All My Little Words

Zero Dark Thirty – Tortured Logic

Posted in Foreign Policy, Human Rights, Media, Politics, Rage by nickchristian on February 19, 2013

After a couple of aborted attempts I finally managed to see Kathyn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty at the weekend. While perhaps not quite the equal of its Oscar-winning predecessor, The Hurt Locker, it’s nevertheless a remarkable piece of cinema, deftly depicting an extremely complicated chronology of the real life events which culminated in the death of Osama Bin Laden in May 2011.

One of the things I love most about Bigelow’s films – certainly these last two – is the way she presents location as a catalyst of tension: taking the focus off character scenes are frequently preluded with gloriously wide shots of the mountainous Khyber or tighter, lingering glances through a bustling Pakistani market; several seconds longer than others might dare and accompanied only by a natural background bustle. It’s not that something will happen, but that anything could; when the audience is so familiar with the nuts and bolts of the story this is quite a feat.

Jessica Chastain as Maya, the CIA operative at the centre of the hunt for America’s most wanted, is extremely plausible – certainly more so than Homeland’s Carrie, supposedly based on the same individual – as she doggedly, and arguably coldly, pursues her quarry. While her superiors might challenge Bin Laden’s strategic significance to the war on terror, Maya goes hard not home and it comes as no surprise when she get what she wants.

Nevertheless, as impressively as Bigelow presents the “where” and the “who”, this is a film driven by the “how”, and it is this “how” that has provoked the shitstorm of controversy. Amongst them Glenn Greenwald has said that Zero Dark Thirty “glorifies torture by depicting it as crucial to getting bin Laden” while philosopher Slavoj Žižek states that the film depicts the “normalization” of such methods, analogous with their endorsement. There are numerous others out there like them but these two seem to me to represent the main schools of objection to the film. Falling very much within my wheelhouse, having seen the film – unlike Greenwald before he had his say – I can’t help but engage with the critique.

In my view Zero Dark Thirty does:

Suggest that torture can elicit truthful information that sometimes amounts to useful intelligence.

At the same time however, the film does not:

Depict torture in a morally neutral way.

The first of these forms the basis for Greenwald’s objections. Unfortunately, as difficult and distasteful as it might be for many of its opponents to acknowledge, subjecting someone to torture in order to get them to reveal useful information will – sometimes – do just that. Reduce someone to a powerless, helpless, subhuman state and there’s a fair chance that, if they know something, they’ll give it up.

Sometimes they won’t, of course.

Sometimes, even if they don’t have what’s being demanded of them, they’ll likely want to say something – anything – that might make the pain stop. It might be a lie, deliberately delivered to mislead and misdirect, to waste time for and to buy it. It also might be the truth, but not a new truth as far as the intelligence agents are concerned, rather something that they’ve already picked up, or could pick up, somewhere, or from someone, else, in some other way. Because there is always some other way.

Some other way might require more patience, more energy, more money or more luck but it will not require that someone, as Žižek correctly characterizes it, “forsake his or her soul”. But what Žižek seems to conclude is that either no soul is shown to be sacrificed in the making of this movie or that only one is and that’s okay, because she gets her man in the end.

The truth is torture cannot be depicted in a neutral way and if it is, then what’s being depicted isn’t torture at all. Thankfully the interrogation scenes are brutal as they ought to be: no shot conceals; no cut is premature; every close-up is agony. We are also told nothing of who this man is or what he might have done to find himself in a CIA black site and see him only as helpless, hopeless, and terrified. The worst of the worst? Hardly.

For further evidence of the immoral weight of torture remember that the New York Times for a long while avoided using the term entirely, opting instead for such grim Orwellian euphemisms as “enhanced” or “intense” interrogation. Yet Mark Boal’s script twice reaches for the correct term – one instance of which sits atop this post – and does so pointedly enough to tell us what the film’s authors think about it. Make no bones about it, Slavoj, there’s nothing “normal” going on here.

Greenwald’s fear is that by showing torture as even loosely effective, Kathryn Bigelow serves to justify its practical utility. What he and Žižek both seem to forget is that morality is far more robust than that: if they allow the debate to become about the extent to which torture works – implying that it can be justified or supported if it works 100% of the time or a majority, or occasionally – then it’s the left that has made the moral concession, not the right. Just as murder is murder, torture is torture and Zero Dark Thirty is a very good film.

Droning On

Posted in Foreign Policy, Human Rights, Politics by nickchristian on June 17, 2012

Much has been made recently of the existence of Barack Obama’s “kill list” and his use of unmanned “drone” aircraft to eliminate America’s hard-to-reach enemies. “George W. Bush on steroids” was the label, coined by Aaron David Miller, to which The Guardian took a particular liking.

The idea that this seemingly smart, likeable, liberal (surely?), black* president should occasion to order the extra-judicial targeted killings of suspected terrorists by pilotless bomber planes flying at 50,000 feet is, to so many, a disturbing cognitive contradiction and represents, to the Guardianistas, a deep betrayal of the messianic expectation that they felt they had invested in him four years ago. Never mind the fact that it was all projection – they saw the word “change”, combined it with “black” and “democrat” and arrived at “utopia”.

What were they expecting?

Change means “different” and can also mean “better”, but “change” is not synonymous with “transformation” or with “immediate”; for while the position of president of the USA arguably makes the holder the most powerful individual in the world, it is not a role without constraints. The individual elected to the presidency, while he has the power to shape the office over time, is not afforded carte blanche over policy and does not get to start the job from scratch. As distasteful as a new president might find them, many of the policies bequeathed to him by his predecessor must be taken on and “owned”. For Obama this meant operational responsibility for the Global War On Terror.

Yes, that old favourite. While the term might have been rendered obsolete – legally it was always on shaky ground, not that that mattered much to the Bush administration – from a military and policy perspective, it is still very much being fought.

Because 9/11 really did change everything. That was what the hawkish right, as they thumped their war drums, insisted at the time and what many “intelligent” lefty doves decried as propaganda and opportunism. I myself wrote five years ago that the Bush administration was not confronted with a “new paradigm” but constructed one – that it could not be deconstructed upon Bush’s departure is a disappointment but should not be a surprise.

What Obama’s drones proves is that the right were right, even as their prophecies were self-fulfilling. While occupations can be ended and wars scaled back there could be no question of Obama deprioritizing the threat of Islamic fundamentalist extremism – from a domestic political standpoint this would have been tantamount to treason, while the amount of money at stake means defense industry lobby groups and their chosen congressional candidates would take up arms, so to speak, to resist anything more than a modest reduction in budget. For whomever occupies the Oval Office, now and for the foreseeable future, the number one foreign policy priority is and will be the prevention of another 9/11.

The only variable is what tactics the occupant chooses to employ.

And so, to the drones.

Airborne bombings are not nice – their purpose, as almost any tool of war, is to end life – but they are not radically worse than any other traditional projectile weapon and are, in fact, better than many. It’s true that a bomb dropped from eight miles high, on a house or camp in North West Pakistan does not discriminate between civilian and terrorist or between man, woman and child, but it is somewhat more targeted that any one of the thunderstorm of cruise missiles that constituted the shock and awe phase of attacks on Iraq in 2003. As a further comparator, the NATO airstrikes on Yugoslavia in 1999 caused the accidental deaths of at least five hundred civilians as (amongst other things) a bus, a Belgrade hospital and the Chinese embassy were all hit.

Those that charge that unmanned drones reduce warfare to a computer game, distancing the soldier from his target and from the consequences of the weapon he’s just fired, have obviously never seen a tank, a rifle, a bow and arrow, or a catapult. I bet they’ve never thrown a stone in anger either. Every advance in the technology of warfare has served the same purpose and drone aircraft, rather than marking a radical departure, represents just the latest.

Do I believe that Obama enjoys playing judge, jury and executioner over the fates of these men and their families? No. He does it because it’s part of the spec of the role he signed up for. That he has designated himself the principal signatory of the “kill list” is not, it seems to me, indicative of bloodlust but of a sense of sovereign responsibility – the same responsibility that Bush and his cronies refused to take as it denounced the few “bad apples” – and a will to safeguard and minimize the number of instances of such extralegal executions. Unlike Bush, I suspect causing the deaths of civilians, women and children does give Obama moral pause.

I do not want to act as an apologist for President Obama, to endorse or make excuses for him. I don’t think that drone attacks on the sovereign territory of another state are legal and they’re certainly not desirable, but they are different to and better, truly, than many of the alternatives. Obama would, I suspect, prefer to be able rely on the Pakistanis, Yemenis and Somalis (to name but three feeble or failed states) to apprehend terrorist suspects but that option is seldom available to him to any satisfactory degree. Until it is, “better” is the best we can hope for.

At full time in his presidency Bush had invaded two countries; was directly responsible for the overthrow of two sovereign governments; opened an island prison camp designed to be a “legal black hole”; instituted a program of the extraordinary abduction and systemic torture of terrorist suspects in CIA “black” sites. Under Obama’s administration one of those aforementioned invasions has ended, while the other is drawing down; extraordinary rendition has been paired back, if not abandoned entirely; CIA black sites have been closed and the torture policy ended. Although domestic politics ultimately stymied Obama’s efforts to close Guantanamo Bay, signing the executive order to do so was indeed amongst his first acts upon entering the Oval Office.

How is this not different? How is it not better?


Andrew Sullivan, not someone I normally find myself agreeing with, has similarly come to the defence of drones:

 if you’d asked me – or anyone – in 2001 whether it would be better to invade and occupy Afghanistan and Iraq to defeat al Qaeda, or to use the most advanced technology to take out the worst Jihadists with zero US casualties, would anyone have dissented? And remember the scale of civilian casualties caused by the Iraq war and catastrophic occupation: tens of thousands of innocents killed under American responsibility for security. The awful truth of war is that innocents will die. Our goal must be to minimize that. Compared with the alternatives, drones kill fewer innocents.

Of course, we need to be incredibly careful to limit civilian casualties even further. Counting every military-age man in the vicinity of a Jihadist as a terrorist is a total cop-out. We should see the real casualty numbers and adjust accordingly. But we also have to stop the Jihadist threat. It is real. And a president does not have the luxury of pretending it isn’t.

On Marriage

Posted in Domestic Policy, Human Rights, Politics by nickchristian on May 29, 2012

I recently wrote, as the penultimate piece of work for my MA in Human Rights, an essay on same-sex marriage arguing that, far from equal, civil partnerships can only ever be separate and inferior. The full text of the essay can be found here but if I’m honest, I don’t think I have anything to say on the subject that hasn’t been said better by others. What’s more, where once there might have been something approximating a legitimate, interest-based argument against same-sex marriage, today there is only bigotry and even that is diminishing in volume and visibility. Barack Obama sealed the deal a few weeks ago.

The religious doctrinaires can resist all they like: it is going to happen and being on the side of right is all that matters; arguing against the wrong is, therefore, barely worth the effort. So what was interesting about the essay was not what it taught me about same-sex marriage but the way in which it caused me to so profoundly question my own understanding of marriage itself.

Previously I had held what I thought was a principled objection to the very idea of marriage, assessing it to be an anachronistic, patriarchal institution of which I wanted no part. This wasn’t a resistance to being owned but to owning; not an objection to the idea of commitment but a commitment to the idea that people’s feelings change, are in a constant state of flux. I simply didn’t, and don’t, believe that one can reasonably expect someone to know with any certainty what they will want from a relationship tomorrow, let alone ten years from now.

But to focus on that is to completely miss the point, and the meaning, of why (most) people get married. It’s a product, as my boss would say, of my tendency to “overthink”. Except I’ve only found my way past it by thinking some more, so I’m not sure where that leaves us.

To marry is to publicly proclaim, as my friend Dom recently articulated it, that “I want this to last forever”; not that “I believe it will” or indeed, to presume a permanent state of being. The “this” in question also need not mean the relationship, but merely, necessarily, the feeling that comes only with the presence, the existence of this person in your life. You have stumbled, however fortuitously, on something, someone, that is to you completely unique.  Marriage is how that uniqueness is expressed and how it is uniquely, universally understood.

My mum recently recounted the story of the night her friend met her husband and the immediate realization she had, in that moment, that that is what she wanted him to become.  Another close friend, a lifelong resistant to the idea, came round to it in a similar fashion. It is only by looking at those situations through the prism of marriage as a “want” that I can make any sense of them.

Perhaps for many people, marriage is something that is approached from a cynical perspective, with considerations of practicality or maybe motives unclear at its forefront, but it is not from that perspective that proponents of same-sex marriage come. To take a further step towards equality is a desirable and happy by-product but it is not, in itself, the primary objective. Same-sex couples just want to get married and now I think I know why.

Of Free Speech and Free Markets

Posted in Domestic Policy, Human Rights, Law and Order, Politics by nickchristian on April 2, 2012

As those who know me would attest, I am a dyed in the wool lefty, in the sense that I want life to be better for everyone, not just those that can afford it. I think government can be a force for good in that respect; a place where, to quote the West Wing, “people come together and where no one gets left behind.” What that doesn’t mean is that I think the state should be involved in every aspect of everyone’s life in order to make it so. I think a capitalistic society, where it works supports that goal better than the state but where there are gaps – where capitalism fails which, undeniably, it often does – government has a duty to step in.

Simply put I believe the role of government is to regulate imperfect markets. Where something society needs is undervalued the government has a duty to step in and supply it out of public funds. Where something something society doesn’t need is oversupplied, or supplied at a cost to society that doesn’t accurately reflect its value, government has a responsibility to tax it to the point where it pays for itself or supply is reduced. Pollution is one such example, road congestion another.

Where markets work perfectly however, or close to perfectly, the government should keep as far away as possible. Online speech is one such market.

I agree with Thomas Hammarberg, the European Council’s commissioner for human rights, that Liam Stacey should not have received a prison sentence for tweeting racist comments about Fabrice Muamba, following the Bolton player’s recent on-pitch collapse. I *think* most of last Thursday’s Question Time panel at least saw the 56 day sentence as excessive as well.

Where I suspect I stand alone, or if not alone then certainly in a minority, is in my belief that he should not have been arrested or prosecuted at all.

I can say, with little concern for contradiction, that Liam Stacey is a dumb racist fuck. Yet as confident as I am in that assertion, I don’t think that being a dumb racist fuck should be a crime. Not that it should go without sanction, just that I don’t think the state should be responsible. It’s largely accepted that much of what is said in an offhand way in social networking forums – be they Twitter, Facebook, blogs or wherever – is subject to far fewer filters of thought than what we might say in other forms, but probably still more than what might be said in a pub with friends. The main differences lie in the potential reach of these unthinking utterances, the speed with which they can be circulated and the futility of an attempted retraction. Racist fucks like Liam Stacey are often forced to learn this the hard way, but the hard way should not involve a prison sentence.

The hard way should be when it’s picked up on by the likes of Stan Collymore, a former footballer and current radio presenter who has taken it upon himself to lead a crusade – a brave and noble one in my opinion – against online bigotry. Collymore regularly retweets the most offensive comments of those people who think a computer screen and internet connection serve as a protective shield against responsibility for their words. When Liam Stacey found himself the recipient of a barrage of condemnatory replies, the subject of a host of online and print articles about his dumb racist fuck-ness, as well as likely, if not inevitable, disciplinary action from Swansea University, he doubtless became very rapidly aware of quite how unacceptable it is to hold such views, let alone be so publicly proud of them. Does anyone really think that a criminal conviction, and the accompanying prison sentence, is going to be a higher price to pay than the pariah status he will find himself with upon his release? That all of his friends, family, colleagues and peers (not to mention pretty much anyone who meets him in the foreseeable future) will be unable to disassociate him with his racist tweets for a very long time is a far greater punishment than any the state can bestow. This is, in my opinion, the perfect example of the self-regulating market.

What we say online is, for many barely indistinguishable, from what we think and government regulation of online speech is therefore dangerously close to regulation of thought. By widely publicising these public displays of intolerance, ignorance and offence Stan Collymore, amongst others, has shown how it can be dealt with far more effectively through the court of public opinion. The law need not get involved.

2011 Riots – How does the recent history of law and order policy help to explain the official reaction?

Posted in Domestic Policy, Human Rights, Law and Order, Politics by nickchristian on January 15, 2012

2011 Riots

How does the recent history of law and order policy help to explain the official reaction to “the riots” of August 2011?

“It is plain that he has done nothing which deserves death. I will scourge him, and then he shall go free… But they, with loud voices, insisted on their demand that he should be crucified; and their voices carried the day.”


On the 4th August 2011 Mark Duggan, a 29 year-old black man, was shot and killed by police in Tottenham, North London. The following day, at 5pm, 300 people walked from the Broadwater Farm estate where Duggan had lived to Tottenham police station calling for “justice”. At 8.20pm two police cars, left unattended on an adjacent street, were attacked, set alight and “the riots” began.

For the four days that followed “feral youth” roamed the streets of London, terrorizing its citizens, trashing and looting high streets, torching buildings. The most televisual of events, perfectly suited for the age of 24-hour news, this was, at least, how “the riots” were portrayed in the mass media.

This, as it happens, was also how Britain’s political leaders saw them. Obliged to return prematurely from their summer holidays, the Prime Minister and his deputy, the Home Secretary, the Leader of the Opposition and London’s Mayor were beseeched by the media to facilitate the restoration of order, to supply answers and, later, to provide suitable reparation for the victims and punishment for those responsible.

Even as the fires burned, social commentators and stakeholders sought to influence, desperate to be first to provide the definitive explanation for the unrest. Online and in newspapers, opinion pieces covering the broadest imaginable spectrum of judgments were published; the same or similar figures were afforded radio and television airtime to “explain” the causes for the riots; still more heated debate ran rampant online. All “answers”, whether tonally punitive or moralistic, despairing or sympathetic, of press or politician, were united by one thing: preordination. In the days during and immediately after the riots the explanations massively exceeded the availability of facts that might be thought essential to inform them, yet precisely served the political outlook of those that provided them.

Crime and law and order policy in the UK, once an issue for experts and academics and free from outside influence and interference, is no longer characterized by reflection, investigation and study. Instead the approach, of both the political and the mainstream media class, is based upon reaction, rapid response and a rush to the retributive right.

The sense that public policy and expertise have become largely removed from each other is hardly new and far from revelatory. The savvy politician seeking to be “successful” is more aware than ever that success in politics does not necessarily mean getting the policy “right” but is as much to be found in mobilizing the support of both the media and the electorate – often viewed as one and the same. While some eagerness to appeal to public and media support can be found in all areas of policy-making, in none has the distance between expertise and political decision-making become greater and more visibly enshrined and institutionalized, than in the realm of law and order.

Just as Pontius Pilate deferred to a baying mob in the sentencing to death of Jesus Christ, so we find today’s leaders doing the same, as manifested in the popular press and mass media. The difference, as I will demonstrate, is that while Pilate demonstrably goes against what he knows and believes, the alignment between the views of our politicians on law and order, and those of the baying mob is all but total: no resistance is needed; no internal wrangling need take place. The question is not, therefore, how much consensus is there between the different and disparate stakeholders, but how did such a comprehensive convergence occur at all? As the consensus amongst criminologists appears to be that the turning point came in the early years of the 1990s, this essay will look most closely at the relevant events and issues of the start of that decade. I will then discuss the contributions these can be seen to have made to the policies and rhetoric of government officials, and opinions of key media figures in response to the riots.

While the timing and occurrence of the riots themselves were impossible to predict with any precision, over the course of this essay I intend to demonstrate that the rhetorical and judicial responses could have been scripted months, if not years, in advance.  My goal here is not to offer my own response to the riots of August 2011, but to demonstrate that the official response, while intellectually inadequate, was utterly predictable and subservient to the demands of politics, the public and the press.

The Response to the Riots

On the morning of Tuesday August 9th, after three nights of unrest in Britain’s capital, Prime Minister David Cameron arrived back in Britain declaring the riots to be “criminality pure and simple. And there is absolutely no excuse for it.” For Cameron “the young people stealing flat screen televisions and burning shops that was not about politics or protest, it was about theft.” Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg similarly declared the rioting to be “needless, opportunist theft and violence – nothing more and nothing less”, while London’s Mayor described the events as “acts of sheer criminality” .

Cameron’s dismissive judgement that “[t]here is no justification for the aggression the police and the public faced, or for the damage to property” bore a strong resemblance to the view of Margaret Thatcher following the Brixton riots of 1981, when she declared that “Whatever the problems, nothing, but nothing, justifies what happened.”

The political verdict that the violence was the act of “criminals” and “criminal gangs within the urban underclass”, riots without reason, was in close step with that of the mainstream press. The newspaper The Sun’s editorial of August 7th stated that “The mob that turned the centre of Tottenham into a smoking ruin were not seeking justice. They are criminal thugs who were hell bent on theft, arson and violence.” For the popular press the answers as to “why” the riots occurred were simple and easily identified, with no need for further exploration into “root causes” and certainly no call to understand the situations of the rioters themselves.

For Professor John Solomos of City University the popular verdict suited very much [into] the Government’s requirement that any particular policy or action/inaction of their own not be viewed as a significant contributing factor to the riots:  “Cameron was keen to use this notion to distance the violence from any policies initiated by his administration and to construct them as the outcome of a breakdown of morality and a sense of order in some families and communities.” In other words, it needed not to be seen as result of governmental failings requiring governmental solutions.

With no significant pressure placed on them to do so, the government was therefore able to dismiss/ignore any solutions that could be considered “welfarist” in nature, regardless of the merits of doing so. Instead emphasis and attention was afforded to the area most easily actioned, that of punishment, with the Prime Minister declaring “if you are old enough to commit these crimes, you are old enough to face the punishment.” Prison sentences handed down to individuals convicted of riot-related offences were reported as being 25% longer than normal and the rate of imprisonment was 70% higher for those crimes that took place within the context of the riots. A senior clerk in Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service was reported to have circulated instructions to court clerks that they should disregard normal sentencing guidelines and instead impose tougher sentences than usual. The government was evidently eager to send a message, not simply, or even really, to those involved in the riot but to the media and to the greater public.

Stafford Scott, a consultant on racial equality and community engagement, has said that “seeing the riots as linked to criminality and gang culture has made it difficult to give voice to calls to provide more social and economic resources for the communities that live in the most deprived areas”. In a so-called time of “austerity”, when community services are not just not increasing but being cut, this represents not merely a political inconvenience – it would be portrayed as rewarding the rioters – but an economic one as well.

The rioters, rather than being given too little, had been given too much and expected even more. The answer could only be penal: punishment as deterrent rather than as a right response or execution of justice. The answer was to respond better next time, to provide the police with more resources and broader, stronger powers to act. While government for most of the 20th century was characteristically “welfarist”, in Britain in the 21st century it is politically suicidal to be seen as anything less than “tough on crime”. Next I shall be looking at how this situation came about.

The Roots of the Response

While the government might have been keen to isolate the riots and the rioters from any political context, to minimise the intellectual and investigative scope of the response, we are not obliged to do the same with our analysis of the response. Far from unusual or unlikely, the government behaved exactly as could have been predicted, with the ramped-up rhetoric and raised-stakes of the sentencing instructions epitomising the character of cross-party criminal policy of the past twenty years and more.

While sociologist David Garland points to the 1970s as the time when the public and political mood changed, as several decades of welfarism gave way to a vastly more punitive governmental approach to crime, Lord Windelsham and Jon Silverman separately identify the early 90s as marking the period when law and order policy became a key political battleground, with public and media opinion overtaking expertise as an influence on political practice. Ann James and John Raine, similarly, ascribe the transformation to a shift in ideology under Margaret Thatcher which saw the welfare consensus replaced by the culture of the market and government adopt a neo-liberal managerial approach.

Garland notes that a number of features of law and order policy that would once have been thought unlikely if not impossible, such as “mandatory sentences, victims’ rights, community notification laws, private policing, “law and order politics” and an emphatic belief that “prison works”… have become taken-for-granted features of contemporary crime policy”. For most of the twentieth century the British (and to a lesser extent, the American) approach to law and order, had been characterized by the directionally developmental march of institutionally “penal welfarist” arrangements. He therefore finds it counter-intuitive that it should perform an about-turn in the 1970s when “punitive sentiments and expressive gestures” that appear “oddly archaic and anti-modern” began to reappear in official policy.

One crucial element was the normalisation of crime. Although the riots were themselves far from ordinary they were, in some ways an exaggerated form of a negative experience which we have come to accept as ordinary and therefore part and parcel of day-to-day living. In that vein, we do not think of crime as something that the government (in the form of mobilised police resouces) can really prevent, not entirely, nor do we see crime prevention at a social level as something into which it is worth investing resources. It is, instead “a fact of modern life, like pollution or the perils of heavy road traffic that has to be accommodated.” We have, ourselves, become as responsible for crime prevention as the police.

Paradoxically, while this sense of the limited capacity of government to control or reduce crime has been allowed to develop, democratic electoral politics still do not allow for its admission. This contradiction has, according to former government minister Lord Windelsham, led to “the emergence of punitiveness as a reaction which can be exhibited to the general public even if, in anything beyond the short term, it is likely to exacerbate the social blight caused by such extensive criminality.” For Garland “[a] show of force against individuals is used to repress any acknowledgement of the state’s inability to control crime to acceptable levels. A willingness to deliver harsh punishments to convicted offenders magically compensates a failure to deliver security to the public at large.” Windelsham similarly describes such posturing as demonstrated by David Cameron on August 8th as nothing more than “a rhetorical smokescreen”.

Lord Windelsham, in his dissection of the politics surrounding the 1993 Criminal Justice Act, points to it as a pivotal moment in the gradual and extended transfer of primary influence over criminal policy. This is not to say that the responsibility for this shift – from experts and institutions to the media and the public – lies solely with politicians, but that a degree of accommodation from key figures – such as Ken Clarke’s retreat over a number of contentious aspects of this bill – are seen as some of the earliest and most significant examples of politicians altering law and order policy in the light of sustained and strident popular pressure to do so.

From here on, Windelsham argues, “greater reliance on punishment and heightened sensitivity towards public opinion were soon to emerge as the central planks of a radically reconstructed policy towards criminal offending.” In his tenure as Home Secretary Michael Howard, was viewed by both Windelsham and Jon Silverman – the BBC’s former Home Affairs correspondent – as having been responsible for the greater politicization of law and order policy, for bringing it more into the public realm and further away from the influence of academics and institutional experts. Windelsham describes Howard as being “generally dismissive of professional expertise, including at times advice from his own officials, sensing that the general public was looking for a greater emphasis on punishment than on the rehabilitation of offenders”.

This he was more than willing to deliver and Silverman similarly identifies Howard as being a man of politics before policy, in contrast to predecessors such as Willie Whitelaw and Douglas Hurd. For Michael Howard “Everything was political. Crime was a big political issue because it resonated on the doorsteps and for him, if you made an impact on crime, you made an impact on politics.” Ascribing to Michael Howard a large share of the responsibility to prioritising public perception might be to give him undue blame (or credit). He may or may not have been the one who “fired the starting pistol which set off the penal arms race between the parties” and would ultimately lead to what academic Michael Tonry describes as “the most hyperbolic, anti-crime rhetoric of any in Europe, language that elsewhere characterizes right-wing fringe parties”. Looking back it is clear that the dash that would lead Britain to the populist, authoritarian right would have happened irrespective of whether Michael Howard’s Conservative party decided to join it. Tony Blair, as Shadow Home Secretary and subsequently as leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister is seen as just as important a protagonist.

The 1992 General Election defeat triggered a sea change in the Labour Party’s approach to law and order. Under Blair “Labour adjusted its traditional libertarian stance and style of political discourse on crime and punishment to suit the hardening political mood.” That Blair’s “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” should become one of the most resonant political catchphrases of the subsequent generation is as much to do with the signal it sounded for the national popular and media approach to law and order, as it was a war cry that would lead ultimately to Downing Street. As criminal policy was becoming, for the first time, a serious electoral battleground, Blair identified the importance of avoiding being “outflanked on the right” – he might not have expected to win the battle, but it was one that it was crucial not to lose outright.

Garland is deeply critical of the politicization of law and order policy and what he describes as “the new populism”, in no small part because, where often politicization is accompanied by positional polarity, penal politics has meant a “narrowing of debate and a striking convergence of the policy proposals of all the major political parties”. Cameron, as he struck out rhetorically at the “thugs” and “criminal gangs”, promising “more arrests” and accelerated court processes, could do so with impunity. By 2011 in Britain, when it came to law and order policy, there was no such place as too far to the right and no room for a liberal perspective.

But was it the politicians, the press or the public that made it this way? The tightening of the relationship between criminal policy and the popular press is surely no coincidence. Still, it is difficult to say whether or not the politicians were attuned to and channelling the national public priorities, as reflected in the press, or whether the press was reflecting the concerns of the public at all and seeking to draw the politicians’ attention to them. Each would blame the other, with the Daily Mail’s Editor Paul Dacre admitting in 1993 that “this newspaper does seek to articulate the concern of its readers and, thereby, harden the response from the Tory administration”, while for Geoff Mulgan, an adviser to Prime Minister’s Brown and Blair, “it is a proper function of democracy that government should sometimes ignore sound evidence and follow a contrary path.”

This path was one that the Government, in response to the riots, would prove more than willing to follow as anti-intellectual catchwords such as “common sense” rode roughshod over information and expertise. Criminology has become an academic discipline that serves only itself,  with little influence on policy and political positioning. As law and order policy has become a major political battlefield, expertise and academic study has been displaced by the media as a political resource.

That little or no reference was made to academic studies of crime, or expertise in criminal behaviour does not mean that such information did not exist, or could not be commissioned, merely that the political interest in it, with regard[s] to the riots, does not. One such paper was published before the riots in 2011 and which sought to explore the – long assumed – relationship between inequality and rioting. This study ultimately found that, rather than inequality causing riots, a lesser privileged group was more likely to commit violence only if they considered themselves to be denied the opportunity to succeed, or to improve their social standing.

In November 2011 the Guardian, in conjunction with the LSE, released a study largely based on interviews with those involved in the riots. While this study must be viewed as inherently self-serving and, at least to some degree, unreliable in methodology, it at least offered an alternative reading of the riots. This naturally meant its lifespan would be limited to the news cycle, as it was immediately dismissed by the authorities while the “tough on crime” juggernaut rolled on.

By “a contrary path” Mulgan also means one driven by results and in keeping with the managerialist, market-based approach to the performing of government functions as adopted and promoted during the Thatcher years. This inevitably resulted in an outlook that prioritised short-term, small-scale victories, akin to those of the business cycle, over long-term, transformative achievements. James and Raine would agree: Instead of making policy through recognized institutions within a climate of agreement and with the support of key professional bodies, the Government sought to deliver through the medium of management. It had become less important to adopt the right policy and more important to enact that which would deliver measurable, demonstrable and immediate results.  Although the Guardian may not like it, riot arrests figures and prison sentences provide exactly that.


The government’s response to the riots of 2011 therefore represents a convergence of convenient forces. It is simultaneously reflective of the economic imperatives of the era, the emergence of an unsympathetic national sensibility, the displacement of expertise by managerialism and a two-decade long race between political parties to be seen in the media as the least tolerant of crime and the toughest on criminals. In such circumstances, a more liberal state could afford to do no more than a conservative one. A Labour government could afford to be no more generous or offer more compassionate solutions to these problems because they were just as complicit in the construction of a climate of punishment.

Would the response have been different had the riots happened thirty years ago? In the urban unrest that characterized the 1980s, we have evidence upon which to draw. Margaret’s Thatcher’s government also condemned the riots as “criminal”. The difference, one feels, is that the political climate of the 1980s required that the government possess at least an informed understanding of the social and economic factors that contributed to the unrest.

In 1981 the government commissioned Lord Scarman to author a comprehensive study into the causes of the Brixton Riots. The conclusion that they were not pre-planned but the spontaneous welling-up of the feelings of angry young men, most of whom were black, against what they saw as a hostile police force” demonstrates an intellectual interest and an effort at engagement. This further reveals a willingness on the part of the government to understand the underlying causes, issues and grievances behind the violence, to solve them for their own value rather than merely to prevent further outbreaks. 2011’s riots saw no such efforts at engagement and, as Solomos puts it, “a strong theme in the official response to the riots has been to see them as issueless riots”. While the body politic in the 1980s was equally outraged by the immediate effects of the riots and inclined towards the punitative response it was  at least not unwilling to listen to opposing views and entertain the analysis of expert bodies and experienced individuals and institutions.

Thirty years on from the Brixton riots, with the distance between expertise and criminal policy comfortably wide, and no political advantage to be had from reducing it, we can expect nothing more influential than the Guardian/LSE study to emerge.

The answer in 2011, which would prove populist as well as economically expedient, simultaneously satisfying the major media institutions and their audiences, was that the riots were their own cause. Rather than being a symptom of a sick culture, one which might call for a cultural remedy for which only government had the capacity to instigate, the solution lay in the communities and with the families of the rioters who had, themselves, failed Britain. Government power to punish the rioters would be maximised, responsibility to help them reduced to nil.

Just as Henry Mencken declared that “no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public”, in Britain no politician has, for the past two decades, suffered electoral disapprobation for underestimating the public stomach for punitiveness. Whether the media, the politicians or a natural shift in the public priorities is most responsible for the changes that occurred in the arena of criminal policy matters little: that a transformation took place is beyond dispute and the response to the riots was therefore pre-ordained. The Prime Minister, in his first statement as well as all subsequent ones, reached strong and certain conclusions, repeatedly referencing punishment, sentencing and individual culpability. Just two days after the first wave of violence, no more information was needed than was available. The response was set in stone.

A fully referenced version of this essay is available upon request. © Nick Christian 2012 

Why Not Syria?

Posted in Human Rights, Politics by nickchristian on October 18, 2011

Earlier this year I wrote an essay about humanitarian intervention, and the competing legal, political and moral contributory factors. My conclusion was that considerations of a political nature carry far more weight than any other and that this largely explains the appearance of inconsistency in policy. Although relatively well received, the paper was criticised for not looking in more depth at NATO’s activity in Libya and, moreover, the interventions that didn’t happen in other parts of the Middle East.

The rebellions that occurred across the Middle East were met with varying degrees of government resistance and rapprochement, with significant concessions made in some countries and all out war waged against the civilian populations of others. Libya was where Western media attention was focussed but the Syrian, Yemeni and Bahraini regimes all employed (and are employing) tactics as violent and oppressive, if not moreso, than those of Qaḏḏāfī.

Although I did reference the action in passing, at the time it felt far too “live” an issue for any meaningful analysis or commentary. It probably still is but, without writing an essay on the subject, I thought it was worth looking at the political differences between Libya and the other countries in the region. Gross simplification of how international relations works coming up:


Intervention? Sanctions, no military action.

Why not?

  1. Next door to Israel
  2. Actually has Weapons of Mass Destruction
  3. Exports from China to Syria worth upwards of $2billion
  4. Russian investment in Syria valued at $19.1billion plus $1.1billion in exports (mostly military hardware).
  5. Any action tabled would therefore fall victim to inevitable UNSC veto.


Intervention? Condemnation of Saleh, no sanctions or threat of military action.

Why not?

  1. No (recent) history of beef.
  2. Scant media attention paid to the uprising – no public demands for intervention
  3. Geographically isolated – no strategic interest.
  4. Important battleground in the War on Terror – cooperating with the US.


Intervention? No condemnation, sanctions or military action.

Why not?

  1. Closely allied with Saudi Arabia.
  2. Host of the US Fifth Naval Fleet.
  3. Buying its weapons off the US.

Saudi Arabia

Intervention? No chance.

Why not?

  1. Uprising choked off before it could gain traction.
  2. Media too tightly controlled to report freely and accurately on protests.
  3. Close relationship with the US in combating Global War on Terror.
  4. Supplies 19.5% of world oil reserves
  5. Holds – along with the other oil exporters – 2.6% of US debt.
  6. America’s best customer.


Intervention? NATO airstrikes.


  1. Did not have Weapons of Mass Destruction.
  2. Qaḏḏāfī no real asset in the war on terror.
  3. No direct threat to Israel.
  4. Supplies only 3% of world oil reserves.
  5. The Arab League said intervention was fine by them – they didn’t really like Qaḏḏāfī anyway.
  6. (Former) State sponsor of terrorism.

Ultimately, we intervened because we could. Qaḏḏāfi’s problem, more than anything, was that he had failed to make himself indispensable, either as a trade or security partner, to any of the permanent members of the UN Security Council or to his neighbours in the region.

It’s nothing personal, just politics.

%d bloggers like this: