Author: Ben O'Loughlin (page 2 of 2)

7/7 five years on: Conflicting memories make an official record difficult

Aldgate station plan, London underground

A month into the official inquest into the ‘7/7’ London bombings of July 2005, it is clear that the governmental imperative to arrive at a clear, authoritative and final account of what happened on the day might prove impossible because of the unreliability of human memory. This was an event in which cameraphone footage from the scene was reaching the BBC within 20 minutes of the first of four explosions, and iconic images and memorial rituals were in place within days and weeks. Yet it took police four months to take witness statements and now five years for witnesses to testify in court. It is no wonder that discrepancies emerge. Not unlike 9/11, there are significant differences between sweeping media- and politically-driven narratives of national mourning and the local, particular perspectives of those involved.

An official record would offer some certainty to survivors, grieving relatives, and allow for objective assessment of how well emergency services performed. The inquest must be comprehensive and include as many voices as can offer salient information, it must be precise, and it must offer consensus and closure.  At a symposium, ‘Conflicts of Memory’ at the University of Nottingham last week, my regular co-author Andrew Hoskins, who has been following the inquest, talked about the inconsistencies emerging between individuals’ testimonies and even within individuals’ own accounts. One ambulance worker said he had drawn a diagram of where bodies were in a carriage on the day of 7/7; he now can’t remember where he drew the diagram or even whether it was someone else who drew it for him.
We can see this for ourselves; witnesses’ transcripts and the evidence in court are available online, the kind of transparency our new media ecology makes so easy. For instance, we can compare witness testimonies with visual representations of what they had seen. Survivors must now try to reconcile what they thought had happened with all of the conflicting verbal and pictorial versions being put before the court now.
For Hoskins, it is only by following how, over a long period, events become stretched and extended through complex relations and layers of objects, people and rituals that we can see how consensual memories may be formed. This is not dissimilar to Latour’s argument that law (and science) are merely a set of mediations which enough people can agree to go along with for pragmatic reasons. The result, as with the 7/7 inquest so far, is imperfect. Would it be better for the inquest to settle on a definitive set of technical drawings and edit out inconsistent testimonies in order to reach an official record? This might upset survivors who feel the memory they genuinely hold, and which they have lived with for over five years, has been crossed out as a mistake.
Alternatively, the British state could allow for a loose plurality of often-ambiguous accounts to stand together. There would be costs. But with the testimonies, diagrams and other evidence archived and publicly available online, they could decide to turn it over to the public to make connections and draw conclusions themselves. Inclusive but never definitive: judgement 2.0?
Cross posted from: https://newpolcom.rhul.ac.uk/npcu-blog/ 
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BBC spy miniseries upsets China, but how real is it? Let’s play Spooks bingo!

The BBC has offended the Chinese government because its primetime show Spooks (Mi5 in North America) has depicted Chinese intelligence agents in an unflattering light, reported here and here in the last few days. The plot saw MI5 trying to prevent an ‘ethnic weapon’ falling into Chinese hands, with much chasing around London and a few sinister and, perhaps, stereotypically Chinese baddies (judge for yourself in the Guardian screenshot here). 
As somebody who has written about Spooks and the war on terror (Chapter 7 of this), only to meet gentle mockery from my students, colleagues and indeed co-author, I can only say thank you to the Chinese government for suggesting Spooks is significant; that representations of international politics make a difference to international politics; enough of a difference to kick up a diplomatic rumpus.

But how much do the threats represented in Spooks match the priorities and intelligence of British defence and security agencies? One way to find out is to look at the threats listed in Britain’s latest National Security Strategy, just out, and see what happens in the next series of Spooks in 2011. That’s right, its time to tick off the threats as they appear, and you can play along at home or on BBC i-player. Here are threats, ranked into three tiers:
National Security Strategy: Priority Risks
Tier One: The National Security Council considered the following groups of risks to be those of highest priority for UK national security looking ahead, taking account of both likelihood and impact.
• International terrorism affecting the UK or its interests, including a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attack by terrorists; and/or a significant increase in the levels of terrorism relating to Northern Ireland.
• Hostile attacks upon UK cyber space by other states and large scale cyber crime. • A major accident or natural hazard which requires a national response, such as severe coastal flooding affecting three or more regions of the UK, or an influenza pandemic.
• An international military crisis between states, drawing in the UK, and its allies as well as other states and non-state actors.
Tier Two: The National Security Council considered the following groups of risks to be the next highest priority looking ahead, taking account of both likelihood and impact. (For example, a CBRN attack on the UK by a state was judged to be low likelihood, but high impact.)
• An attack on the UK or its Oversees Territories by another state or proxy using chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) weapons.
• Risk of major instability, insurgency or civil war overseas which creates an environment that terrorists can exploit to threaten the UK.
• A significant increase in the level of organised crime affecting the UK.
• Severe disruption to information received, transmitted or collected by satellites, possibly as the result of a deliberate attack by another state.
Tier Three: The National Security Council considered the following groups of risks to be the next highest priority after taking account of both likelihood and impact.
• A large scale conventional military attack on the UK by another state (not involving the use of CBRN weapons) resulting in fatalities and damage to infrastructure within the UK.
• A significant increase in the level of terrorists, organised criminals, illegal immigrants and illicit goods trying to cross the UK border to enter the UK.
• Disruption to oil or gas supplies to the UK, or price instability, as a result of war, accident, major political upheaval or deliberate manipulation of supply by producers.
• A major release of radioactive material from a civil nuclear site within the UK which affects one or more regions.
• A conventional attack by a state on another NATO or EU member to which the UK would have to respond.
• An attack on a UK overseas territory as the result of a sovereignty dispute or a wider regional conflict.
• Short to medium term disruption to international supplies of resources (e.g. food, minerals) essential to the UK. (HM Government, 2010: 27)
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After Wikileaks; or, the next phase of Diffused War

In Diffused War, Andrew Hoskins and I argued we’ve entered a new paradigm of warfare. The wikileaks stories seem to confirm much of this account. War is mediatized, we wrote, as the institutions of war and those affected by war take a form governed by continual media recording, display and archiving. This creates diffuse causal relations between action and effect, since mediatization can amplify or contain the cognitive and emotional response any action generates in ways not dependent on the initial action itself. Militaries, NGOs, insurgents, journalists – none can predict the outcomes of their actions or the display of their actions. US and UK military practitioners did not envisage their communications going public, but their institutions allowed those records to exist. And as my Duck colleague Charli Carpenter notes, they’ve started shredding documents. This is to counter the greater uncertainty now faced by those conducting war. While who sees what, when, and where is usually largely controlled (most people still rely on mainstream media), the potential for surprises is permanent and unavoidable, such that the worst case must always be built into decision-making.



In contrast to the splutterings of military chiefs, for my students wikileaks is already the norm. So what should we expect to see next? Where might novelty lie? Let’s take a risk and look briefly at some ideas in contemporary art, which has long dealt with mediatization and how it reconfigures human relationships and our ideas of the image and representation. Nicolas Bourriaud recently wrote that, in our ‘control+S’ culture of instant archiving of all political and social life, ‘an insistence on the “here and now” of the artistic event and a refusal to record it are a challenge to the art world’.  What is notable now is what goes unrecorded or is not made public. He discusses Brian de Palma’s 2003 Iraq war film Redacted, which pieces together soldiers’ blogs, cameraphone footage and other media from the war to produce a style of ‘organized proliferation’ that is now common in TV and movies generally. Pushed to its limit, Bourriaud suggests, ‘the degree of spatial (and imaginary) clutter is such that the slightest gap in its chain produces a visual effect’. In other words, we now expect the depiction of war to amalgamate several media recording technologies, a chain of styles, textualities and episodes edited into any single news summary or Hollywood movie. And if a gap occurs, something is wrong. If no citizen-generated content emerges, that is surprising. If footage from the helicopter gunship’s point of view is absent from the news report, and we now know such a perspective is continually recorded, then at least a few members of the audience might begin to ask why there’s no footage. 


We’d expect the next phase of military media management to employ the full range of textual styles to which audiences are now accustomed. Its a question of credibility, and studies show audiences are far more savvy than military practitioners assume. With that in mind, instead of shredding documents and looking like you’ve something to hide, perhaps a truly pre-emptive PR agent would deliberately create a full, convincing range of leaks for wikileaks such that a controlled version of the worst is already on show. It would then appear there are no surprising gaps. 

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Too many bodies? Communicating the population question

The question of human over-population of our planet seems to resurface every few decades, driven by fears that there are too many people to feed, clothe and shelter, or that the sheer volume of human beings working, travelling and polluting is causing environmental damage. But the persuasiveness of such claims is weakened empirically and normatively. In terms of facts, it does not help the over-population claimants that every time the population question is raised, humanity seems to deal with the problem. People do find food, clothing and shelter. And in terms of values, the notion of limiting or reducing the number of human beings appears a slippery slope to calls for coercion and perhaps eugenics in the name of ‘the greater good’. But in 2010 the question is being asked again.

At Royal Holloway last night, Professor Diana Coole presented early analyses from her new three year project, Too many bodies? The politics and ethics of the world population question. She is interested in why the question is re-emerging now and why it is in developed countries that calls are loudest for something to be done, according to her analysis of media and policy documents. Size of world population seems to have causal links to the development of climate change, water and food security, managing waste, and preserving diversity. The Royal Society’s working group People on the Planet raises this explicitly, as did the Stern Report – though neither recommended any proposals to intervene in human population numbers. As Coole argued, the tools we have for managing demography – fertility, mortality and migration – are all political minefields. Governments quietly manage birthrates through tax and welfare regimes and campaigns on family planning, but few policymakers in liberal democracies would explicitly institute a one-child or two-child policy for families.
It is interesting that Coole, a critical theorist in the continental tradition, should be asking why the population question remains a taboo. Materiality, vital matter, the non-human and post-human futures have all been on the critical theory agenda recently, in IR and more broadly. People are not the only things that matter. This scholarly focus parallels public-political claims for ‘sustainability’ in which the maintenance of ecosystems are considered more pressing than the continuation of humanity and certainly more pressing than economic growth. Might it be that a new strategic narrative will be formed and brought to bear on policy, a ‘smaller, better humanity’ narrative? Population projection statistics are ambiguous and can easily be used to support Malthusian stories. And Coole’s project may unpick the factual and normative discourses that silence talk of the population question, so that the better-smaller narrative — if that is what is being formulated — can be heard.


(Cross-posted from https://newpolcom.rhul.ac.uk/npcu-blog/)

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A gulf in understanding?

Last week I participated in a workshop at the Al Jazeera Center for Studies in Doha, Qatar, which brought to an end the ESRC’s Radicalisation & Violence programme of research projects, led by Prof. Stuart Croft. I was one of several researchers invited to present recent research on ‘terrorism, resistance and radicalisation’. My fledgling experience of academia has thus far been that debates rarely get politicised. It is noteworthy when it happens, triggering a visceral thrill or horror as we depart from our scripts of professional civility. The Radicalisation & Violence programme has been politicised from the outset. Anthropologists and sociologists were unhappy that researchers might apply to carry out fieldwork in dangerous regions, that the FCO was offering some funding towards the programme and hence it was ‘state-sponsored’ to an extent (although so is the ESRC), and nobody carrying out research could be unaware that in the UK in the 2000s people at universities were being arrested for having ‘radical’ material on their computers, even if they were carrying out legitimate research. It is no surprise, then, that the concluding event retained this political edge. Talking about terrorism in this particular region could not be otherwise.

The event was a success, but I came away with two reservations. The first concerns the possible failure of Anglophone security studies to find ways to engage with the rest of the world in ways that don’t come across as dominating. Croft has written about this himself recently (chapter in here), noting that ‘interdependence’ is a concept we in elite universities in North America, Europe or S.E. Asia might be comfortable with, but might seem threatening to others. Our research might contribute to the very problems of international conflict and cooperation it seeks only to explain. Sure enough, in Doha the Arabic professors consistently argued that the migration of Western terms like ‘terrorism’ and ‘radicalisation’ is itself aggressive, a continuation of colonial practices. ‘They begin in English dictionaries but are applied in Arabic countries’, said one participant. And the fact that ‘we’ don’t provide clear definitions is an act of power: ‘The vagueness is deliberate. They [Western academics] want to hold in their hands what is legitimate’, said another. Western academics will define terrorism to suit our states’ interests. From this perspective, perhaps, for us ESRC-funded researchers to go to Doha and use such terms was an affront.
We can easily contest these claims. How can ‘they’ so lazily conflate Western researchers with their national governments? How can anyone expect a consensual definition of terms that are political and essentially contested? But at the same time, do we have a duty to discuss politics and security in other discourses? How can all parties translate and recognise each other’s vocabularies, histories, and problem framings? Without some thought about this, a space is created for pointless misunderstanding and mutual aggravation.
And it’s in this space, marked by the lack of shared terms and meanings, that my second concern emerges. Misconceptions about ‘the West’ were used so routinely, by individuals who could be considered opinion leaders in Arabic media, individuals who are familiar enough with life in North America or Europe to know that these are misconceptions, but who continue to perpetuate them in a manner that reifies the notion of a war between Islam and the West. As mild instances, the notions that ‘Westerners burn Qurans’ and ‘the West is Islamophobic’ were raised several times. A colleague pointed out, if you try to burn a Quran in the UK you will quickly be arrested, and if a person or institution discriminates on religious or ethnic grounds then legal proceeding should kick in. This is not to say Islamophobia doesn’t exist, but that it can be challenged and is challenged. Everyday multiculturalism has survived the war on terror. And does it make sense to even talk of ‘the West’ now anyway? Well, from those outside it, who feel on the receiving end of ‘Western’ action, it seems so. But there is a danger of explaining the world through Orientalism and finding the world is Orientalist.
These reservations aside, such events are a useful platform for overcoming mutual blind spots and only highlight the need for more engagement. 
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Cyber warfare and legal responsibility: drifting further apart?

Two cyber warfare trends are catching the eye, but both raise the same major question. First, cyber attacks have been democratised in recent years because of social media and easy to use denial of service attack (DDoS) tools. Popular armies have returned, made up not of a mass of bodies charging, a Clausewitzian centre of gravity on a field, but constituted by curious and enthusiastic citizens on the internet. As William Merrin argued at a keynote in 2009, security has been crowdsourced. US officials set up webcams along the Mexico border so that citizens can sit at leisure and watch for shadowy figures moving through the desert (and they do watch). Other national leaders have encouraged citizens to launch DDoS attacks against strategic targets. Sometimes, ordinary people just feel the urge to participate without any guidance, for instance the ‘Help Israel win’ group of students who targeted Hamas in the 2008-09 Gaza conflict. If thousands or even millions of people act collectively this way, where does legal responsibility lie for any harm caused? Is there legal responsibility for encouraging people to participate? Are people using digital media today out of patriotic gusto in ways that will later incriminate them?

Second, news media have reported a new super-cyber-weapon this week, the first digital nuke, apparently capable of destroying real-world objects. Previous malware just shut down systems or stole data. Once this new piece of malware touches a digital system (e.g. through a USB stick) the malware itself secretly takes control of the system, and can make it destroy whatever it is managing – a bank, a nuclear plant, whatever you can imagine. The designer can tell it what to target, but thereafter the software does its own thing. In terms of responsibility, whoever funds, designs and delivers such a weapon would seem the locus of responsibility. But not many nations have the expertise to detect such software. Successful attacks would just seem like industrial mishaps. Expect reports of mystery explosions near you (especially if you live in Iran).

Where does this leave international law? We’ve caught up with World War II and the regulation of mass armies and nukes. Who has the technical expertise, political will and diplomatic savvy to draw up laws for a world of crowdsourced armies and weaponized software?

(Cross posted from the New Political Communication Unit blog)
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