Book Review: Eve Ensler’s Surprising Security Book
Eve Ensler wrote a surprisingly relevant book about security. Ms. Ensler is the playwright and performer respected around the world and known for her barrier-breaking work The Vagina Monologues. Her newest book Insecure At Last: losing it in our security obsessed world is surprising because while its author is not associated with the security industry at all, the book tackles some of the most important questions in security.
How is it that the more we spend on security, the less secure we feel? I know dozens of philosophers, political scientists, and security professionals who struggle with that dilemma. Economist Robert A. Book of National Defense University described security as falling along a spectrum. One end of his security spectrum indicates no security and total accessibility, like a box of money on the street corner. The other extreme describes total security and no accessibility, like a box of money encased in concrete. The middle of Professor Book’s Spectrum is Reasonable Security, like a properly functioning ATM with a locked money box and accurate audits.
The answer is probably that we spend more on security because the threats causing us to feel insecure grow. But her point is still valid. Maybe we, as a culture, are treading too close to "security for security’s sake" forgetting that security is not the point. A peaceful life is the point. Or a productive business. Or a vibrant growing society is the point.
Remember, nobody wants security; they want the benefits of security.
That means that the housewife doesn’t want the finest deadbolt on the
front door because of the excellence of its engineering or its impact
resistance. She wants a comfortable, happy place to raise her family.
Ms. Ensler reflects on this balance of security and intercourse as
she explores the feelings of women in difficult conditions around the
world and how they respond to security and insecurity. Over many years,
her travels have taken her to intimate conversations with women about
their bodies, their families, and the violence the women endure.
Some of this violence is suffered by women who are, in fact, very
secure. Or too secure. They are so tightly bound or restricted by
social or religious constraints that they have no life. Or they have a
horrid life. Of course, it never occurs to many women not to conform
in a society of burkas and illiteracy, or repression and rape.
Therefore, Ms. Ensler suggests that maybe security is not what these
women need. Maybe insecurity is the answer — breaking from the norms,
becoming educated, finding a voice.
Ms Ensler’s book contains powerful stories about women and our
world. But the book is very much about security – and a compelling
critique of our popular conception of the value of security. And while
at times Ms. Ensler drifts into political commentary, anti-Bush,
anti-Republican as one might imagine coming from a New York-based
playwright and performer, those digressions do not substantially
detract from the main message and important questions of the book.
Actually, her book is about the tension between security and
insecurity. To Ms. Ensler, the Katrina disaster is a "devastating
example of how the little security we can expect and are rightfully
entitled to gets consistently undermined and jeopardized by the hope of
this false and impossible übersecurity."
When I first read that line I was struck by the concept of
übersecurity. I imagined that it referred to the objective of global
security, balance of power, world peace. Of course we do not have a
right to state sponsored protection at the very local level.
We still all have the responsibility to protect ourselves from
immediate personal threats. That’s why nearly every community in the
US declines to guarantee response from 911 calls. The police do not
guarantee our protection. They simply provide a certain "environment"
of protection. Personal protection is still a matter of making safe
choices, staying away from trouble, and taking measures to defend
oneself under extreme threat of harm or loss.
Is there a paradox or a kind of "catch 22" in security today? If we
pursue a "greater" security (Iraq) we risk failing to security the
people (Katrina). Conversely, if we focus on local security
(guaranteed 911 response), do we lose personal freedom and imprison
ourselves with a kind of hyper-security? But surely there are some
kinds of security to which we are entitled. And emergency response to
community or regional disasters is one of them. The stories Ms. Ensler
describes of the suffering by New Orleans residents while under the
"protection" of the National Guard can turn the strongest stomach.
So I considered the power of her statement. We are certainly
entitled to a certain small amount of security. That is one of the
main points of becoming citizens of a state — to have protection
against aggressors. Somehow, however, that modest environment of
security has been replaced by the ambitious and probably unattainable
übersecurity. Perhaps the small amount of security is closer to our
best interests than a global balance of power.
The natural order of security, a theory I’ve worked out elsewhere,
drives people to identify themselves or distinguish themselves from
others before setting expectations and boundaries. Healthy societies
reassess or audit themselves and their neighbors regularly in order to
adjust the boundaries — expand or contract the circle. Unhealthy
societies trend only toward higher walls.
Security, whether modest or übersecurity infuses our societies and
teaches us not to go outside a certain circle. Community instinct is
to create a circle, a boundary of expectations and self-definition.
But it has always take bravery to open gates and lower fences.
That is what Ms. Ensler calls us to examine: our readiness to — or
anxiety about — lowering the fences. By dropping our guard, we may
find a human being, another person to relate to, to learn from. We lose
the opportunity to relate on that human level when we pursue security
for security’s sake. The real purpose of security is to secure a
healthy vibrant society with plenty of tolerance of diversity.
Security should not be about building walls. As Ms. Ensler writes near
the end of her book: "We have been misguided to believe we are longing
for security, when really it is kindness we are after."