Terror in the classroom? Terror on the roundabout? – 16 March 2011

(Given the over-sensitivity around this subject, I should point out these are personal views and not representative of any higher education institution I might employed by… )

The news that a review of the UK Government’s PREVENT strategy will conclude that university lecturers should be more aware of the radicalisation of their students, or more aware of curious behaviour is likely to be more than a little controversial in the academy. The story says that lecturers should build up closer relationships with their students so that we can spot adverse developments in their thinking etc. It even gives the handy-hint that if someone keeps writing in essays that civilians are legitimate targets for asymmetric military action that the authorities should be informed.

Several short comments:

One: there is already a legal duty (and good citizens will always feel the moral duty) on teachers and lecturers (as well as everyone else) to report to the authorities acts in the commission of terror, or literature that would support acts in the commission of terror etc etc. So, I’m not sure how much further the Carlisle recommendations get us, apart from some gaudy headlines.

Two: who to report it to? I’m told that intelligence officers refer to the public call-in line, the ‘nutter line’, whilst my efforts to get the local constabulary to talk about the PREVENT strategy at the university were met with deep procrastinating, worried noises about operational details, and the fear that my students were ‘anarchists’. Not a happier and friendlier bunch of centre-right, football loving, frequently holidaying individuals could one hope to meet… so a bizarre reaction. But the basic point is that if someone who broadly works on this subject academically doesn’t know which number is best dialled, that should tell you something.

Three: I’d be surprised if a budding terrorist was going to try out the acceptability of their thoughts via essay assessments, but if they were going to be that blatant, I reckon we’d probably pick it up without the government’s handy-hint.

Four: For all good pedagogic reasons we already have a very close professional links with our students, and whilst Carlisle seems to think they confide in us, ninety-nine times out of a hundred they don’t. Think of us as more like shunned loco parentis… so it’s unlikely that we’ll provide the best intelligence, and there are enough within the academic ranks who’d refuse to comply for political reasons that all this is going to be problematic to implement anyway. One of the lessons of PREVENT has been that to act too overtly in trying to identify radicalisation has caused it to go underground. The same would surely be the case in universities if lecturers were too closely linked to a surveillance agenda. Universities will always be one of the institutions prone to radical political elements due to it providing a safe-space to think freely, and the potent mix of emotions, vibrant people and opportunities on every corner, so keeping an eye on universities is not a bad idea, it just needs to be done differently, and possibly with the university as a passive space on which other more qualified agencies pick up the intelligence gathering and counterintelligence efforts.

Terror on a roundabout?

It’s difficult to know what to make of events in Bahrain. Another one of our allies beating the doodah out of protestors who want democracy, presumably using defence equipment supplied by British or European firms to do so.  At the time licenses would have been granted correctly – who could have foreseen the outbreak of mobilised democratic thought all over the Middle East? That the Saudis have sent some troops to assist in putting the protests down merely tells you what kind of fear there is of further contagion across the region. If the West isn’t going to act effectively on Libya,  they’re definitely not going to stand-up to the ruling royals in Bahrain… Prime Minister Cameron should be applauded for his persistence in the approach to Libya, even if he has been let down by an international community determined to stare at its navel for so long that it renders itself obsolete. And those fundamentally supine countries who want to do nothing; they were the same ones whinging about the coalition of the willing in 2003. It might be time to recognise that the one of the reasons for Iraq panning out as it did, was the lack of constructive input from the international community. It will result in genocide, and a cottage industry of right-on academics writing about the diplomatic dynamics of policy failure, just as I did on Bosnia some time ago…


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