Wednesday 11 August 2010

Fearing everyone and everything

This blog is normally about history, so apologies for the interruption in service. But I came across a news story today that made me feel angry.

[There are, of course, many things in this world to get upset about. China and Pakistan are currently suffering vast human tragedies, caused by natural disasters. When I've finished writing this blog, I will donate something to, in the hope that it helps. All the same, I'm still angry.]

I'm feeling angry about a radio advertisement.You can read the news story it's generated here: and here:

In short, it's a public information broadcast, that has been playing on the popular radio channel 'Talk Sport':

"The following message is brought to you by Talk Sport and the Anti-Terrorist Hotline. The man at the end of the street doesn't talk to his neighbours much, because he likes to keep himself to himself. He pays with cash because he doesn't have a bank card, and he keeps his curtains closed because his house is on a bus route. This may mean nothing, but together it could all add up to you having suspicions. We all have a role to play in combating terrorism. If you see anything suspicious, call the confidential, Anti-Terrorist Hotline ... if you suspect it, report it."

The Advertising Standard Authority have banned this advert, but they have allowed the following advert to go ahead: 

"The man two desks down from you at work looks at online aerial photos, because he’s thinking of moving house, he rents three lock-ups, full of his mother's things he just can't throw out, he paid for a flight with cash, but that's because he's a spontaneous kind of guy. This may mean nothing, but together it could all add up to you having suspicions ..."

Ok, full marks to the ASA for banning the first advert. They had complaints. Good. Thank God for that. The second one is obviously detailing much more suspicious behaviour; and it is much more reasonable.

Except, of course, it isn't.

Ever looked at aerial photos at work? I sometimes look at Google Maps because, well, frankly, it's just quite cool to see London from the air, isn't it?

Have a lock-up? No, not personally. My next-door neighbour does, though. I wonder if she ever looks at aerial-photos? Why three lock-ups? Would two of them be ok?

Ever paid for things in cash? Not often, but my dad used to pay for everything in cash. He owned a cash-based business and mistrusted computers. Fortunately, he doesn't have a lock-up, so he's safe. And he's my dad.

So that's ok then, right?

No, it's not.

In fact, if you look at the Met Police site, you'll see that some if their 'spot a terrorist' things are quite reasonable ... weird purchases of chemicals in bulk etc. Some, however, are quite barmy:

Suitcase - Terrorists need to travel. Meetings training and planning can take place anywhere. Do you know someone who travels but is vague about where they are going?

Now, I suspect a significant proportion of the married men in this country are vague about their 'business trips'. But - I've got news for you, MI5 - they're not visiting that seedy motel on the A1 with Keisha from Accounts to ferment global terror.

You might argue, of course, that I'm being frivolous here. We have been bombed and attacked, after all. None of these individual things are sufficient grounds for 'suspicion', but the public must use its judgment. The Anti-Terrorist Hotline is there to provide clues and hints for the interested and vigilant member of civil society, no?

I disagree. I think we have a security service that is paid to track terrorism; that the clear and tangible signs of someone being a terrorist (if such signs do exist) are the ones that can be traced - frequent visits to extremist websites; frequent, unusual or large purchases of chemicals; contacts with known terrorists. All these things might be grounds for suspicion. Anything else, the 'vigilance' demanded of the public, is both impossible to comply with, and highly corrosive, generating an atmosphere of fear and distrust.

If I took all the advice above, and applied it to my neighbours, I'd guess that 50% of Hackney would be 'suspicious' - should I get on the phone immediately?

Some will argue that those adverts - adverts which encourage me to spy on my neighbours, to constantly view normal examples of behavior through a lens of suspicion - are justified if one terrorist is caught. I'm not convinced by that.  I can understand why a policeman or member of the security services might view people that way; but that's their job.

I don't want to spy for the state; and I don't want my neighbours to spy on me. Not because I have anything to hide; not because I have entrenched political views; but because I want to live in a society where I am not fearful of everyone and everything.

If the people who put together these adverts can't understand that - if they can't understand the consequences of fermenting such suspicion among everyone in our society - if we have to rely on the Advertising Standards Agency to safeguard us against collective paranoia - then we are lost.


  1. Good luck catching terrorists using those criteria. Following that description you'd be more likely to catch Doctor Who.

  2. The police should probably check all lock-ups, once in a while, just like school lockers. I mean, if you have nothing to hide, how can you object? And instigate random searches of our homes, etc etc etc.

    Of course, I just gave some money to the Pakistan earthquake appeal. Now, some Pakistanis are terrorists; and I send funds abroad ... shit, who's that at the door?

  3. I think you *should* report all so-called suspicious behavior. Flood their hotlines. Particularly if you see any government officials acting suspiciously.

  4. I do wonder why a dedicated hotline is needed, at all. Given we are repeatedly told that people phone 999 for the most spurious of reasons, couldn't they handle the terrorist calls, or - at least - forward them elsewhere?

    Do people really think: "Ah, I've uncovered a terrorist living next door, but - hang on - I would be a bit embarrassed to talk to the regular police about this ... I can only talk to Sandra in the dedicated call-centre ..."

    As for flooding hotlines, I fear there is the minor matter of the offence of 'wasting police time' ...

  5. I think this all comes down to the government getting us to secretly work for them - I know this sounds insane, but just this week they have invited us to call a hotline if we suspect that someone is a benefits cheat.

    After 7/7, anyone who was asian and travelling on the tube with a back-pack could be virtually guaranteed a carriage to themselves because they were suddenly terrorists. Adverts such as these do not promote vigilance, they promote snooping. All the things listed above cannot be found out by vigilance - you don't just "observe" that someone rents three lock-ups.
    That said, nothing surprises me about a government that uses anti-terrorism laws to ensure parents are not sending their children to schools outside catchment areas, and puts microchips in wheelie-bins to monitor the kind of rubbish certain groups of people discard.

  6. Following 9/11, the media were flooded with dire warnings from spokespersons of various shadowy organizations that there would definitely be terrorist outrages perpetrated in Britain. As time passed without the predicted storm of attacks, the public gradually calmed down and became harder to excite.

    The security organizations had to fall back on asserting that they were tracking dozens of terrorist cells and had prevented dozens of attacks, assertions that were unprovable because, of course, they could not give us any details... for security reasons.

    The public is beginning to realize that either the security people are doing a brilliant job in detecting and stopping clever terrorist groups planning to carry out atrocities or... there aren't clever terrorist groups planning to carry out atrocities. Somehow, then, the security forces have to justify their continued interference in our lives by trying to make us think we are in continuous grave danger.

    Making us all suspicious of one another is, on the face of it, a good way of doing that. To the paranoid, everyone is suspicious.

    However, as I go about London - surely the place where, if there is going to be paranoid fear of terrorism, it would be most noticeable - I see little fear or concern. Add to this the fact that the powers granted to the police and local authorities under the Terrorism Act have been widely misused (i.e. applied in cases where there is no question of terrorism), I think all this posturing on the part of the security forces has come to be regarded with amused contempt.

    That is not a reason not to complain about it, of course. The more we complain, the more pressure will be generated for them to justify their activities and the more hollow their claims will be seen to be.

    The first step was to get rid of the control freak Labour government and now we must keep up the momentum and get the snoopers' noses out of our lives.

  7. I agree with you and confess that I do have hopes that Cameron believes more in individual freedoms than Blair or Brown ever did. He's yet to be tested, mind you; fingers crossed.