Monday, 19 October 2009

The Block Warden Arrives

None of this is original research, it is something which I read in 'The Guardian' newspaper, but seems to mesh with the developments I have been reading about from different sources ever since Tony Blair came to power in 1997 and particularly since 2001. As we all know, the terrorist attacks by Islamist extremists against the USA in September 2001, unlike previous such attacks, allowed the government of George W. Bush to adopt a policy they termed the 'War on Terror'. Elements of this included supposed justification for the invasion of Afghanistan and of Iraq by US-led alliances and the introduction of authoritarian domestic legislation in the USA and many of its allied states which have severely reduced the civil liberties of citizens of those countries as well as foreigners. Consequently in the 2000s we have seen a ramping up in the use of torture and detainment without charge or trial particularly by the USA and the UK, notably in collaboration with Pakistan. I have written before about how house arrest and 28 days' detention without charge, which in the past would have been totally unacceptable in the UK have become to be seen as the norm, and in fact, by some, as mild measures. Fortunately, the change in government in the USA and the work of the independent judiciary reviewing such steps in the UK has begun rolling back such policies, at least a little.

What is interesting is another element that has come to light in the UK about steps to target those people who are seen as being 'at risk' of becoming extremists, notably males with origins in South Asia. These are seen as the easy representation of Islamist terrorism and such attitudes have helped fuel racist groups and attitudes in the UK. Back in October 2006 and again in November 2008, university lecturers were encouraged to monitor Muslim students and report to the security services if they saw behaviour that was felt to indicate these students were becoming extremist: and Unsurprisingly, given that universities pride themselves on their autonomy and welcoming people from across the world, notably from countries where they face oppression, they were not happy to be told to adopt this spying role:

Parallel to these high profile developments in universities it seems less apparent has been the development of such monitoring at community level. The 'Prevent Violent Extremism' programme, termed 'Prevent' launched in 2006, has received £140 million (€152 million; US$228 million) has aimed at targeting these 'at risk' Muslims, and using language borrowed from the Communist Chinese dictatorship, 'deprogrammed'. As with the university lecturers, the government has set out to recruit community group leaders and workers to being their surveillance force. Those who have expressed a reluctance to do the government's spying have been terrified that they will lose their jobs or face threats from the police and security services themselves. It is becoming apparent that some college teachers are collaborating with the authorities in reporting 'suspects'. However, others are being pressured such as a mental health project in the Midlands and various youth projects across the country. The project is run by the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism and its head, Charles Farr and local leaders of the scheme, are former intelligence officers. The youngest suspect was aged 9 and he was sent for deprogramming.

'Deprogramming' is a term, which in English, is usually associated with helping people who have been rescued from cults to allow them to have a more normal perspective on society and people around them. It is a common way of translating what used to be termed 're-education' in China under Chairman Mao, punishing those, usually with imprisonment and hard labour, who were seen to hold views different from the state or came from a social class that was deemed to be a threat to the state. 'Re-education camps', which still exist in China, most of us would see as being identical to concentration camps (as opposed to extermination camps) of the Nazi German design. 'Deprogramming' is probably a correct term to use, but if this is being imposed on a 9-year old, one has to see it as being very severe. In the UK children do not even have criminal responsibility until the age of 10, one of the lowest ages in the world. So, can a 9-year old even be an 'extremist'? I was speaking to a 7-year old recently who was talking about chopping up girls and eating them, should he simply see a child psychologist or is he a genuine threat to the security of the country? If a child espouses fundamental Christian views and wants people struck down for stealing or coveting their neighbour's wife is he a potential terrorist? If he espouses the Five Pillars of Islam it seems he is much more likely to be seen as one.

Of course, a lot of this, trying to predict future crime, sounds very like something out of a science fiction novel or movie, in particular 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' (1948) in which dissidents are tortured and terrified into accepting without question, the totalitarian regime they are living under. The science fiction nature of this scary policy continues when you read quotations from Ed Husain, head of the Quilliam Foundation (which has received £700,000 from the Prevent fund), believes it is morally right to stop people committing terrorist offences before they occur. This is naturally the role of security services. However, there is a difference between stopping some conspirators who are sitting around assembling bomb making equipment and stopping someone, a child even, who perhaps might some many years into the future think about carrying out terrorist activity. No-one has used the term 'thought police' (from thinkpol in 'Nineteen Eight-Four') in the popular media for many years, but it is effectively what we are now moving towards. Other science fiction that we seem to be basing policing policies on includes 'Minority Report' (novel 1956; movie 2002) in which people with psychic powers are used by the police to predict crimes before they happen and in 'A Philosophical Investigation' (1992) by Philip Kerr in which scientists try to predict which men are going to commit violent crime by studying the lay out of their brains.

The key issue is that the principle of 'innocent until proven guilty' has gone. The principle of 'innocent until plans/commits a crime' has gone. In its place is 'innocent until someone believes that sometime in the future you may commit a crime'. There seems to be no monitoring of the quality of the assumptions about these 'potential' extremists, not even some pseudo-scientific explanation that people with a particular physiology or in specific circumstances are far more certain to commit a crime in the future. It is just a case of someone reporting someone else. As someone who has worked in different parts of the civil service, I know people are being reported on a daily basis. Every mail sack arriving at every job centre or tax office, every working day, has letters reporting people in it. The bulk of these are simply the disgruntled taking it out on the people they do not like the look of, or simply just a random person so they can make themselves appear more important.

Most of the public forgets that the authorities generally have a good idea on what people to target based on a mix of their own experience and own prejudices, generally they do not need help from the public. What involving the public is about, is developing an air of paranoia which helps foster compliance among them, so they do not complain when they have to undress, have their luggage opened in their absence or are searched repeatedly at an airport or when public transport is closed or the road blocks are put up. Paranoia in the UK tends to fade quicker than it does in the USA. I think because the British have faced far more real threats in their recent history than the Americans ever have. We have develop an awareness of genuine and falsified threat and have a natural scepticism which seems less common among Americans, but perhaps, more common among, say, the French, Germans, Spanish and Italians.

Simply thinking about a crime let alone having some vague resentment towards the government, should not be a crime, otherwise they will have to ban all crime novels and series and prevent anyone complaining about the service they receive from the government. Of course, that might be on the cards. What Prevent has helped do, is divide the very communities that policies following the Bradford and Oldham riots of 2001 were supposed to be assisting. It is pressurising more and more public servants in an insidious way to spy for the state.

The Prevent approach also blinkers people. The assumption that young Asian males from particular districts (Prevent currently only works with 82 councils; rising to 94 next year) are the only threat leads lots of 'blind spots' neglecting other threats and terrorism from different groups like the far right and Irish terror groups. That is if you believe, as the government seems to, that extremism leading to terrorism is so pervasive in our society. In the UK, partly due to public apathy, extremist views have never been popular. Even in states like Libya, Syria or Saudi Arabia, Islamist extremists are a small minority.

Of course, security services like to be well funded, so if to get more cash they have to adopt an approach of trying to be pre-emptive and in someone's view stop scores of young people coming terrorists, they are going to go with it, even if they have little faith in the approach. The UK government has got so wrapped up in the Bush myths that it cannot see straight. If terrorism is so widespread why did the UK never face a war over Ireland with the large Irish (869,000 of the UK population were born in Ireland; 6 million have Irish ancestry compared to 1.6 million Muslims) population here? Why was there not extreme left-wing terrorism in the UK in the 1970s when there was in Italy and West Germany? Why was there no neo-Nazi terrorism in the late 1970s? I suppose they would argue that somehow South Asian and/or Muslim young people have different 'mental wiring' to Irish or other white people, but that is not based on any scientific fact at all or the fact that many Muslim states, though facing incidents as the UK has faced, have also not had massive terrorist activity in the way the Prevent method envisages it coming.

I titled this section 'The Block Warden Arrives'. This refers to the role in Germany during the Nazi period (1933-45) though similar positions were used in the Portuguese Colonial War (1961-74) and in Argentina (1976-83). A block warden is a representative of the dominant party/state regime who in Germany oversaw around 40-60 houses and not only spreads propaganda in favour of the regime but monitors that his/her neighbours are complying with the regime's wishes, not simply passively but in an active way. Anyone, in the individual's judgement, who is not complying or without insufficient vigour or that the block warden simply dislikes, is arrested by the secret police and imprisoned/tortured/killed. The example from Argentina which brought the term 'the disappeared' to the world, is probably the model most likely to be adopted in the UK. Most simply people would disappear usually for long-term imprisonment or execution without their families ever knowing what happened to them.

What we are seeing in the UK at present with people reporting Asian neighbours plus the government trying to compel community workers to spy for them is a back door introduction of the block warden approach. Once in a while they may catch someone who is a real threat, but recent evidence shows that even the security services with their high tech equipment have arrested innocent people. Such powers are quickly abused especially by small-minded people who see their personal quirks as issues of national security, so people will be put under suspicion, not because they have any genuine terrorist sympathies but because some neighbour simply dislikes them or they parked in 'their' slot or their children were noisy or something. Such an approach actually wastes the time of the police and security services and creates so much 'traffic' of denunciation and counter-denunciation that it provides good cover for genuine criminals and even terrorists, though of course, their numbers are in fact tiny.

It is clear that more and more British people, often those very individuals who have been working hard to keep their communities in a fit state, are being compelled to work for what is increasingly a state machine aiming to police people's thinking. These people are often reluctant but history has always shown us there are always the 'little Hitlers' who relish such roles and you can imagine the bullyboys of the English Defence League queuing up to become these monitors in their neighbourhoods. I have noted before how local authorities have been abusing anti-terrorist laws to carry out their own agendas often in punishing people for violating (or for being suspected, however wrongly, of trying to violate) local regulations. The Prevent approach is simply giving them yet more abilities for them and even simple members of the public with which to beat the people they do not like in their neighbourhood.

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