In 2002 I spent New Years Eve in New York City with a bunch of friends. We were wise enough to avoid the silliness of Lower Manhattan and Times Square on the big night, but we spent plenty of time on the island in the preceding days. With 9/11 still a fresh wound, the city was more worried than usual about the possibility of a terrorist attack during such a highly visible and crowded event. Accordingly, every cop in New York City was on the streets of Manhattan between Christmas and January 1. Some of them looked like they were pushing Social Security age. Some were obviously desk cops who hadn't worked the street in years, or maybe decades. Nearly all were heavily armed, with AR-15 type rifles slung over shoulders a common sight in on Wall Street and in Midtown.

Such shows of force are intended to make the public feel safer. Yet the more of this I saw, the less safe I felt. Some of that feeling was practical – The idea of old, rusty cops with itchy trigger fingers armed with military rifles they probably have no idea how to use is not a reassuring one under any circumstances – but some of it was purely emotional. Seeing armed cops every five feet didn't make anything seem safer; it merely reminded me that there are cops everywhere because they expect something really bad to happen. And the more cops and more guns there are in one place, the more likely that "Something bad will happen" becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I couldn't wait to get out of there.

I am an ocean away, but what little I've seen of the Olympics (and the media coverage thereof) bears a striking resemblance to what I felt a decade ago in New York.
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It has all the trappings of complete security overkill.
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Granted, UK politicians cannot be blamed for treating terrorism as a serious threat; the Olympics are and have been a target and the UK has suffered terrorist attacks on its own soil in recent memory. Nonetheless, the security measures in place seem to have created an event that potential fans would rather avoid than enjoy. Nothing says "Welcome to London, enjoy the games!
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" quite like anti-aircraft missiles on apartment rooftops, a ten-foot tall, eleven-mile long (!) electrified (!!!) fence surrounding the main stadium and facilities, a city-wide network of CCTV surveillance and aerial drones, and more British Armed Forces personnel on the ground (including 7,500 elite Royal Marines) than have been on British soil since the Second World War.

Is that making you feel safe? Maybe I'm a wimp, but that looks like the kind of event I prefer to avoid. To the extent possible, I try to stay away from enclosed areas teeming with armed cops, soldiers, and other people expecting the worst and possessing the right to shoot at me. Maybe this merely reflects Americans' increasing tendency to see the police as a menace to be avoided at all costs, or perhaps it speaks to the larger problem of trying to confront our fears as a society with bigger guns and more of them. It's easy to look at the security preparations and say, "It's sad that we live in a world in which all of this is necessary" and much harder to take the time to question whether it really is.
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27 thoughts on “INSECURITY”

  • It's always risky (i.e. "certain to blow up in my face") to characterize a nation as bizarrely variegated as the UK (given its relatively small size, holy hell do they have a lot of groups of people who have nothing culturally in common), but what the hell: Seeing the armed preparations in London worry me more precisely because they are, in fact, in London. In the UK. Which, while it has a proud, rich tradition of using plenty of violence to inflict its will upon the browner peoples of the world, is not generally known for being a nation much in love with heavy ordnance. Surveillance, sure. But their cops don't want to be armed–trained in case shit goes down, yes, but they themselves don't want to strap a boomstick on the utility belt before they walk a beat. (Try getting an American police union to agree to that policy.)

    I'm not looking to paint the London cops as saints, mind you–like all police forces of major cities with a large immigrant population, they've received an unsurprisingly large number of complaint-cards from non-whites whose heads went from convex to concave as a result of a polite chat down at the station. But they don't like guns. And they're no more fond of soldiers marching the streets than any other police force would be. (Which is to say, "not at all–fuck off–this is our sandbox.")

    All of which says to me that, if they're doing this, THEY KNOW SOMETHING. When my grandfather yells "Motherfucker" from the next room, I don't bat an eye–he's just disagreeing with the opinion of the football referee. When my grandmother yells "Motherfucker" from the next room, I dial 911 while running in to see exactly how much blood I need to tell the EMTs to bring, because *that's* what I'm going to see if that woman says a no-no. London is yelling "motherfucker" from the next room. London is not my grandfather. (Well, the East End, maybe.)

  • Middle Seaman says:

    I grew up in the 50s and am still visiting in a far away land that was and is always under terror threats and exploding bomb. Yet, defensive measures are inconspicuous, police way less visible and life as normal as it can get under these conditions.

    The goal in London is absolute security and total disregard for the public. A thousand untrained cops on the streets provide way less security than a hundred well trained cops do. But our democracies ignore the public for several decades now. We may pour untold treasures into "homeland" security, but our governments are amateurish and heavy handed about doing it.

  • My dad (who still lives in the UK) commented on all the extra CCTV cameras being put up for the games: They'll never take them down again.

    BTW, the UK has had problems with terrorism since – what – 1968? 1912? 1066? (not a typo – the eleventh century)? But now we need a surveillance state, I guess, because This Time It's Different.

  • If there is a terrorist attack, the politicians and security chiefs want to be able to tell themselves and the world, "We did everything we possibly could."

    This is commendable as far as it goes, but they also want the world to agree that yes, they did everything possible. So there are a lot of highly visible (and expensive) security measures whose benefit is questionable at best.

    I mean, Rapier missiles on roofs? WTF? See Charlie Stross for a well-informed rant on the subject:
    It made me wish the UK had some equivalent of the Third Amendment: "You can't quarter troops on my property, so fuck off."

  • @ J Dryden: Yes, British cops are a lot less heavily armed and trigger-happy than their overseas counterparts. For that we are all grateful.

    The soldiers are another matter. Royal Marines are not trained for civilian policing, they are trained to kill. Yeah, I'm sure they're elite and well disciplined. So were the Paras in Belfast on Bloody Sunday. No doubt the armed forces have tried to learn from that episode, but it could still happen again. It is inherently dangerous to have nervous young men with automatic weapons at a large public event.

    Coming back to Ed's point — the fiftysomething desk cop might not be too handy with his rifle, but at least he is more likely to think twice before using it.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    When I was a kid growing up in Queens, NYC, there were beat cops who walked the streets.
    We had the typical big Irish guy, named Mike – and a guy who covered for him, but I can't remember his name – and the only reason I remember Mike's name, is when I grew older, I realized how stereotypical his name was.
    Those guys knew every family, and every kid. Who the good ones were, and who the potential troublemakers were. Most lived in, or near the neighborhood they patrolled.

    For some reason, NYC later went to the LA style of policing – cops in cars responding to trouble, instead of cops walking the street assessing and preventing trouble.

    Under Clinton, Giuliani went back to having a lot of beat cops, and, amongst other reasons (like police brutality, arresting people for minor things, etc), the crime rate went down. I had left NYC by then.

    I also went down to NYC in late 2001, between Thanksgiving and Christmas – normally a great time to visit the city. And I also saw the super-armed cops all over Manhattan that Ed describes, on every street corner.

    And after first feeling reassured, I realized that these guys didn't have a clue about the people in those neighborhoods – the ones who lived there, the ones who worked there. And especially not the visitors – who was there for the first time, who was there as a regular visitor?
    They were there as a show of force – to make people feel secure. And a force that was there looking for anyone to make a misstep – to look at someone, something, the wrong way. I couldn't wait to get out of town, and go back – and I LOVE NYC!

    And I was reminded of being in Moscow in 1995, when the Chechnians were threatening terrorist acts. There were a couple of armed police and soldiers on every block that had something that was deemed a potential target.
    The Russian people told me that they were reminded of the bad old Soviet days, when there were armed police and soldiers all over – and where there weren't, there were informants.
    Is that next?

    If the price of freedom is this much vigilance, is that really freedom?

    When, to protect the people, and give them a sense of security, you have to send an army of armed police or security to every large event, the government listens in to all calls, and/or monitors all other forms of communications, can we really say we have much, if any, freedom left?
    Is the cost of that much vigilance and security too high a price to pay for the freedom(s) that remain?

    When I grew-up and, after spending my teenage and college years in upstate NY, moved back to the city for a decade, and later visited, we NYers knew that any place you went that was crowded, a train station, a museum, a ballpark, Times Square, a parade, that there was the potential for a terrorist act.

    That was always in the back of your mind.
    But we weren't overly afraid – we were just a little bit cautious. Sure, there was a chance, 'But I want to see that ballgame, that museum, that parade, so I'll take my chances that today ain't THAT day.'
    And so we went.

    After 9/11, after missing a ton of signals about what was going to happen, the government, both national and city, decided to ramp-up security to levels I'd never seen before.

    And now, to fly, to go to a ballgame, to go to a museum, everyone is either looked at, or treated, as a potential terrorist.
    Is THAT freedom?

    Look, we're ALL going to die.
    There are a myriad of ways to die every single day besides a terrorist act. There are a myriad of ways to get hurt, or wounded.

    Look at the people who went to a midnight showing of a movie, and never came home, or came home scared, injured, or crippled.
    That was an act of terrorism – domestic, and one without any (apparent) cause behind it.

    And since we can't seem to stop madmen from acquiring guns and assault weapons, and thousands of bullets, what further freedoms will we have to give up?
    All for the "freedom" for that madman to have a gun, automatic weapons, and all the bullets his/her little heart desires?

    At almost every large venue, there are either police, or private security forces, observing everyone, checking bags, wanding, groping – but we allow any imbecile, madman, or terrorist, the freedom to buy and own guns.

    Now you may say, what about bombs?
    Yes, sure – bombs. But there's a level of knowledge, sophistication, and skill, in making a bomb without blowing yourself up first.

    Anyone, ANYONE, can buy a gun.
    And all of us have to live in an ever-increasing police state because of these potentially armed imbeciles, madmen, or terrorists, and THEIR freedom to have guns.

    It seems to me, we have a skewed sense of freedom in America, nowadays.
    But, maybe that's just me…

  • I know exactly what you mean. The first time I saw a cop at 30th Street Station in Philly with a machine gun slung checkpoint-style, I instantly felt very insecure. I didn't feel remotely safer, in fact, I was more threatened by presence of Officer McScowly in his paramilitary garb than I was by any of the usual creepshow that is 30th. What exactly was he going to do in the event of an attack?

  • Chris Lewis says:

    Coming from London, and living there to this day, I am not thrilled about the games; however, the reason there are so many armed forces personnel on the ground is because security firm G4S failed to provide the sufficient security staff for such a major event that they had promised. I(t was only revealed about a month before the games kicked off that both the numbers – and the quality – of security staff was so woefully inadequate, so on short notice the army (which, following the games, will be slashed in terms of troop numbers) was called to fill in the gap as they have done in perceived "crisis situations" – for instance, about 8 years ago when there was a general strike by the union of firemen.

  • "because security firm G4S failed to provide the sufficient security staff for such a major event that they had promised."

    So much for the free market being able to provide services more efficiently and effectively than the public service. Wonder how much of the taxpayer doll… pounds found there way into someone's offshore account, rather than hiring and training adequate staff.

    Someone I know was in logistics for the ADF during the Sydney Games. She said (years after the Games) that security forces prevented an event from happening during the Opening Ceremony. Said activities were never publicised. The one is for show, and to keep general hooliganism in check. The real work is being handled by those you'll never see.

    I still have no idea why as a general rule Australian cops carry. We're only slightly better armed than the UK.

    I would love to see beat cops like the ones CU describes. Though I wonder how much of the policing had to be altered by our moving to the suburbs. A city neighbourhood is easy (and more effective) to cover on foot. The geographic coverage of the burbs practically necessitate driving.

  • And since we can't seem to stop madmen from acquiring guns and assault weapons, and thousands of bullets, what further freedoms will we have to give up?
    All for the "freedom" for that madman to have a gun, automatic weapons, and all the bullets his/her little heart desires?

    AMC Movie Theaters has already said that they won't let people come in when wearing costumes–I think it's face covering masks and makeup as well as costumes that "make people uncomfortable," which, you know, could mean anything. So we're prohibiting people from having their harmless fun while saying it's just fine and dandy for people to accumulate military grade weapons and ammo, because Second Amendment reasons.

  • The semiautomatic versions of the M-16 and AK-47 are essentially expletive scary looking deer rifles, I'm told they're easier to carry all day. The 30 round clips have no utility until the zombie apocalypse actually begins, if you feel you need a clip that large to get your buck, you really shouldn't try hunting, get your protein at the supermarket, or find a helpful vegan who'll explain how to be meat-free without malnutrition.

  • In my past career as a sportswriter, I was lucky enough to cover four Olympics. Security at all of them was not much different than that of the London Games, except for the anti-aircraft missiles. But the Games are perimeter security. Once inside a venue such as Olympic Park, it's much less obtrusive. It is designed to prevent attacks on the Games themselves. If some murderous lunatic sets off a bomb in a pub, the International Olympic Committee will say it has nothing to do with them. That's how it went down in Atlanta in 1996.

  • Dryden: "All of which says to me that, if they're doing this, THEY KNOW SOMETHING. "

    If there's one thing which has been made clear by now is that this inference is simply not true. Remember the Iraq War, where we were told that Bush & Co knew more that we did, and that we should trust them?

    Turns out that they were simply lying.

  • @Hugo: wouldn't the last time the UK had "problems" with terrorism amount to the Troubles? But even if you don't think the IRA counts, there were also the 7/7 suicide bombings in London on July 7, 2005. Over 50 people died, many hundreds were wounded.

    There were others, and undisputed major attempts, but that's the biggest one I can remember. You know, since the invasion of William the Conqueror.

    CCTV cameras helped them figure out exactly what was done, after the fact, and to confirm the identities of those who took credit for it in videotaped statements. In 2007, when another large-scale bombing failed due to faulty detonators, CCTV helped identify and track the participants.

    I know CCTV is being used in ways that violate rules and ignore sensible guidelines (especially in schools), and that should be dealt with severely. But there is no doubt how effective it is at intelligence gathering after the fact. It helps prevent repeat offenses. And it helps nail the perpetrators. It also provides photographic details that can help prove some other dude did it in places where white people think all men of color look alike; even alibis.

    But guns and crowds don't mix. Especially automatic weapons. Even if your police are beautifully trained, highly practiced, and chilled on all the Xanax and beta blockers they can eat, it doesn't take much of a throng to disarm a single person mingling in a crowd. And if your officer is not this mythical, flawless paragon, the incident likelihood skyrockets, even without being disarmed.

    Me, I worry more about being picked off in a case of mistaken identity, as Jean Charles de Menezes was, even though it's less likely than being struck by lightning while riding my unicorn. But consider the frequency of shooting "accidents" in the West Bank. Oopsie.

  • @ Barry: Quite true. Though Bush & Co. *did* know something we didn't: that we were going to war no matter what and nothing that Hussein or the UN or anyone else did was going to stop us. Sure, it's not what they *told* us they knew, but hey, secret knowledge is secret knowledge.

    I'd be more suspicious of nefarious ends on the part of the London authorities if there was an obvious ulterior motive. But I think that Talisker gets it right–there's a cosmetic overkill that may simply be a CYA prophylactic in the event of carnage.

    That or, now that Londoners are used to living under the shadow of the gun, the occupying forces never leave. (Hey, V FOR VENDETTA has to happen sometime, right?)

  • mel in oregon says:

    lenin predicted what is happening here & in europe, that financial capitalism would replace industrial, productive capitalism. when this happens, the big financial houses & outsourcing corporations need a police surveilance state to protect the system. you could see that here last year & earlier this year when the occupy movements were met in every city in the united states that had any protests with heavy police brutality no doubt in coordination with the CIA & FBI. makes you feel much safer? hahaha! tell that to the people in aurora.

  • Xecky Gilchrist says:

    To the extent possible, I try to stay away from enclosed areas teeming with armed cops, soldiers, and other people expecting the worst and possessing the right to shoot at me.

    Likewise. I have lived in Salt Lake City for over 20 years and decided it would probably be best to be out of town when the 2002 Olympics rolled around. I live about a block from the venue where they held the opening ceremonies and in those days I was half sure there was going to be at very least a bomb scare. The surrounding area was heavily militarized. Not my idea of good times.

  • I was in Barcelona in 1980 and seeing guards with machine guns on every corner had me worried about whatever was worrying them. I'm pretty sure it was the Basques. I knew what the cops were worried about in Germany in 1976, the Baader-Meinhoff gang.

  • @ladiesbane: Yes, the Troubles. I was being somewhat facetious in referring to Saxon/Welsh unrest under the Normans. :) My point was that the UK has a history of suffering from the attentions of terrorists, yet only since 9/11 have we really started becoming a police state and giving up civil liberties because of them.

    Regarding CCTV, a meta-study found that CCTV is correlated with an increase in reported crime but has little to no statistically measurable effect on crime prevention or prosecution – except in car crime. CCTV cameras make sense in parking lots and nowhere else, basically. The Telegraph and the Guardian have a bunch of articles on this which you can google. The Metropolitan Police spends about £20,000 per case helped by the use of CCTV, and CCTV spending now accounts for over 75% of crime prevention spending by the home office.

    Even in your examples of 7/7 and 2007, I'd note that CCTV did nothing to prevent either event, and even if it did, while terrorism is very dramatic and newsworthy, as a cause of death or even as a percentage of crime, it is completely insignificant. Between 2000 and 2010, I think 52 people in the UK were killed by terrorists – all of them in one event. 30 people were struck and killed by lightning in the same time period. Maybe the terrorism figure is so low because of all these heightened security measures, but since we don't have a control group to compare it to, we'll never know how many terrorist plots would have been stopped with conventional policing and pre-9/11 security measures anyway.

    CCTV and heavily armed cops aren't about security, they're about theater. It's more important to be seen to be doing something than to actually do something. They are responses that a government can take which, compared to addressing root causes, are cheap, easy, and highly visible. It's all for show.

  • Ben Franklin said those who sacrifice liberty for security eventually lose both. and he was right. that kind of society/our present day world is not safe or full of liberty, when there are TV's or AK 47 armed cops all over the place.

    I remember Guatemala City with Armed Police on the top of buildings everywhere, during their war on the Natives, as if that ever ended. talk about frightening to see such dangerous weapons pointed down at all of us 'civilians". was glad to be away from such "security". not safe at all, scared beyond belief.

    if that is "security" when then, you can have it. i won't go near men with Guns. that's just tempting fate, my fate not theirs.

    that we have devolved into such a "paramilitary" police state is a sign of how afraid the Elites are, and how bad the society is that needs guns to "secure" that self same society.

    as i've heard, those that live by the sword/machine gun, die by the self same weapon.

    at least it keeps the War Machine flush with money, somebody is getting rich, obviously. Greed causes all this "insecure" security. reap what you sow.

  • Chris Lewis says:

    I should add also, that CCTV is not a big issue for me – it DOES play an incredibly useful part in tracking down criminals, such as during the riots, where CCTV was key in identifying two men who pretended to be "good samaritans" in assisting a wounded bystander, then robbed him blind. Muggings and rapes in darkened overpasses are far less likely – or, at the very least, are more likely to be detected and the perpetrators face tril – thanks to CCTV.

    I'm sick of everyone whingeing about a "police state" because there are CCTV cameras there to protect people against violent crime or robbery, and buildings from breakins. I'll only start to worry when ordinary police officers are armed to the hilt – as they are in America – and racial profiling rears it's ugly head again for the first time since the infamous "SUS" laws of the 1980's.

  • Chris Lewis says:

    Although, the insular nature of the police force – particularly regarding deaths in capitivity and police brutality – is very worrying to say the least. The police do a lot of good work, under difficult conditions in the austerity climate, but the fact that when one of their own goes rogue, they all "close ranks" and remain silent (i.e. in the Iain Tomlinson death case) certainly is a worrying aspect.

  • It's funny. I want to be in the Big O (sailing: not really age dependant). Now a days, not so sure…

  • I grew up in a small town in the 50's and 60's and the only weapons I ever saw were the M-1 my dad bought right after WWII, a pistol of the same vintage, a couple of 22's we used to plink at prairie dogs (don't think we ever got one) and rats at the dump (ditto), and the local patrol cop that had it in for my brother and I on traffic violations (he carried a .38 revolver).

    I moved to Houston and never saw any weapons at all – none of my friends had any, no one that I knew of was a shooter, and the only time I shot anything was at cans when I went home for the holidays. Cops in Houston were encapsulated in their patrol vehicles and I don't recall ever seeing their weapons (must have done because at some point they actually directed downtown traffic).

    I married in 1991 and the new wife and I took a European Vacation, first stop London. No guns in evidence, none. Next stop Zurich, Switzerland – no guns anywhere – excpet at the airport where there were black clad, balaclava wearing guys with submachine guns held at port arms – not slung, held at port, while they scanned all incoming passengers. They were outside, inside, all over. Scary as hell.

    Then, after 9/11 I saw similarly clad and armed fellows in camo in the airports in Houston after one of the airplane bomb scares (I think it was the one restraining our fluids boarding privileges). What worries me is most of the guys I saw were exceedingly young and muscular. The sorts of guys I'd be afraid would go charging in. I sort of like the thought of the older cop whose never fired a shot in anger. Just sayin'.

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