The Aftermath of 11 March in Madrid

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Justice and Home Affairs experts from the European liberty and security policy network (ELISE) believe that technology is not a solution to violence. They put into question counter-terrorism measures which involve a globalisation of surveillance.

The Aftermath of 11 March in Madrid

The ELISE network strongly condemns the events of 11 March in Madrid, which have cost so many lives and sorrow for all. Such violence has become all too familiar. Nevertheless, we do not believe that we can be complacent in our reliance on familiar accounts of why such violence occurs or on the responses that are deemed to be appropriate. We believe it is necessary to assess broader patterns of change in order to provide a better understanding of the issues at stake. In particular, it is important to analyse in detail the roots of transnational political violence by clandestine organisations and the development of strategies of mass murder. These roots lie both inside and outside our Western societies. They are intertwined with the foreign policies followed by some member states over the last decades. Technologies of violence have changed, but the changing social and political context of political action, whether global, regional, national or local, has also enabled such violence. It is this context that needs to be carefully analysed in order to understand how political action can erupt into violence and mass murder. We certainly do not believe that changing technologies alone — and thus explanations that evoke the worst case scenarios of irrational actors packing nuclear bombs in a bag — can explain what happened either in Madrid on 11 March or the other forms of violence that have dominated political life over the past few years.

Technology is not the cause and is even less the solution to violence. The belief of a large part of the public as well as management experts that they will find technical solutions to counter political violence through general and specific surveillance of people on the move is an especially dangerous illusion. Unfortunately, it is an illusion that responds to the interests of some private companies, to the fears of some political professionals and to the belief of modern societies that new technologies are always a good solution. Regardless of how enemies may be defined, the very possibility of their existence makes it possible to conceal the fact that the greater the threat, the larger the future markets for security and technology will be. Just the capacity to define a threat has become sufficient cause to mobilise powerful rationalisations for technologically novel forms of security policy. Consequently, technological solutions need to be thoroughly evaluated, not only in terms of their efficiency but even more so with regard to their legitimacy. The crucial problem here, which has a long and dark history in 20th century struggles between democratic and authoritarian regimes, is that political legitimacy is all too vulnerable to the kind of politics that maximises threats and puts blind faith in technological solutions.

In terms of efficiency, the belief that solutions now depend on large quantities of data gathered through increasingly interconnected databases and through expert systems of profiling is now widely discussed by experts inside the police and intelligence worlds. In fact, many such experts now tend to prefer less but more accurate data. They prefer to have more personnel to analyse the situation, less computerisation and fewer technologies of identification used on every traveller, as Jürgen Storbeck, Director of Europol, underlined last month in front of representatives of the enlarged EU in Brussels. We need to listen to such views before we continue the trend of pursuing ‘ultra-technologisation’, which has proliferated since 11 September and has been one of the chief causes of misperceptions about the strategies of clandestine organisations before and after the events in New York.

The events in Madrid have shown that much of the population is perhaps more aware of this than many of the ‘experts’ in mass communication who advise the political leaders. The s ober answer of the first few days after the events of 11 March — with the refusal to choose the military solution and the desire to opt for a judicial and police option — has been very important. It shows that the US reaction to 11 September was rather ‘special’ and that it is not the only method we have to combat political violence. The role of the judicial apparatus used by the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón has been the opposite of a military answer and has succeeded for the moment to be both more efficient and legitimate than a military answer leading to war and exceptional laws. But the celebration of solidarity among the different member states against so-called ‘terrorism’ could easily lead once again to the ‘ultra-solution’ of technology.

Some of the individuals in charge of anti-terrorist policies would like to take the opportunity of 11 March to bypass discussion of the ‘well-founded’ solutions they have proposed involving the globalisation of surveillance. They may attempt to silence any opposition to this trend, which is nevertheless inefficient against the violence of clandestine organisations and thoroughly dangerous for our way of life. In a familiar pattern, the cure threatens to become worse than the disease. It is in this context that the ELISE network most strongly believes it is necessary to send an early warning to the European Commission, the European Parliament as well as to all political leaders looking for positive policies and solutions in relation to the undoubted dangers that confront us all.

The destruction that was brought to Madrid promises to boost the capacity of EU leaders to move even further on an already troubling array of ‘exceptional’ policies and measures on (in)security, which they believe are necessary to tackle what has been labelled as ‘terrorism’. But the proper response to these pressures must not be the reinforcement of technologies of surveillance and control on a greater and greater scale. This option will only make it even more difficult for security professionals to discriminate who is and who is not a threat. It will diminish the level of trust concerning sensitive information inside the diverse communities of police, intelligence services, border guards and so on.

The European Council has perhaps too quickly agreed on a revised plan of action for combating terrorism in the EU because it was under pressure to show solidarity with the victims in Spain. The official Declaration on Combating Terrorism of 25 March 2004, represents a common approach on the justification and necessity, “as a matter of urgency and/or emergency”, for further improvement and adoption of a very contentious package of restrictive proposals aimed at fighting everything widely related to terrorist activities. There will be no chance for a carefully modulated response unless we take some critical distance from such a technology-intensive answer, especially one that is so disconnected from a strong political agreement on what kind of common future we would like and how we may work towards its achievement.

Moreover, it is striking to see how all these measures have been presented as being ‘brand new developments’. In our opinion, they are neither new nor particularly adequate either in what they propose as an efficient solution or the apparent low degree of protection and guarantees of human rights they seem to provide. In fact, it appears that the ‘management’ of fears and insecurity has pushed some political and security professionals (including private security firms) to try to improve and enhance cooperation more widely on a very contested package of security measures — whose real origin considerably precede the violence in Madrid. Most of them were presented over two years ago, following the events in New York.

The security instruments that have been officially conceived as & ldquo;efficient to combat terrorism and improve judicial cooperation” are among others:

  • the European Arrest Warrant and the European Evidence Warrant;
  • the Framework Decision on the fight against terrorism;
  • the strengthening EU border controls, aviation and document security; the development of a European Borders Agency, improved customs cooperation, etc.; the incorporation of biometrics and new technologies into ID documents issued to EU citizens (passports) as well as those negatively identified as third-country nationals (requiring visas and residence permits);
  • strengthening EU border controls, aviation and document security, by incorporating biometrics technologies on documents issued to EU citizens as well as those negatively qualified as third-country nationals (visas and residence permits);
  • widening the transatlantic relations between the EU and the US on transfer of Passenger Name Record and extradition;
  • creating a European register of criminal convictions and broadening the access to ‘communications traffic data’;
  • maximising the sharing of intelligence while developing threat assessment; and
  • increasing the competences of Europol and Eurojust.

The research carried out so far by the ELISE network has shown that these instruments are not fully efficient. In any case they work in relation to a rhetoric that is never discussed in detail and many of the instruments are not implemented, even after five years of such declarations.[5]The results of these discourses and measures are often counter-productive in the struggle against the key actors of clandestine organisations. They exaggerate the scope of the threat and lead to wasted time in the collection of data that are marginal at best to the struggle against terrorism yet are seriously worrying for privacy, confidentiality and civil liberties. We are also acutely aware that such findings run contrary to the interests and ingrained expectations of many professionals working in media communication and the orchestration of public opinion — particularly the lobbies representing industries pursuing markets for new forms of global surveillance involving biometrics and new satellite and computing technologies.

The ELISE network therefore recommends that:

  • As a point of departure, and as has already been underlined in previous research carried out by ELISE, it is important to stress that there is at present a serious lack of definition at the European level of what ‘terrorism’ is. The broad scope of the definitions of threat that have been mobilised is counter-productive in relation to the narrow focus on transnational political violence coming from al-Qaeda. Resources are dispersed. First, misleading information and strategies that raise the level of fear linked with a specific threat are likely to result in very poor judgements on the part of those agencies charged with responding to specific threats. This partially explains the official perception of ETA as the perpetrator of the bombings of 11 March in Madrid. Second, the misleading link between ‘terrorism’, organised crime and illegal immigration needs to be tackled as a matter of priority. Most measures undertaken under the banner of safety on a large scale are divisive; they show mutual suspicion, set people apart, prompt them to sniff enemies and conspirators behind every contention or dissent. In the end such measures reinforce discrimination of different kinds towards some religion, some social groups or some minorities. The risk of scapegoating some parts of the population by political parties could create more fears than before, a loss of social cohesion and, by a perverse effect, add support to the transnational clandestine organisations in their work of recruitment.
  • In addition, the ELISE network has repeatedly questioned the compatibility of most of these measures with human rights, civil liberties and fundamental freedoms since the measures were first presented in t he aftermath of 11 September, especially with regard to third-country nationals of Muslim origin — but not only for them. It has perpetuated a continual sense of emergency or even of war, which is dangerous in terms of solidarity and which does not help to combat ‘terrorism’ but it may help to justify racism. A sense of justice — including fairness in the treatment of suspected terrorists and in the punishment of those who have been held as members of clandestine organisations — needs to be developed instead of a ‘war-like state of mind’, which makes every third-country national a source of suspicion. The emphasis on police and justice instead of a ‘war on terror’ in the aftermath of Madrid is a good sign of what needs to be done. Yet the road is still unclear if declarations seek to intertwine internal and external security, to subordinate justice and police to intelligence services, and to integrate global technologies of surveillance, especially biometrics. These security measures will increase insecurity and fears while aiming at establishing a European transnational system of surveillance that profiles and monitors everyone.
  • The ELISE network firmly insists that the European Commission needs to listen closely to the voices of many other European sectors, such as the European Parliament and human rights organisations, as well as experts on security from across Europe, and not only to those that have money for lobbying and advertisement. Many have wisely questioned the real effectiveness and adequacy of these technology-based pro-security measures, which will rather enhance feelings of insecurity and will not have a significant effect towards the genuine identification of the members of clandestine organisations acting transnationally.  
  • The structure of the European Union is also at stake. There is a real threat to the freedom rationale that inspires the EU as a whole, posed by the adoption of measures intended to tackle those acts of political violence negatively labelled as ‘terrorism’. We should not forget that most of these ‘security tools’ are being adopted under the rubric of the second and third pillar Frameworks, which both promote these issues purely on the grounds of intergovernmental cooperation. The lack of parliamentary debate or judicial accountability for the measures adopted within this EU framework of action prevent the recognition of alternative views of individuals who are the main actors of civil society but are sometimes marginalised by the professionals of the management of security. As the ELISE network has already highlighted, this serious gap is dangerous for representative democracy and for the rule of law in general both at the European and national levels.

EU policy-makers need to open the discussion on terrorism and security to more people who are concerned by freedom and liberty, and not consider them as falling beyond the sphere of relevant professionalism, or even as ‘adversaries’ or ‘idealists’. Those concerned with freedom and liberty do have a sense of responsibility and are highly concerned by the real threats posed by transnational clandestine organisations, though they are arguably not especially driven by economic and/or narrow political interests. The platform of those who are able to speak with authority about security under contemporary conditions needs to be broadened, and it especially needs to be extended in relation to questions about the interaction between security and liberty, which are at the heart of the modern state. The separation of an external realm of security from an internal realm of liberty that was so central to the construction of professional expertise on these matters in the second half of the 20th century is now clearly outmoded. The constrained political imagination it engendered is expressed all too clearly in a rush to technological solutions to problems that require much more sophisticated analysis. Events lik e those in Madrid are always liable to provoke automatic reflexes that oversimplify matters so as to make efficient responses impossible and trigger unintended consequences that both reproduce cycles of violence and trample on those values we are so keen to secure. We must resist these reflexes and find other ways forward. The fight against the so-called ‘global threats of terrorism’, organised crime, cross-border crime or insecurity in the suburbs — along with the consequent development of legislation that feeds a permanent feeling of emergency and legitimises the promotion of technologies of surveillance — needs to be carefully assessed. These endeavours need to be evaluated in terms of their efficiency and their legitimacy with regard to human rights, civil liberties and social cohesion, which form an essential ingredient of our European traditions.

For more analyses from the Elise policy network, visit the

CEPS website.  

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