Security for the London 2012 Olympics, which will run for three weeks this July, is now set to cost British taxpayers $1.58 billion. According to the British security service, annual leave for its agents has been cancelled, and 3,800 staff will be mobilized for the events. The private security firm G4S – already accused of disproportionately violent responses in some of its other security work – will be tasked with performing the estimated 540,000 security checks on participants and members of the public entering official venues. Surface-to-air missiles will be placed around London, the Royal Navy’s largest ship will be moored in the Thames Estuary with a contingent of Royal Marines on board, and an SAS unit from Hereford will be seconded to London for the duration of the events. Drones will patrol the skies above the Olympic stadium.
If this does not seem pathologically insane to you, it should. Rather than being a rational response to a problem rooted in fact, the London 2012 Olympic Security Operation is in fact emblematic of two major scourges of our time: the increasing “securitization” of public policy and the false belief that true national security is to be achieved by the elimination of all perceived risk.
“Risk” in the national security context is, in practice, almost entirely subjective, and rooted in the murky concept of “suspicion.” According to the Independent, the British Security Service expects the number of reports of “suspicious activity” will rise as the Olympics draw nearer. Group 4S will perform an estimated 540,000 security checks during the games, and the number of arbitrary arrests and detentions is likely to increase.
“Suspicion” is not a scientific concept. It is a sentiment. And it is a sentiment inescapably colored by the prejudices in the mind of the beholder. The Independent cites the case of six Algerian street cleaners who were arrested on the Pope's visit in 2010 after they were overheard allegedly discussing "doing something," but were later released without charge. Indeed, British government statistics from the same year show that non-white people are seven times more likely to be stopped by the police than white people, and that of the tens of thousands of stop and searches performed in the UK, a miniscule 0.02% resulted in a conviction.
These statistics – and an abundance of anecdotal evidence from stop and search victims – are eloquent testimony to the fact that “suspicion” in the counter-terrorism context is very rarely based on rigorous investigation and rational analysis. Indeed, the security services have forewarned that we shouldn’t expect this during the Olympics: While the expected increase in reports of suspicious activity may not turn out to be credible, they say, the “risks entailed in waiting” mean that “in the interests of national security,” they may have to act before thoroughly assessing the risks.
You may have heard this argument before. In fact, it’s one of only two arguments that governments use in the security context. They use it to justify almost everything they want to do, and why what they do should be entirely excluded from the normal rigours and oversight that applies to, well, everything else. It is the same argument that was used to justify transferring hundreds of people from Pakistan to Guantanamo Bay on the basis of nothing but a vague belief that it was somehow suspicious enough for a Muslim to be in the Asian subcontinent at the time that America chose to go to war with neighbouring Afghanistan. It is the same argument that was used to justify the invasion of Iraq, now widely accepted to have been predicated on the false belief, based in turn on false intelligence, that Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs.
That the London 2012 Olympic Games Security Operation is not a wartime scenario is small succor. In fact, this may be what finally defines it as an example of the worst excesses of the war on terror finally transported home, writ large and normalized.
We are all following an idea that national security will only be achieved when risk is completely eliminated, which in turn requires that suspicion – without the moderating limit of a test of “reasonableness” – is banished from the minds of civil servants and policemen. To the extent that we accept this, we are sleepwalking into a paranoiac fantasy of bureaucrats and small-fry drunk on the punch of power, increasingly enabled to unprecedented degrees by advancing technology. Perhaps we are already there.