You can stir up fear – just don’t cause offence
The banning of a police ad on the dangers of terrorism exposes the schizophrenia of Britain’s ‘war on terror’.
Listeners to the UK-based radio station Talksport must be in something of a quandary. Do I tell the police about taciturn Trevor down the road hoarding industrial amounts of fertiliser in his lock-up? Or do I complain to the nice quangocrats at the Advertising Standards Agency that the police have made me suspect everybody of being a terrorist? And that includes Trevor, whose love of his allotment is matched only by his love of solitude. Such is the strange but telling situation created by the decision of the ASA to ban a police anti-terrorism advert.
Commissioned by the Association of Chief Police Officers, the short radio ad was, admittedly, a masterpiece of it’s-always-the-quiet-ones nonsense. What about the man at the end of the street who doesn’t talk much ‘because he likes to keep himself to himself’, a calm but firm voice intones. You know, the one ‘who pays with cash because he doesn’t have a bank card’. Yes, him, the one who ‘keeps his curtains closed because his house is on a bus route’. Taken together, listeners were told, these behaviours might be indicative of terrorist activity. ‘We all have a role to play in combating terrorism. If you see anything suspicious, call the confidential, Anti-Terrorist Hotline on 0800 XXXXXX. If you suspect it, report it.’
Right on cue, 10 people suspected the advert, and then reported it to the ASA on the grounds that it was offensive to those who might actually behave like the person depicted in the advert but are not considering blowing up Tiger Tiger night club. And to be fair, there are probably quite a few. Justifying its decision to uphold the complaints of the painfully shy, the photosensitive and the cash-carrying, the ASA stated: ‘We considered that the ad could also describe the behaviour of a number of law-abiding people within a community and we considered that some listeners, who might identify with the behaviours referred to in the ad, could find the implication that their behaviour was suspicious, offensive.’ Eager to ensure that impulsive sneaks did not feel left out, the ASA also took into account the feelings of those who might ‘be offended by the suggestion that they report members of their community for acting in the way described’.
There are of course plenty of reasons to oppose such an insidious piece of state propaganda. It reinforces the idea that suspicion of others is completely normal, that mundane appearances conceal murderous intent. And in doing so, it attempts to turn us into snooping, pant-draw-raiding vehicles of the state, riding roughshod over any notion of privacy – and it does all this by needlessly exacerbating what the state would claim it is attempting to allay: namely, the fear of terrorism.
However, to oppose the advert on grounds of offence, and to call in the ASA to squash it, means that genuine reasons to argue against the ad are left to one side. This approach suggests no substantial disagreement with the fear-fostering content of the ‘war on terror’, just a problem with the form in which it appears. The ASA is really just telling the state to be a bit more sensitive.
What is curious about this intra-state telling off, this intra-elite etiquette lesson, is that the ad itself did at least appear to be in keeping with the harum-scarum tenor of contemporary anti-terrorism. Back in 2005, for instance, the police’s war on unattended bags and/or nefarious activity in garages employed the same tag line as its most recent effort: ‘If you suspect it, report it.’ ‘The focus [of the campaign]’, a spokesman said at the time, ‘is to encourage the public to be vigilant and to contact police with any suspicions’. Which is exactly the aim of the recent aborted campaign.
And of course it hasn’t just been the police trying to ramp up the fear levels. In 2007, the MI5’s Joint Terrorism Analysis centre felt the need to announce that the terrorist threat was very, very real. This was because one al-Qaeda operative had apparently boasted that he was planning an attack on ‘a par with Hiroshima and Nagasaki’ in an attempt to ‘shake the Roman throne’. Such words, while they might have definitely been a feat of geo-historical metaphor, are of course not reason enough to alarm the public. Still, alarming the public, encouraging us to see terrorist ambition behind every forgotten bag or cardless shopping transaction, seems to have been sufficient reason to continue making terrifying public statements and gestures.
As recently as January this year, then home secretary Alan Johnson was busily celebrating MI5’s decision to raise the terror threat to severe: ‘We still face a real and serious threat to the UK from international terrorism, so I would urge the public to remain vigilant and carry on reporting suspicious events to the appropriate authorities, and to support the police and security services in their continuing efforts to discover, track and disrupt terrorist activity.’
Yet now the ASA censures the police for doing what it and other branches of the state have been doing for the past 10 years. What’s a citizen to do? To be suspicious or not to be suspicious? To view members of the local community as the bringers of atrocity or as… well, members of the local community? The fact that ASA has partially allowed these questions to exist is revealing. Beneath the apparent consensus, then, the ‘war on terror’ is shown to be incoherent, inconsistent; it captures an image of the state eager to engender fear and loathing in one moment and preserve community relations in the next.
This is not an indication that the anti-terrorism campaign is evolving or becoming more nuanced. Rather it touches upon the contradictions inherent to the ‘war on terror’, a war waged not against a specific activity, but against a collective state of mind. For the state, in seeking to manage public fears, in seeking to appear to be doing something about them, has systematically reinforced them. It has cultivated fear by dedicating itself to its management. And in doing so, it hasn’t just fostered people’s suspicion of others, but – as the ad ban shows – it is also in the process of managing it.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.