By Ricki Theobald
“See it, say it, sorted” – Though, after having finished my year of studies in London, I sadly had to leave London and Haringey, this slogan still accompanies me. It seems burnt into my mind after having listened to it every morning on my way to university. While I am now walking around in the cold November breeze in Berlin, looking at people hurrying from one place to the next one, the well-remembered words of “if you see something that doesn’t look right, speak to staff or text the British Transport Police” are echoing in my ears like an earworm.
The “see it, say it, sorted”- slogan belongs to a national counter-terrorism campaign and authorities broadcast it several times a day in the British transport system. Always and subconsciously, the slogan reminds us of an allegedly omnipresent threat: potential terrorists might be amongst us – anytime and everywhere. So good citizens have to be alerted and report if there is “something that doesn’t look right” or if “they are somewhere they shouldn’t be”. The question who they are however is left open for interpretation.
Shaping and creating the image of the “threat”
Terror prevention is not only a concern in the UK. One of my dear friends here in Germany, greatly supporting me with my current job search, just sent me a job advertisement: “Didn’t you write about something related to terror prevention?” A click on the job offer reveals a position advertised by a centre for the prevention of extremism in Leipzig, a city in the federal state of Saxony. The main tasks would be to initiate activities and pedagogically accompany a group of young people from “Muslim communities”. I read it again. Muslim communities? One should think that the state’s efforts to prevent extremism in the federal state of Saxony would focus on right-wing-extremism, as racist attacks increased there by over 35% in the last years (The Local 2019). Not to speak of the 28% of the votes for the German right-wing AFD. But – not even close, it seems.
Though so-called threat level evaluations were, at least in the UK, recently changed, now also reflecting the threat from “Northern Ireland, left-wing and right-wing terrorism”, little seems to have changed in what is broadly associated with terrorism. In the UK, it is PREVENT, the government’s counter-terrorism strategy that seems to play a central role in giving an image to the “terror threat”. The strategy calls upon citizens to spot signs of radicalisation amongst their friends, colleagues, clients, patients or students: who might not be a terrorist yet but could be at risk of turning into such in the future? Therefore, the strategy asserts certain “signs of vulnerability” (HM Government 2011: 57) to radicalisation: “vulnerable” to radicalisation are allegedly those who miss a “sense of belonging” or who perceive their “own cultural identity” as conflicting with British identity (HM Government 2011: 17). This does not only pathologise complex identities and reinforces the illusion of somewhat pre-defined, clear-cut identities. It also draws a clear picture: potential terrorists are “the others”. Nonetheless, the strategy claims that “Prevent will address all forms of terrorism” (HM Government 2011: 6). Though, one might have difficulties to find a potential right-wing-terrorist who misses a sense of belonging.
Besides, PREVENT teaches us that “feelings” like “perceived injustice” or “apparent or real discrimination” (HM Government 2011: 17) are to be viewed as signs of vulnerability to radicalisation as terrorist recruiters can easily exploit them (HM Government 2011: 27). Thus, are we all at the edge of becoming a terrorist as we still “perceive” (and at best address) injustice around us? The danger of this explanation is self-evident. It does not only reduce the reality of injustices to perceptions and feelings, it also pathologises criticism, activism and dissent. Are you really talking about injustices? So, we’d better call the police and report you to PREVENT.
See it and say it: the violation of the rights of the marginalised
Let me now take the call to report “what doesn’t look right” seriously:
Muslim students who studied with me tell me about their fear to speak their minds due to PREVENT. The news about cameras in prayer rooms in other universities, the infiltration of emails, or friends who had to leave the class and were interviewed as they said something “critical” have all contributed to a constant feeling of paranoia. “I’m visibly a Muslim, if I talk about Marxism – what’s happening?”, one postgraduate student tells me. Knowing that everybody could potentially report her, an omnipresent fear to say something that might be considered suspicious, made her avoid certain topics in class or even in front of her friends.
I think of the many stories of Muslims or those read as Muslims, stopped, detained and searched at airports under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act. I think of the stories of those detained “indefinitely and without charge”, due to an emergency law that was later judged as incompatible with the Human Rights Act and now replaced by Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures – “still outside of the criminal justice system” (Liberty 2019). Paradoxically, according to PREVENT one ought to understand extremism as “the opposition to fundamental British values”, for example “the rule of law” (HM Government 2011: 34). But what shall we then understand as the “rule of law”? A pressing question, and not only in Britain.
While I am walking around in Berlin with these thoughts in my mind, billboards of a new campaign of the German government confront me at every corner, telling me that “we are a state under the rule of law.” Belonging to a governmental “rule-of-law-advertisement campaign”, they intend to make its citizens remember the values of the constitutional order: “we are innocent until proven guilty”.
Against the background of my Muslim friends feeling scared to voice their opinions, of a European climate of “emergency laws” or, put differently, suspended laws, migrants that are kept from entering safe harbours, the illegalisation of so many people, and the huge denial of what Hannah Arendt (1951: 297) called the “right to have rights” for so many migrants, the campaign seems highly ironic to me. There is no way to be innocent. The opposite is already proven.
“See it and say it” – who is really terrorised? Let us not be blinded and paralysed from promoted fear, an image of a threat shaped by racist policies. Where existential fear, as impressively described in the extract of “passage to a passport” in a previous blog post on this page, is already part of so many people’s daily lives, where “deportation terror” is an everyday threat to so many, we urgently need to engage in the political debate of what “the rule of law” should mean. We need to see and say it radically. Recognise what it is that actually terrorises, point it out, and support those actually threatened, also by such governmental policies as PREVENT.
Arendt, H., 1951. The Origins of Totalitarianism. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York.
HM Government, 2011. “Prevent Strategy”. <<https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/97976/prevent-strategy-review.pdf>> (accessed 13.03.19)
Liberty, 2019. “TPIMS”. <<https://www.libertyhumanrights.org.uk/human-rights/countering-terrorism/tpims >> (accessed 17.11.19)
The Local, 2019. “Racist crime rises sharply in state of Saxony”. <<https://www.thelocal.de/20190307/racist-crime-rises-sharply-in-saxony>> (accessed 17.11.19)