In 2015 a tranche of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy known as Prevent came in to force. It claims to respond to and grapple with the ideological challenge our society faces from terrorism, and seeks to prevent (hence the name) vulnerable people falling in to bad ways; it is supposed to stop those who have negative thoughts against the state turning them in to negative actions. What it also does is demand of anyone in a public service provision role to be a judge of whether someone seems “dodgy” and to report that person to the police. The requirement covers a wide range of sectors; schools, the NHS, job centres, universities etc and it is this part of it where the problem arises. No one has the skills to be able to tell who is an extremist and who is not. Terrorism experts study for years to try and work out the mind of a potential terrorist, their motivations and drivers, and even they get it wrong much of the time; so how can an hour’s training spent with a (private sector) government course provider possibly get the results the government wants?
Here is a for instance; I am a university librarian, I see a young Asian man, long beard and robes reading a book called Jihad: The Origin of Holy War in Islam – that man is potentially someone who should be reported according to the Prevent agenda. However, that is a real book and it is on real academic reading lists that are teaching real counter-terrorism methods. The man is more than likely reading it as part of his coursework for one of these modules; with a view to perhaps moving into the field of counter-terrorism after his studies have concluded; but I am told I have to assume he is up to no good “to be on the safe side” and “for the greater good”.
Perhaps that sounds far-fetched to you, but I’m afraid it is happening. In February 2015 in Portsmouth, a GCSE student (not even an adult) was reading a school library book on terrorism that was part of the curriculum. The librarian informed the school principle and the principle in turn called the police who then visited the student and his family to question why their son was reading said book. If my experience of school was anything to go by the librarian should have been grateful he/she had a customer at all rather than assuming that customer was engaging in nefarious activities, and plotting some kind of “event”.
It isn’t only teenagers that are at risk of base assumptions too. A refugee child was at a nursery after fleeing his home country with his family from Syria; one of the few lucky ones we allowed in I suppose. The child spoke almost no English at all and was drawing pictures quietly on his own. The keen-eyed -nursery staff spotted that these drawings were of planes dropping bombs; rather than alerting a medical professional to what was clearly some kind of post-traumatic stress, the staff phoned the police, who subsequently questioned members of the family and children independently, raising their voices because the family couldn’t understand what they were being asked; the police officers in question coming from the ‘Allo ‘Allo division I’m thinking. Presumably the authorities believe ISIS has opened some kind of half-arsed YTS scheme aimed at the under 5’s.
Presently an average 60 children a week are referred to the police through the Prevent agenda, of those in the most recent year, out of 2311 child referrals, 352 were aged nine or under. I went to an Irish Catholic school in the 80s; the police never came and asked me my opinions on Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness; teachers we’re expected to work out whether I held deeply sectarian views and threw darts at a picture of William of Orange of a night. It was never assumed I might have been harbouring industrial quantities of Semtex or C4 or that my sketches of soldiers were paramilitaries instead of the poor attempt at a Battle of the Somme artwork we were drawing in art class.
Criminalising children because of nothing more than their racial or religious origins is abhorrent and worse, with regards to the government’s goals, counter-productive. If you target people from a young age they will know nothing other than to mistrust the security services. You will breed in them a level of hatred for authority that can only manifest itself negatively in the years to come; whether that anger is externalised is another matter but by criminalising the banal we are ghettoising the thought process leading to anger and a deep-seated loathing of traditional power structures. Black people still inherently mistrust the police for the years of institutionalised racism; we are creating now an Asian/British mix of people who are slowly being taught to despise all our public services, and view them as areas of society in which they are not welcome. This is exactly how you create terrorists, not how build a culture where they cannot thrive.
As a nation we expect people to look at themselves and be better; but we are unwilling to turn that mirror on ourselves, afraid of what that reflection might show. Our own domestic and foreign policy for decades now has shown people of other races or creeds that they are not welcomed or permitted to be different. We believe our actions in Palestine, Egypt, Iraq etc. have had no effect on the people who trace their origins to these countries; indeed one of the things to look out for explicitly according to Prevent is a pro-Palestinian bias on the subject of the Middle East peace process. A perfunctory reading of one of our tabloids on any given day will show a nation with a deep unease of religious difference, particularly of Muslims; these are the type of stories that used to be told about Jews pre-1940s but still they are written and read as though they were gospel. Do we think people don’t notice these things; and then they are told they don’t integrate; would you want to integrate with people who have shown you time and again you are about as welcome as a vegan at a barbecue?
We must move past this fetish for trying to pre-empt the criminal mind and finding ways of halting its progress that are inclusive as opposed to divisive, that are no longer reductive and see a much wider picture. There will always be crack-pots who utilise something they don’t understand, or a cause they feel narrow affiliation to, to justify their own murderous intent. These people are criminally insane first and foremost, anything else they claim are just the ravings of a lunacy wedded to its own victimhood. But if this is about preventing ideology then why do we keep adding fuel to their dogmatic fire through our own actions both at home and abroad? It is only through accepting and treating people equally from day one that we will defeat terrorism. Terror is man-made through political and societal intolerance, and the solution can only be found in its antonym.