The Problem with PREVENT

Thought-Crime as Pre-Crime and the Expansion of the Police State

Recent tragic events in Plymouth involving the shooting of five individuals, as well as the gunman himself Jake Davidson, has raised some important questions about the definition of ‘terrorism’. Women’s groups have long argued that extreme misogyny is a form of terrorism against women. Jake Davidson, who self-identified as an ‘incel’ (involuntary celibate), held extreme views about women. He was also licensed to carry a firearm. At the time of the shooting, it had been returned to him, having been confiscated after assault allegations. The questions this has raised regarding terrorism are crucial, particularly for women.

As the recent Medact report into the Vulnerability Support Hubs suggests, genuine caution has to be exercised when framing this type of incident as an issue that should be dealt with by counterterrorism police. Although ‘terrorism’ and the discourse that surrounds it, enjoys the obsessive attention of the media, counterterrorism policing is a universally secretive enterprise that operates beyond the public gaze, away from scrutiny and any form of accountability.

Vulnerability Support Hubs are, according to the National Police Chief’s Council (NCPC), a means by which the police and mental healthcare professionals can work in partnership. As part of the wider Prevent programme, this project has been designed to allow for the sharing of information, in order to identify and refer those who are seen to be at risk of what they call ‘ideological abuse’ through their vulnerability’ to ‘radicalisation’ as a result of their mental health problems. In short, this counterterrorism project requires mental healthcare professionals to refer patients who access their services to counterterrorism police if they display ‘signs of radicalisation’.

According to the report by mental health charity, Medact, the Hubs represent the securitisation of healthcare. Securitisation is a process that involves the state’s welfare services being almost entirely colonised by its disciplinary function in the name of ‘managing risk’. In a recent blog, called ‘Counterterrorism can’t spin surveillance as care’, Medact take issue with the Guardian’s uncritical presentation of the programme, highlighting the one-sided nature of the debate and the exclusive use of police sources and academics favourable to the programme despite a great desal of the published facts being shown to be either inaccurate or entirely misleading.

The report titled, ‘Racism, mental health & pre-crime policing – the ethics of Vulnerability Support Hubs’ by Aked, Younis and Heath-Kelly (2021), highlights a number of concerns. The Vulnerability Support Hubs have been running for five years, and despite never having been independently assessed or evaluated, are going to be rolled out nationally as part of the Prevent counterterrorism programme. Tensions between ‘security’ and ‘care’ are long-standing features of both welfare and criminal legal provisions across the UK, and internationally.

Based on documents obtained through a series of long-running Freedom of Information requests, Aked, Younis and Heath-Kelly show how Vulnerability Support Hubs serve to further blur these boundaries. According to the report’s authors, the Hubs raise the following ethical concerns:

  • Activities beyond the health remit: the hubs embed NHS mental health professionals within regional counterterrorism police units and encourage health workers to ‘monitor’ patients, and help conduct ‘combined’ mental health and terrorism risk assessments.
  • Stigma: the hubs were substantially premised on dubious associations between mental health and terrorism and exacerbate this stigmatising assumption.
  • Racism: a racialised Muslim is at least 23 times more likely to be referred to a mental health hub for ‘Islamism’ than a white British individual is for ‘Far Right extremism’.
  • Securitisation: counterterrorism policing’s often spurious and highly racialised pre-crime security concerns may be improperly influencing medical treatment and implicating health workers in criminalisation.
  • Circumventing confidentiality: the hubs use a ‘consultancy’ model which appears to allow police to circumvent normal confidentiality expectations.
  • Coercion: there are serious concerns about the deployment of medicine as a security device, including coercing people into the ‘deradicalisation’ scheme.
  • Pathologisation: the hubs use sub-diagnostic thresholds and risk pathologising people based on political expression or socioeconomic vulnerability.
  • Lack of transparency: the project has partly been funded with NHS money, yet police strenuously resist disclosure of any information about the scheme.
  • Lack of scrutiny: despite a lack of independent evaluation and public scrutiny, the scheme is currently being rolled out nationwide by the police via ‘Project Cicero’.
  • Deterrence: the scheme risks worsening mistrust and further deterring racialised groups from accessing healthcare when in need.

These concerns should sound a warning that by framing social problems, serious as they may well be, as issues that require counterterrorism policing (or indeed, any form of policing), all power is ceded to the punitive-paternal state.

The Manufacture of Terrorism – Restoring the Legitimacy of a State in Crisis

The manufacture of terrorism and the construction of ‘the terrorist’, is an essential part of any post-colonial capitalist system. The subject of ‘terrorism’ and the construction of the ‘terrorist threat’ serves a number of highly political functions.

Firstly, the effects of the growing crisis of ‘the state’ and its institutions are softened through the creation of an ever-present dangerous threat that citizens need the state to protect them from. The construction of the ‘terror threat’ and the ‘terrorist’ is an example where the state regains a modicum of its lost legitimacy, by presenting itself as the only means through which protection from terrorism is possible. Secondly, the construction of a ‘terrorist threat’ facilitates the relentless expansion of powers over more and more aspects of people’s lives, in the name of protecting the wider population. The manufacture of a dangerous threat and the fear and insecurity that this generates, allows the state, particularly its punitive-paternal institutions, to redraw the boundaries of its own jurisdiction, creating both the symbolic economy within which it operates and the value of its own contribution. Thirdly, the scapegoating of racialised and gendered minorities whose political and cultural traditions can be made to appear to diverge from the right-wing orthodoxy of ‘British values’, serves to capture the popular public anger of the precarious classes, deflecting it downwards away from those responsible for their precarity.

The issue of counterterrorism, taken at the level of the state, is riddled with contradictions. Terrorism in the UK is a complex subject with many known terrorists having been recruited by the UK’s security services for operations in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan. Some of these resident ‘terrorists’, who continue to enjoy protected status, were able to radicalise young men who then went on to attack civilian targets in the UK. As Coles (2018:52) points out, ‘many UK based extremists are part of a hierarchy of terrorism at the top of which sits MI6’. The caricatured stereotype of the Muslim-as-terrorist is a ‘scapegoat’ of great political utility for the state and its institutions. What we know for sure is that the current regime of interventions does little, if anything, to address the actual issue of terrorism in the UK.

The Kerslake Report (2021) into the Manchester bombing was scathing about the multiple failures in preventing the massacre of 22 people, for which blame was directed at the police and the security services as well as the mistakes made by other individuals on the day. As mentioned above, the murder of five people by Jake Davidson in August 2021, would not have been so easy had the police not given him back his pump-action shotgun only weeks before. There is still much to learn about this case, but the themes seem to resonate with other cases in that there is evidence of police incompetence. Had the gunman been of an ethnic origin, or a Muslim, he probably wouldn’t have been given a gun licence, never mind have his weapons returned after assault charges were brought. When compared to the Vulnerability Hubs, where extreme interventions arise from the conflation of ethnicity, religion and mental health problems, the case of Jake Davidson is a reminder that racism and bigotry are the foundational features of the Prevent programme specifically, and counterterrorist policing in general.

The Logic of Professional Practice

In Policing, as in most other professional fields, there is a symbolic economy within which the participants compete for the symbolic profits on offer. These symbolic profits, are derived as forms of symbolic capital, rewards that can be accumulated over time, such as levels of ‘respect’, ‘reputation’, ‘status’, ‘seniority’, ‘legitimacy’, ‘authority’, etc. These forms of symbolic capital can be exchanged for material rewards in the form of pay bonuses, increased levels of funding, promotion to higher salaries etc. As in other areas of the bureaucratic field, policing is fuelled by a logic of professional practice that seeks to maximise the material and symbolic profits at minimum cost. It is this logic that leads to the unconscious desire for people to exaggerate their role, in order to augment their ‘worth’.

This logic is universal. If we take the example of angling, where catching fish is the objective, a symbolic economy arises from the symbolic rewards bestowed upon those who catch the biggest fish, or the rarest fish, or fish that have value in the market place. There exists in the popular imagination the example of the bragging fisherman, standing in the pub with his arms open wide, conveying to his friends the size of the fish he caught, arousing a great deal of scepticism that his accomplishments may be somewhat inflated. Everyone recognises this desire to exaggerate in order to augment one’s status, because they recognise it as a universal human trait.

Within general policing and related institutions of the criminal legal system, the ‘fish’ that they catch are represented by ‘criminals’. The more serious the ‘crime’, and the greater the prominence of the ‘perpetrator’, the more significant are the symbolic returns. For counterterrorism police, the ‘seriousness’ of the ‘act of terror’ and the ‘role of the terrorist’ have to be transferred into ‘risk’. As in any professional field, there exists an inherent interest in the maximisation of the value of the symbolic profits through a sophisticated process of exaggeration and conflation. From an individual subjective level, a person’s social position is instantly and vastly improved if they can present themselves as someone who prevents terrorism by apprehending terrorists and bringing them to justice before they can commit a terrorist act. The problem is, as with almost all types of ‘crime’, the police are not very effective when it comes to prevention and tend to arrive on the scene once the ‘crime’ has been committed.

By maximising the ‘risk’ that Muslim men with mental health problems pose, counterterrorism police have successfully managed to shift the problem (and the symbolic profits that accompany policing the problem) from cases involving ‘harm’, onto those involving ‘thought crime’. That is to say, through entirely unfounded claims that Muslim men with mental health problems are vulnerable to radicalisation, and that this poses a risk of them committing terrorist atrocities, the police have managed to construct a situation in which political and/or religious thought becomes indistinguishable from the serious harm caused by bombs and murder. This is achieved simply by implying that political and religious thought necessarily leads to acts of terror – where bombs go off and people die. ‘Radicalisation’ becomes such a threat that it must be criminalised and managed robustly under the pretext of keeping people safe. The fact that neither the government nor the police can provide a satisfactory definition of the term ‘radicalisation’ weakens further the claim that this process is anything other than a political exercise in surveillance and control. The fact that no evidence exists to support the success of such an approach, or even that the targeted group pose a threat at all, suggests that something other than counterterrorism is at work through these interventions.

The hidden truth behind the Prevent project, emerges from the fact that the approach is based on an ‘actuarial’ form of policing. The phenomenon of actuarial policing has arisen from the recent obsession with pre-crime, seeking to devise statistical methods that can assist decision making in devising predictive interventions that facilitate the apprehension of suspects before crimes are committed. As well as the entire raft of ethical problems highlighted in the report mentioned above, there are a number of other very serious concerns with this, including issues of accountability, and an almost total lack of credible evidence to support any of it. Yet, despite there never having been an evaluation or assessment of the effectiveness of the programme, it is set to be rolled out nationally, across all parts of the UK. This is the new reality underpinning the securitisation of healthcare.

Securitisation, Scapegoating and Victimism

The discourse that underpins the ‘affective’ power of the issue of terrorism lies in the framing of the narrative. The term ‘affect’ refers to the underlying ‘feeling’, ‘emotion’, or ‘mood’ that arises from a specific situation, certain words or images, or even an environmental location. The words ‘terrorism’ and ‘terrorist’ conjure up a range of mental images, all of which involve some association with death and destruction. This is an entirely ‘affective’ phenomenon in that the initial response to these words and mental images is a ‘gut feeling’, a negative emotion (anger, fear), which is then retrofitted with some generalised form of rational response (Haidt 2017). The state and its relevant institutions use these affective affinities to elicit an emotional response from both front-line professionals and the public, and it is worth pointing out that the professionals who are engaged in the field of counterterrorism policing are themselves driven by the ‘affective’ power of the job they do, in relation to their own narrative of ‘risk management’.

The state manufactures an imminent threat, and those who fall into line and take this threat seriously, can build successful careers. Those who buy into the official ‘narrative’, and who become proponents of the securitisation project, are able to reap the symbolic profits associated with fighting the ‘war on terror’, ‘preventing terrorist attacks’ and ultimately ‘saving lives’. The bigger the threat, the more securitisation is required, the more securitisation, the more amplified the threat becomes. The universal framing of the Muslim-as-terrorist, constructs a scapegoat that is cast as an ever-present threat, both physically and culturally. This is possible, because scapegoated groups are almost invariably chosen because they have few sympathisers and even less public support, thus making them an easy target.

As well as scapegoating, ‘victimism’ is used to coerce people into a range of activities in which they would otherwise refuse to be involved. Victimism for Rene Girard (2001) “…uses the ideology of concern for victims to gain political or economic or spiritual power.” This is evident on two levels. Firstly, the authoritarian narrative is predicated on a concern for ‘victims’. The severity of punishment, the expansion of criminalisation and the relentless intrusion into the lives of more and more people by the state and its punitive-paternalist institutions, are almost entirely predicated on the protection of victims and retribution for their harm. Secondly, in the accounts of the authors of the report, the police often pressured reluctant mental health care professionals into compliance through the use of aspects of ‘victimism’. Just as the scapegoat provides legitimacy to the ailing state, ‘victimism’ enlivens and animates the powerless, themselves entangled in a complex relationship with authority that at the same time dominates and liberates them. The negative view of the scapegoat and the concern for the victim, has all the ‘affective’ power to mobilise entire institutions as well as large swathes of the public in a way that makes any opposition difficult if not impossible to articulate.

If the very idea of Hubs is problematic enough, what takes place within them, hidden from the public gaze, is a classic example of how the police regularly use legally dubious practices under the pretext of fighting serious crime. In the online launch of the report, the authors discussed the coercive practices regularly deployed by the police that not only flouted procedural safeguards, but were in direct contravention to the formal ethical standards of international psychiatric practice. Pressure was regularly put on mental health professionals to ensure their co-operation and ‘encourage’ them to disclose confidential information to the police. In many cases the police attended mental health assessments, actively looking for ‘trigger words’ and ‘ideological trip wires’, effectively pathologising political beliefs. Threatening and intimidatory practices were brought to bear on patients, in order to ensure compliance where no legal requirement for enforcement existed. In some cases, the police made demands that treatment programmes be extended and medication increased, encroaching on an area of professional competence for which the police are entirely unqualified. In three cases (that the authors of the report knew about), the police requested that the patient be sectioned in order to enforce cooperation. Shocking as they may sound, these practices will come as no surprise to anyone with experience in researching the police, particularly political policing. What is of most concern, perhaps, is the widespread inclusion of children in this counterterrorism programme. In fact, nothing seems to be off-limits when it comes to the overzealous policing of political and religious thought crime. At the launch event, one of the authors talked about the objective to ‘reduce negative referrals’ – an utterly confusing piece of police jargon that ultimately meant referring almost anyone for almost anything, in order to engage as many people as possible.

Conclusion

When the politically manufactured narrative that seeks to constantly maximise the extent of the terror threat becomes ‘unchallengeable’, and the political construction of the Muslim-as-terrorist becomes a useful scapegoat, the state is able to freely exercise its power in redrawing the boundaries of its own jurisdiction. As evidenced by current plans to limit the political freedoms and rights of people in the UK while presiding over an explosion in the expansion of categories of criminalisation, the authoritarian state is intruding on more aspects of everyone’s everyday lives. As Edward Snowden reminds us, counterterrorism measures are never about terrorism. In fact, he claims that despite the billions of dollars spent on ‘counterterrorism’ in the US, there exists not one single piece of reliable evidence to suggest that any of it has had any effect.

It is worth pointing out that UK citizens are more likely to die in police custody, than they are in a terrorist attack on British soil. The actual threat of terrorism is so small, it simply cannot be argued that the significant resources deployed in fighting the war on terror, as well as the disruption to the lives of the men and their families who find themselves the subjects of the attention of the counterterrorism police, are well spent. These initiatives are always about expanding the state’s control and augmenting the state’s ability to not only monitor and surveil, but to intervene, to apprehend and ultimately, to criminalise and incarcerate.

From the policing of political thought crime develops an insatiable appetite for secrecy, through less and less transparency and accountability, creating practices that are not only unethical, but are of questionable legality, since they arise from a form of traditional policing based on threats and intimidation borne out of racial and political prejudice. The capacity of the police to cause ‘actual’ harm to individuals in the name of preventing ‘possible’ harm is limitless. The damage the police do in the name of crime prevention is often the biggest ‘crime’ of all. The police are beyond reform. The only solution is one of defunding. This is a process that requires a long-term strategy of rebuilding community. Until such times as we can mobilise community solutions in resolving our social problems, these controvertial, ethically dubious and racially prejudicial programmes should be first on the list to be axed.