connected with the rest of the world, did we realize the damage that we had wrought, and all of the sudden we wanted to withdraw from the world and disconnect?

There’s a lot of thinking, a lot of punditry, a lot of strategizing going on, not only finding but placing this threat in certain parts of the map. It’s an active strategy.

RA: It’s difficult to untangle all the different strands of what’s going on here. Partly it comes down to the politics of fear taking hold—not least after 9/11, but also after the Cold War, when the United States was left without any big global geopolitical enemy, and suddenly there was a need to go out (as one neoconservative put it at the time) in search of monsters to destroy. There was an active search in the 1990s for a big geopolitical threat, and eventually it was found in these faraway spaces: what one US strategist called a worldwide “gap,” the areas supposedly disconnected from globalization that are therefore dangerous.

So there’s a lot of thinking, a lot of punditry, a lot of strategizing going on, not only finding but placing this threat in certain parts of the map. It’s an active strategy.

The other thing is that societies have become very risk-averse. The sociologist Ulrich Beck talks about the risk society. It’s something we see in our daily lives. As an academic now, if I go to a conference somewhere in Europe, I fill in a travel risk form saying I’m going to take care of my valuables and not go to dangerous parts of, say, Copenhagen or something. There are absolutely no threats to speak of, but the risk aversion is so high that we are retreating more and more into our safe zones.

But like we’ve said, in fact these areas are not disconnected. Quite the opposite. They are certainly connected, in a very negative sense, to security interventions and insurgencies of different kinds. We now have the capability to go in with remote controls of different kinds. Drone warfare, tracking people over time, building up a picture of enemy networks, satellite surveillance. It’s the same with regard to border areas and migratory movements: besides relying on localized security forces in these countries, there are all these remote controls that are enabled by this new connectivity. Distance is enabled, in this sense, by our connectivity.

CM: So what happens when the freedom to travel is lost? How does society losing its freedom to travel affect an individual who might choose not to travel anyway, or cannot travel for whatever reason? How does society losing the freedom to travel affect everyone within that society?

RA: There’s a no-go world in the making on both sides of the global divide. Migrants and refugees who are trying to arrive into safety, or into a place where they have better possibilities for building a meaningful life for themselves, are increasingly facing these dangerous no-go zones head on. And they are facing blockage: border walls going up; surveillance systems blocking and tracking their path. No Go; Do Not Enter. It’s a no-go world for people who are trying to reach the green zones of the world.

Those of us who inhabit the richer parts of the planet, in the West at least, are also increasingly facing these restrictions. Sometimes these are just ridiculous invocations of danger zones that don’t exist—we’ve seen debates in Europe around spurious no-go zones that someone cooked up in their imagination. There are also real danger zones, areas that are at some level dangerous to enter, but often that danger is politically exaggerated.

Again it’s risk-aversion that’s really constraining us—and not just as tourists or visitors; academic researchers and journalists can’t enter these areas, and we rely on free media organizations and freelancers to even half-understand what happens in Afghanistan, in Syria, or in the Sahel. Same for other kinds of interveners: peacekeepers are bunkering up; aid workers are withdrawing from the front lines, relying on local workers who are put in harm’s way. There are all sorts of ways this limits our understanding of what goes on out in the world, which in turn tends to reinforce our fears.

The more we bunker up, the more we withdraw into our gated communities, the more we’ll fear what’s on the other side. It’s a tragedy, and we need to start breaking that somehow. We need to start taking some risks, politically, in how we engage with these far-flung parts of the world.

CM: How much does this world of no-go zones create a fertile environment for another 9/11-like terror attack? How much do no-go zones lead to the possibility of a complete surprise by a terrorist attack because of our lack of knowledge of what’s happening in other parts of the world?

We’ve lost a lot of the hope attached to the moment of decolonization some decades ago.

RA: To some extent, there is a cynical function of these no-go zones, this mapping of the world into zones of danger and safety, and the remote interventions in these areas. They tend to generate more danger and chaos; we’ve already talked about the rise in terror attacks, and we’re also seeing growing chaos on migratory routes and other phenomena that Western powers especially are trying to deal with remotely—but they keep on proliferating and getting worse.

We’ve seen this over time: it’s a cynical function in that the risks have been successfully displaced to these areas, to be contained away from core Western countries and their territories. We saw that after 9/11—there have been terror attacks in the United States, but if you look at that in relation to the rest of the world, particularly in these poorer countries on the front line, that’s where we’ve seen most of the victims of terror attacks occurring.

That displacement, that containment, the creation of buffer zones and containment zones around the world works to shield those powers that instigate and start interventions from the fallout from those interventions, at least in the short term. Politically, in the longer term, we’re clearly not solving anything here. A different approach is needed to start to come to grips with this dangerous spiral we’re in that keeps generating more fear and more danger through interventions that are supposed to stop this from happening, on paper.

CM: You write that foreign ministries are exaggerating these problems, exaggerating the dangers in the world—why? What’s the benefit in creating today’s world of no-go zones?

RA: The benefits are political to some extent. In drawing up a map we can somehow project dangers and fears outside our territory and say, “Look, we don’t have anything to do with these problems.” We have nothing to do with the problem of terrorism, the problem of instability in Libya, the problem of the quagmire in Afghanistan, the problem of worldwide displacement owing to conflicts that often Western powers have had a major part in creating. We can project all that onto other territories and onto other people, away from our own territory.

There’s a political function and a psychological function in drawing these stark divides across the world. And there’s often shorter-term gain from stirring up fear. The threat may reach our borders, and then we have to build the wall or what have you. Mobilizing of fear around these areas and mobilizing fear around threats reaching our shores works quite effectively on both sides of the Atlantic, unfortunately.

CM: Do we overly obsess on risk, leading us to fear? How can we undo that obsession?

RA: We can simply take a long, hard look at what’s going on in these interventions and border operations—actually do some proper auditing of what’s happening with taxpayer money. Where’s it going? What is it generating? What we see is that we’re actually generating more risk with these operations. It’s just that often we’re able to transfer that risk over to someone else—to poorer countries participating in these interventions, whether that’s Mexico in the war on drugs or in controlling migration, or whether that’s countries in the sub-Saharan Sahel doing something similar with Europe.

We can start to identify where these risks are traveling to, and who has to deal with them. Then maybe we will realize that we can organize this in a very different way. Some of that movement has happened already. If we look at climate change, if we look at the war on drugs—there’s been a mobilization of certain actors who are in fact facing these risks. Countries in Latin America are saying they no longer want to play a part in the militarized war on drugs because it’s too risky for them. They are saying we need to find another approach. The momentum starts there, at the “other end.” That’s one way of doing it.

Another way is to start really building another narrative of the world. We’ve lost a lot of the hope attached to the moment of decolonization some decades ago. There was actually a hope of reuniting the world, a hope of liberty, of freedom, of moving ahead, somehow, together. Right now we’re seeing increasing division and fear defining our politics. We can find another political narrative that re-frames that relationship. We may already be on our way, but it’s clearly not an easy task. Perhaps small steps, trying to break out of our bunkers and our borders, taking some risks in the short run will be the best way we can move slowly forward on that path.

CM: How much does our global economy’s dependence upon risk lead to our sense of fear? Does financialization and the very risk-oriented and speculative market that we have—are these actions of the market what’s making us so afraid?

RA: There’s kind of a contradiction here in the world economy as well. On the one hand, we’re embracing risk-taking; we’re seeing that in speculative finance, and the whole financial crisis. On the other hand we’re more risk-averse in our societies. Some of that is reflected in warfare and these kinds of interventions in global “danger zones.” At the same time, powerful countries want to intervene, to go in and control these distant dangers, but are often too fearful to fully enter, so they stay on the sidelines.

We see a lot of this ambivalence around risk play out in these parts of the world. That’s part of why I think of them as being central to our new world disorder and the state of our global economy and politics.

Just to return to what I said before, though: there are actually gains to be had for certain politicians and interveners and for those countries collaborating in controls, in stoking the threat, or at least keeping these operations going. Risk is not just something negative; it’s also a source of gains for many actors. We see that very clearly from the Sahel/Sahara belt to the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands.

CM: You write, “This normalized state of security is itself abnormal, to the point of being pathological.” What happens to society when a pursuit of securitization becomes pathological? And isn’t being obsessed with security the safest thing to do? Doesn’t that obsession keep us safe, as Dick Cheney would argue?

RA: There’s a good example in the marketing of Humvees, these huge military vehicles, in the post-9/11 years. The idea was that once we have this huge vehicle going down the road, it’s going to make us safe from all these threats—without realizing that by using that huge vehicle we are putting others in danger, and we might put ourselves in danger. They are bulky, they are not suitable for traveling in town. By wanting to find these fantastical, magical solutions to our anxiety, we’re actually generating more problems, more risks, more dangers.

We see something similar happening with border walls, with bunkers going up, in field interventions, and so on. There’s clearly a lot to be said for a different approach to risk, of trying to somehow find another way of reaching out beyond the boundaries and trying to find another relationship here than the one we’re currently seeing.

CM: When I was reading your book and thinking about the way the media and the government have created so much distance between us and these no-go zones, how much they work to disconnect us, even though we’re very connected with them. Do we not know “why they hate us” because we are purposely misinformed or uninformed about the areas they are from?

RA: This is where we really need to go: to understand the people who live in these parts of the world, and listen to their perspectives. If we do so, we’ll hear a very different story: a story of clear Western involvement in many of these parts of the world, whether we’re talking about the war on drugs and the criminality affecting Central America and Mexico today, or whether we’re talking about jihadis and the violence spreading across the Sahel and Sahara, the chaos in Libya, or migration patterns and displacement. People in these parts of the world will often squarely put the blame back in Western quarters: “You are actually the problem.”

This is how one military officer in Mali told me what was happening in his country. The conflict and chaos there boils down to the NATO intervention in Libya and the cascading effect that came from that. Of course there are also local reasons for what’s happening there. We need to understand all of that. So the first thing we need to do is reach out and listen to those voices who often have a much better understanding that these dangers that interventions are trying to deal with are not geographically bound—they are systemic. And we need to deal with them and understand them on a systemic, global level if we want to have any chance at all of tackling them together.

CM: Ruben, it is always a pleasure talking with you.

RA: Thank you so much, it’s been great being on.

Featured image source: (Facebook)

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