The security policy implemented in New York after the 2001 attacks is often an example of efficiency, technological modernity and local autonomy. The city has a strong argument for it: New York has not suffered yet any new attacks, at least until now. However, is it possible to set an example by building a local security policy that gives full powers to the municipal anti-terrorist police? Aren’t we here facing a risk of authoritarian excesses at the city scale?
by Arnaud Blin |
In a scene from the film Casablanca (M. Curtiz, 1942), when a German officer suggested to Humphrey Bogart (“Rick Blaine”)that the Wehrmacht might invade New York City, Bogart fired back with this cult response : “There are certain parts of New York that I would recommend you avoid…”. For the architect of New York City’s anti-terrorist strategy, Ray Kelly (2001-2013), this phrase is like the symbol of the message that New Yorkers would like to send to all those who might want to organize a terrorist attack in the American megalopolis. It is an effective message because since that terrible day in September 2001, the city has not suffered a single attack.
New York City’s security policy has been praised by the media as an example and a symbol of a pugnacious America. But is the security policy of New York City, as many observers believe, the model for the future of an independent, efficient and generous municipalism? Or, conversely, could this policy be seen as a worrying glimpse of an insidious totalitarianism that, in the name of urban security, would replace state power with local power ready to bypass the rule of law and trample on the most basic civil liberties?
With 2,606 people killed on the day of the attacks, not counting the hundreds of collateral victims who have since died, New York City suffered by far the deadliest terrorist attack in history on that day. In order to prevent history from repeating itself, in the aftermath of the attacks, the metropolitan authorities decided to take charge of their city’s security against the terrorist threat themselves, a decision that was unprecedented insofar as, until then, this protection had theoretically been the responsibility of the federal authorities. However, in the face of the negligence of federal officials (later proven by the detailed Pentagon report), it was decided to take the bull by the horns and to provide the means to do so. In this way, and without further delay, the municipality arrogated to itself the supreme authority in the matter, with total freedom of action and decided to start from a blank sheet of paper, with local resources and means (three billion dollars over ten years), and the support of a population that would remain for a long time in shock from the attacks. While George Bush and his Neo-conservatives focused their own anti-terrorist strategy by invading Iraq and channeling gigantic funds towards the so-called threat of an attack with “weapons of mass destruction,” according to the time-honored formula, Ray Kelly, with the support of the municipal authorities, implemented an extraordinary mechanism to prevent a new catastrophe, a mechanism that has continued to be perfected to this day.
At the heart of New York’s strategy, defined and implemented by the NYPD Counterterrorism Bureau, is the desire to “leave no stone unturned”, i.e., to keep an eye on everything and respond immediately to any suspicion of danger; and, upstream, to identify networks before they attack with, in addition, operations designed to dissuade small groups from taking action. In New York, the number of police officers assigned to the fight against terrorism increased considerably after the attacks, with more than a thousand officers now assigned to this task. They form a special unit, the Critical Response Command, while all New York police officers also undergo anti-terrorist training.
In the years following the attacks, the city has developed an extraordinary surveillance system (Domain Awareness System), with several thousand cameras located throughout the city. Increasingly sophisticated software, developed with Microsoft engineers, can be used to identify a suspicious package, for example, or a piece of clothing in a matter of seconds. At the Bureau’s headquarters, observers analyze the information and technology data and, if necessary, make recommendations or sound the alarm. Surveillance officers monitor dozens of screens of onlookers as they move through the city. At the slightest suspicious movement, the authorities on site are alerted. No area of the city escapes surveillance…
Deterrence and dramatization of the police presence
On a regular basis, the Bureau organizes what can be described as a show of force, the purpose of which is to illustrate the presence and reactivity of the police force during an attack, to reassure the population and to dissuade potential terrorists. Typically, hundreds of police officers flock to a designated location, often chosen at random, with police vehicles and sirens. However, we do not know if this anti-terrorist theatrics is really there to reassure, according to the official version, or more cynically to maintain a certain tension among the inhabitants, even a chronic fear that would justify such a police presence in the city.
Working in networks
An innovative element of New York’s anti-terrorism strategy is the municipality’s willingness to work with other cities and learn from what is being done elsewhere. Dozens of New York agents are deployed around the world – Abu Dhabi, Amman, Paris, Lyon, Madrid Tel Aviv, London, Montreal, Singapore, Santo Domingo and others – and ad hoc missions are organized to examine what is happening elsewhere, to study how local authorities respond to threats and what lessons could be learned for New York. These permanent contacts abroad also provide an opportunity to observe local (terrorist) networks and examine their methods and projection capabilities.
Cooperation with other stakeholders
While the city police are the locomotive in the fight against terrorism, they officially act as the transmission belt between the stakeholders in the fight against terrorism in New York City. The NYPD SHIELD, for example, is a program responsible for relations and coordinated actions with the private sector. The Protective Security for High Risk Buildings programme, in coordination with architects, engineers and urban planners, implements new systems to protect buildings deemed high-risk from attacks of all kinds. The special feature of this program is that it takes into account the specificities of New York City in this field. Moreover, the role of the parties involved is still very limited compared to that of the law enforcement agencies and this cooperation is limited to an extremely narrow vision of security.
From example to counter-example
While the effectiveness of New York’s security policy since 2001 cannot be denied, and while one cannot deny the way in which it has been able to acquire substantial independence in an area where the State rarely makes concessions, it is also true that the strategy put in place since 2001 and pursued to date has been top-down, without any real consultation with local stakeholders, in the name of the urgency of the situation, and without the necessary safeguards having been put in place. Ray Kelly, quoted above, is very clear on this issue, convinced that in this type of situation, only a military-style hierarchical system can bring the expected results. Since the end justifies the means, this somewhat primitive realism has a solid argument: no attacks since 2001 (and several thwarted attacks in the meantime) in New York to date.
However, three questions need to be asked. The first is the effectiveness of the system. In other words, was New York City able to prevent an attack thanks to this policy, or were there other exogenous factors that weighed, perhaps heavily, in the balance? Second question: if, by putting these considerable means to work, the city did indeed save itself from a disaster, could it not have been done otherwise, with greater stakeholder involvement in decision-making and implementation? Third question: even if we consider that this strategic choice was the most effective one, should we still agree to curtail civil liberties in the name of security?
The answer to the first question is complex and ultimately very difficult to answer. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the period saw a considerable weakening of jihadist groups likely to organize attacks in the United States and more generally outside their bases, which does not mean that independent cells acting on their behalf did not have the will to take action. However, New York City remains symbolically THE preferred target of fighting jihadist organizations. But for the time being, the attacks that we know were foiled were carried out by local cells, and luck also had its role to play in this case.
The answer to the second question is much clearer because it has long been known that the fight against terrorism cannot be limited to fighting the symptoms. In this area, however, in-depth work involves many actors, and not just the forces of law and order, on the contrary. And even if it can be argued that, in New York, the risks come mainly from outside, the fact that the anti-terrorist police have arrogated a monopoly to themselves is in itself contrary to the basic values of life in a democracy and, in the long run, has an alienating effect on the people. But, at this stage, we remain in the realm of a circumstantial authoritarianism, limited to a circumscribed space and, potentially also limited in time, at least in theory (when the threat has faded and the budget is allocated elsewhere). But the question remains: would the same results not have been achieved by allocating resources differently and avoiding the creation of a massive police force that will be difficult to dispose of?
The third question is the most important because it is here that the future of life in society and the shift towards the dystopian totalitarianism of Orwell, Zamiatine or Bradbury is really at stake. In fact, the presence of thousands of surveillance cameras and agents spying on the movements of millions of New Yorkers is no less worrying than what can be observed in China and is associated in the West with the totalitarian excesses of a communist world far removed from our own. The presence of thousands of policemen and demonstrations of force are not conducive to a climate of serenity either. Since power, as everyone knows, corrupts, the power of the New York police force is no exception. And during the mandate of the previous mayor, Michael Bloomberg (ex-Republican, and brief candidate for President 2020 as a Democrat), the policy of open searches – anyone could be searched by a police officer, in the name of security – logically led to many abuses, especially towards the most disadvantaged populations and among immigrants, who were targeted as a priority. The mayor was politically untenable and had to retract this point, but the police still have a great deal of leeway and there is nothing to prevent this law from being brought up again in the future.
Fear, as everyone knows, is a bad counselor and the immense psychological shock caused by the 2001 attacks has allowed the authorities of the city of New York to arrogate to themselves a power, vis-à-vis the American state and the New York population, that is fundamentally unhealthy. In addition to the fundamentally totalitarian spirit of this process, this “authoritarian municipalism” has the effect of slowing down the growth of genuine bottom-up municipalism, and it offers us perhaps the best counter-example of what this type of approach is likely to produce. In conclusion, while one can applaud the desire for independence expressed by the New York authorities, initially for the sake of efficiency and the public good, in an area where the state rarely gives up its authority, one can only condemn an extremely dangerous approach and process whose potential outcome is a police “state within the state”, In the long run, the city will be locked up in a leaden screed, using the tools of the highest technology, but with propaganda and power techniques as old as the world, and in the name of the empowerment of the city-dweller vis-à-vis the federal government. Since what comes from the United States often has an oil stain effect, there is no doubt that other cities are or will be tempted by the New York experience. In countries where the rule of law is weak, the danger of urban totalitarianism, against which there is little counterweight, will be even greater. Authoritarian municipalism is a real danger for our urban societies in the 21st century. It is important to identify and denounce it; it is imperative to fight it.
Arnaud Blin is a French-American historian and political scientist specialized in conflicts history. He wrote around fifteen works, translated into ten languages. Ex-director of Beaumarchais Center for International Research (Washington), he coordinated for around 10 years the World New Governance Forum (Paris). His professional interests have centered in problems linked to good governance and security. Through the Forum, he led around forty projects on global governance with Gustavo Marin. Last published work : War and religion. Europe and the Mediterranean from the first through the 21st centuries (University of California Press, 2019).