Why do we research security?

Between inquisitive fascination and unhealthy obsession

by Jorrit Kamminga, January 2013

Researching security, terrorism, crime and violence is very popular. These fields have not only become more relevant in recent years (e.g. terrorism studies after September 11; transnational crime analysis following the deepening effect of globalisation since the end of the Cold War), they also provide interesting, often fascinating topics, phenomena and personalities to analyse. Osama bin Laden, for instance, is an interesting person to study. As the leader of a terrorist organisation that produced one of the biggest changes in modern day international relations, he also had a fascinating background and personal life. It is often the person behind important events in international relations that fascinates us.

The fascination of academics to research criminals, terrorists or insurgents can be explained as an extension of the general popularity and obsession surrounding the ‘bad guys’ in popular culture. Many (Hollywood) movies and TV series today contain references to terrorism, security and state stability. In Colombia, a recent TV series about the life of drug baron Pablo Escobar, Escobar, el patron del mal, has been hugely popular, despite the fact that most Colombians would rather distance themselves from one of the most violent episodes in the history of their country. Similarly, the German crime television series Tatort has been very popular since 1970 and is still running in several countries today. But also more recent TV series such as Homeland and the popular movie Argo show that people continue to be obsessed by security threats, both at home and abroad.

In scholarly research, it can be difficult to draw a line between inquisitive fascination and unhealthy obsession. When researching security, academics often need to investigate the modus operandi of criminal organisations, militias, insurgents and other non-state actors that are destabilising society and threatening the integrity and legitimacy of the state. It means to analyse forces considered the ‘dark side’ of society. And where there are illegal activities or clandestine groups, there is always a fascinating story with violence, arms, drugs and corruption guaranteed.

My own fascination with crime and law enforcement started early on. At the age of eleven, I started cutting out newspaper clippings about drug trafficking, terrorism, international crime, mafias, and the responses to these international phenomena. One of the first clippings I ever cut out was about the introduction of a new type of bullet called ‘Action 3’ for the Dutch police forces in 1987. Actually, I recently cut out another article about a smart bullet that is able to change its course in flight and possibly turn corners. By studying International Relations I turned part of this fascination into expertise which today lies in the field of international drug policy. In my professional career I have focused on this and related research topics ever since but sometimes I too need to be reminded that the line between fascination and obsession is a fine one.

Research needs to be objective and should keep a distance to the object of investigation. It means to put things into perspective and avoid bias and ideology. While analysing why criminals, insurgents or terrorists behave the way they do, it is necessary to refrain from judgmental stances, whether positive or negative. In the field of drug policy, a lot of unbiased research can be found. Most noteworthy is the ideological dichotomy of drug legalisation and prohibition that tends to colour the reasons why certain research is carried out.

In my current research in Colombia I am looking at the development side of counter-narcotics policy. It therefore has more to do with the often quite anonymous coca farmers in rural areas and less with the successors of Pablo Escobar. Yet the news in Colombia continues to be dominated by the new drug lords and the turf wars fought between gangs over control of the illegal drug trade. In the city where I currently work, Medellín, violence is now especially concentrated in the comuna 8, an area of the city where 14 so-called combos (criminal gangs) are fighting a war that resulted in 117 murders last year.

That situation is tragic but fascinating at the same time, given the urgent need to find sustainable solutions to address the root causes of why especially the youth are joining such gangs. Medellín has become known all over the world as a city that has successfully improved public security through urban development. Its Metrocable and outdoor electric stairways in the comuna 13 have attracted worldwide attention as ways to better integrate peripheral neighbourhoods and increase their accessibility. The latter shows that it is not always the bad guys and their criminal activities that grab the headlines.

But even if they do, it can have positive consequences for academic research. If it leads to more solid research and analysis, it  does not matter if students are drawn into these research fields because of their fascination with the bad guys or their criminal activities. As long as we refrain from unhealthy obsession, our fascination can inspire and stimulate knowledge-building of these matters.

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