Embedding of Fear – State of Exception

An example that fits the definition of a state of exception is September 11th and its aftermath.  On September 11th there were multiple attacks on the United States of America which were believed to be coordinated by Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, an Islamic terrorist group.  President George W. Bush employed his presidential powers by announcing a state of emergency two days after the September 11th attacks.  Subsequently the “War on Terror” in America began.  This war would eventually influence national security policies and American civil liberties.

After the attacks of September 11th there was constant media attention that replayed several videos and images of two planes flying into the two towers of the World Trade Center.  In addition, the eventual collapse of the World Trade Centers and the several visuals displaying the firefighters and on-looking survivors created an emotional response by the public.   These images displayed the reality of the attack, and generated the potential threat of another attack.

Moreover, as there was a constant notion of an endless threat created by both the President of the United states and the media, the American population was placed in a vulnerable state of fear.  This threat was reiterated several times by the president as he stated that “The world has changed after September 11th, it’s has changed because we are no longer safe”. (George W. Bush address to the nation) This notion of safety and the consistent threat of further attacks put Americans in a situation where they were concerned with their security.  As a result, it was understood that Americans were put in a situation where they would give up some of their rights, in order to preserve their safety.

The Bush administration pressed for “tools” to fight terrorism, and one of these tools was the Patriot Act.  The Patriot Act was passed by congress and signed by President Bush on October 26 2001.  The USA Patriot Act stands for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism”.  What this Act entails is the right for the government the rights to search homes and offices without notice, us wiretaps to listen in on conversation, monitor computer and email messages and look into medical and financial records.  (George W. Bush, Executive Order Disposition Tables, 2001)  This surveillance on the general population is rationalized on the grounds that individuals in the past, present or future might be involved in terrorist activity.

As the War on Terror progressed, and a military campaign was held in Afghanistan, the United States transferred several hundred individuals who were expected as terrorists to Guantanamo Bay.  Guantanamo Bay is a 45 square mile naval base, located in Cuba.  This base was designed to interrogate suspects by using means of torture, water boarding and long periods of solitary confinement. (Johns, 2005) In addition, these individuals were denied Habeas corpus, as they were not brought before a judge, and this was rationalized as they were in a different country.  This relates to Agamben definition of a camp which “provides a kind of model by which to understand this degraded life form that is excluded from the operation of law, and where a sovereign ban is exercised over such bare life without the protection of law” (Pavlich, 2011, 158).

This exercise of sovereign power was justified through the constant notion of fear.  This constant notion of fear was embedded in the American population through the continuous reminder of an endless threat.  Bush indicated that “Our nation, this generation, will lift a dark threat of violence from our people and our future” (George W. Bush, Address to the Nation, video below) Furthermore, if considerable measures were not taken, the security of the American people would be endangered.  This appeal was maintained through the continuing and immediate threat and future attacks on the United States.  Bush also stated  that “Freedom and fear are at war… the advance of human freedom, the great achievement of our time…now depends on us”.  This indication by the Bush recognised the potential endangerment and the loss of freedom which was a fundamental principle of America.

Bush also spoke about the Guantanamo Bay, directly indicating that it is essential for this state of exception to exist.  “It is been Necessary to move these individuals to an environment where they can be held secretly.  Questioned by experts and when appropriate prosecuted for terrorist attacks.” (George Bush address to the nation)  Bush rationalized the existence of Guantanamo Bay by indicating that the persons captured were not common criminals but were “suspected bomb makers, terrorist trainers, recruiters and facilitators and potential suicide bombers.” (George Bush address to the Nation)  Again, Bush indicated that these individuals were dangerous and were a threat to the national welfare of America.  Moreover, Bush states that these individuals “are in our custody, so they cannot murder our people”. (George Bush Address, Video Below) Bush reiterates that if these individuals were not captured and interrogated, they could cause mass murder.  Therefore, the actions taken by the American government and the Bush administration were justified and rationalized, as there was a known threat to the safety and security of the United States of America.


Johns, F. (2005).  Guantanamo Bay and the annihilation of exception.  The European Journal of International Law, 16, 613-635.





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One response to “Embedding of Fear – State of Exception

  1. This is a good overview of the politics of exceptionality characteristic of the post-11 September context.

    One point worth considering: Despite the extraordinary nature of the detention practices at Guantanamo, the US Administrations presiding over the facility (both the Bush and Obama Administrations) have consistently claimed that the facility is governed by law. Why do you think that they would do this? What is the incentive to claim that extraordinary practices in fact take place within a context of legality?